Lectionary Commentaries for April 3, 2022
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 12:1-8

Emerson Powery

The season of Lent is a time for deeper self-reflection than at other times during the Christian calendar. As part of this religious season, the lectionary passage should encourage many North American Christians to reflect on our attachment to finances. Among other things, the story provokes a comparison between Mary and Judas and the relationship of these two biblical characters to Jesus. Along these lines, the passage describes the understanding of how finances relate to the Jesus movement within this setting. For Mary, the cost of the sacrifice was irrelevant. For Judas, symbolic actions should be cost-effective. The narrator informs readers of the insincerity of Judas’ public pronouncement but chooses not to reveal any more insight into Mary’s thoughts.  

If we focus only on finances, however, we may miss the heart of the story; that is, it is an account that encourages readers to think more about death, the preparation of the dead, and the absence of the dead. If nothing else, Lent is a season to reflect on death—the crucified one’s and our own inevitable deaths.

The activity of Mary—though described in only one verse (12:3)—is the action around which the scene revolves. On the one hand, her act is intimate (she wipes Jesus’ feet with her own hair). Only this Gospel depicts one of Jesus’s cherished friends as the anointer (compare Luke’s parallel!). Her activity also touches other senses because the anointing action is a reminder that death—a description found only in John—touches even the nostrils (“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”). The preparation for death should provoke our senses. Within the narrative, the smell of the ointment replaces the stench of (Lazarus’s) death just a few verses prior (see 11:39). Death has a smell, one that many people recognize. For those aware of Mary’s purpose—an act of burial preparation—even the pleasant-smelling oils would remind the senses that death was in the air. 

On the other hand, the narrative spends less time reflecting on this preparation than on reactions to it, from Judas and Jesus (12:5-8). The focus of the passage moves readers beyond death back to the use of money and the poor. Unlike the parallels in Matthew and Mark, the narrative scene does not conclude with a profound statement of the anointer’s action. Rather, it beckons readers —unique to the John—to heed the thoughts of Judas (compare Matthew’s collective “disciples”).      

Before we turn our attention to Judas, there’s one more point to make about the lingering theme of death. The presence of Lazarus is also a consistent reminder of death’s presence. His continuation within the story was a reminder of Jesus’ power over death, that death would not have the last word. Furthermore, as long as Lazarus remains in these scenes (see John 12:9-11, 17)—an emphasis only in the Gospel of John—the religious leaders are mindful of the popularity (and power) of Jesus. Even the resurrected Lazarus has a bounty on his head (12:10). 

For Judas, it was an either/or scenario. Even if his remark was sincere—which the narrator insisted was not the case—it took the wrong approach to lived reality. Jesus did not intend to say “hey, don’t worry about the poor.” Rather, Jesus’ comment falls in line with the spirit of the Torah as in Deuteronomy 15:11—“Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’.” 

The relative lack of references to the “poor” within the fourth Gospel (similar to Mark’s Gospel) may suggest for some interpreters that the poor was not a major theme within John. More than likely, their linguistic absence from the narrative really only strengthens their common presence within first-century society and within the villages Jesus frequented. Since poverty was everywhere, the narratives of that world did not need to discuss its presence. Listeners to these accounts would have simply assumed the presence of the disenfranchised among them. In fact, John 13:29 supports this assumption as it suggests the regular practice of Jesus, in which the other disciples presume that Jesus’ whisper to Judas (at the final supper) may have been for Judas to take monies to the poor (implying the group’s common practice). Nevertheless, this is not really a story about treatment of the poor but about preparation for death, preparation for Jesus’ death (as Mary noticed).

Lent is a time to remember that death is always in the air. To die is part of what it means to be human. Time within a pandemic is an unfortunate daily reminder of our collective human frailty. When death strikes close to home, most are not fully prepared for the passing of loved ones. Death has a smell and death provides a memory of the loved ones lost. Yet John 12 is a reminder that death will not have the final word. Lazarus is a reminder of that promise, even though his human body will die again. The ointment is a reminder of that promise. The people who gathered for another meal are a reminder of that promise. The prepared, anointed body of Jesus, of course, is the ultimate reminder of that promise. Death will not have the final word. During the season of Lent, we remember that death will not have the final word. 

How should the dead affect the living? Isn’t that the purpose of Lent—to reflect on the ultimate death (Jesus’ own) and the significance for the lives, the commitments, the activities, the practices of the living? For what are we willing to sacrifice time, money, efforts? Do we place the struggles of people around us at the center of our attention? Does the nearness of death —for those who live on the fringes of our society, for those in our parishes who are physically near the end of their lives, for those reflecting on Jesus’s sacrifice—make us a bit more mindful of human frailty and, perhaps, encourage us to act on behalf of others? 

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 43:16-21

Amanda Benckhuysen

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

This is hope. Audacious. Unbridled. Expansive. Fulsome. Yet not fanciful or fabricated. But rooted in the realities of the past and present and leaning fully into the conviction of what God can and will yet do for God’s people. This passage boasts of God’s power and goodness, portraying a God who cannot be stopped in their commitment to redeem God’s people. There is no challenge too hard, no obstacle too great, no body of water too wide, no desert too dry to keep God from creating or recreating the necessary conditions for God’s people to flourish and all of creation to rise up in praise to God.

This is a text to read when it feels like the world is crashing down around us, when our minds are too jaded and our spirits too discouraged to see how God may be present in our current darkness. This is the passage to read when the dull thrum of life’s rhythms feel especially meaningless and tortured. This is the text to read during Lent when we come face to face with the mess we as humans have made of our relationships and of this world, when we recognize how profoundly broken and how incapable of fixing ourselves we are. For it is in this place of helplessness and disorientation that hope emerges.

For the original audience, this word came to them in exile—their past a trail of broken dreams, disappointments, shame and horror, their present filled with the constant ache for home.  Consumed by the past and present, I imagine there was little mental or emotional energy to think about the future. It was enough just to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other. Into this situation, the prophet’s voice resounds, calling the people not to despair but to hope. Why? Because the same God who brought this people out of the land of Egypt is not yet done with them. Babylon is not an end but rather, an opportunity for God to display his power and his grace to his people once again.  

The prophet’s vision doesn’t emerge out of nowhere. It is not a fantasy of his own imagination.  Instead, it is rooted in the memory of what God has done for Israel in the past, of God’s faithfulness to their ancestors. They know how God orchestrated the release of the Hebrew people from the tyrannical grip of the Pharaoh, how God led them into the wilderness and cared for them, and how, beyond all that is humanly possible, God parted the sea to allow them to cross, drowning Pharaoh and his minions while ensuring safe passage for God’s people.  

A demonstration of God’s power, goodness and steadfast love, the exodus is central to Israel’s self-understanding of what it means to be God’s people. God heard their cries, saw their oppression, and responded with justice and compassion, meeting them in this darkest of places not just to rescue them from slavery but to adopt them as his own people. This is a narrative they would return to often to remind them of God’s faithfulness. But now, the prophet says, forget the former things. See, I am doing a new thing.

It is not immediately clear what the “former things” refer to. Some commentators have suggested that the former things are Israel’s former sin and the judgments of first Isaiah that led up to the exile to Babylon. This is certainly a possible reading. But given that the whole passage seems to be juxtaposing the first exodus with a new one, it seems likely that the former thing is indeed the exodus from Egypt itself.  

If this is the case, then the prophet is not saying that once Israel was under God’s judgment, but a time is coming when they will be redeemed. Instead, the prophet is suggesting that once God performed an amazing act of redemption for Israel but now, the redemptive thing God is going to do will be even greater. Instead of parting the waters temporarily for Israel to walk through on dry ground, God will bring about a re-creation, a re-edenizing of the world to make it a place where God’s people can flourish again.  

This new redemptive work is not confined to a historical moment in time, but is a cosmic event turning tohu webohu into a place that is safe and supports life. Streams of water will replenish the earth and wild animals will respect the limits God places on them. This new thing is reminiscent not just of the exodus then, but of creation itself, of God preparing the world to be a place for human beings to live, flourish, and even walk and talk with God. The ultimate goal of God’s redemptive work here is not just redemption and restoration of Israel as a people, but rekindling Israel’s relationship with God, the praise of God by God’s people. 

Just as this announcement inspired hope for the Jews in exile so many thousands of years ago, so it does the same for us.  It encourages us to look beyond our current realities to wonder what more God will yet do in this world and to anticipate with longing Christ’s return and the world to come. In this sense, it’s a good reminder that our current reality is temporary, an along the way time in our life with God, and part of the journey toward a time and place when like Israel, our hearts might find their true home in God, the one who made us, redeems us, loves us, and calls us to himself. 


Commentary on Psalm 126

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Psalm 126 packs amazing poignancy and power in the space of only six verses. It is the seventh of the Songs of Ascent, all of which are relatively brief and most of which, like Psalm 126, focus attention on Zion (see especially Psalms 122, 125, 128, 129, 132, 133, 134). In all likelihood, the Ascents collection (Psalms 120-134) originated for and was used by pilgrims to Jerusalem (see the CEB’s paraphrastic “A pilgrimage song” instead of “A Song of Ascents”).

While the focus on Zion is clear in verse 1, the psalmist’s perspective on Zion is not. Has the LORD already “restored the fortunes of Zion” (verse 1), as the NRSV and most other translations suggest? Or, perhaps the restoration of Zion remains a future event, as Robert Alter’s translation suggests: “When the LORD restores Zion’s fortunes, we should be like dreamers.”1

There are other questions too. If God has already restored Zion, what actually happened? The most likely answer is that the phrase, “restored the fortunes,” refers to the return of exiled Judeans from Babylon to Jerusalem in the years following 539 BCE (see the NIV, “When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion;” see also the phrase in Deuteronomy 30:3; Jeremiah 30:3, 18; 32:44). I take this perspective to be the most likely. The joyful memory of the return from exile (verses 1-3), followed by the prayer for further restoration (verses 4-6), makes especially good sense in the post exilic era, because the glorious vision of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55; see Isaiah 43:16-21, the Old Testament lesson for the day) eventually gave way to hard historical realities of ongoing difficulties and challenges even after the return to Judah and Jerusalem (see Isaiah 56-66 and the books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).

Memory and hope

The juxtaposition of the joyful celebration of restoration (verses 1-3) and the prayer for further restoration (verses 4-6) not only makes sense in the historical context of the post exilic era (see Psalm 85:1-4 for a similar juxtaposition); but it is also true to life, individually and corporately, then and now. After all, Psalm 126 is not simply a relic of the past; rather, it is a living text, recited regularly by Jews before the prayer after the Sabbath meal and heard by Christians on several occasions, including the Fifth Sunday in Lent. Life, then and now, is inevitably and simultaneously a matter of joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy, of needs met and new needs that constantly arise. If we are honestly self-aware, we know that never is there a time when we do not need to pray, “Restore our fortunes, O LORD” (verse 4).

In other words, Psalm 126 can be a powerful reminder that the people of God have always lived, and will always live, by both memory and hope. We simultaneously celebrate with joy that “The LORD has done great things for us” (verse 3), and we fervently pray, “Restore our fortunes, O LORD” (verse 4).

Living with joy

We have already noted the repetition of “restored the fortunes”/”Restore our fortunes” that opens the two sections of the psalm; and there is another impressive repetition that connects the two sections“shouts of joy” (verses 2, 5, 6; see also “rejoiced” in verse 3 that represents a different Hebrew root). As James L. Mays observes, the “dominant emotional tone” of Psalm 126 is joy; and recognizing the connection between memory and hope, Mays concludes, “The song is about joy remembered and joy anticipated. In both cases the joy is the work of the LORD, in the first through the restoration of Zion and in the second through the renewal of those who sing the song.”2

As suggested above, Jews and Christians are still singing this song! And although Mays does not move in this direction, it seems reasonable to conclude that “joy remembered” and “joy anticipated” yields something like “joy in the present.” In short, the very singing or recitation of Psalm 126 becomes a source of joy, or it at least puts us in touch with the source of enduring joythat is, the God who “has done great things for us” (verse 3) and to whom we look for renewal. 

If this be the case, then Psalm 126 can be a reminder that suffering and joy are not mutually exclusive. It is a lesson that resonates throughout the canon. The New Testament lesson for the day is Philippians 3:4b-14; Paul wrote this letter from prison to a congregation that faced imminent suffering. And yet, Paul says repeatedly that he is joyful; and he encourages the Philippians to be joyful as well (see 4:4). Suffering and joy are not mutually exclusive.

In the video version of REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” shortly after a lone voice sings “sometimes everything is wrong,” the following words appear at the bottom of the screen: “Those that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” It’s Psalm 126:5! And the song/video is a helpful presentation of the message of Psalm 126. Yes, “Everybody Hurts,” but the psalm and song affirm that there is a reality, a presence, a power that invites as well the proclamation, in essence, that “everybody hopes.”

Living as dreamers

It is perhaps easy to see how a past restoration led people to be “like those who dream” (verse 1)that is, to respond with joy and incredulity to something that seemed too good to be true.  But I like to think that the tear-stained, poignant, hope-filled prayer for restoration is related to dreaming as well, as in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In short, hope energizes both resilience in the midst of suffering and resistance to the forces that oppress. In the final analysis, Psalm 126 suggests that tear-stained hope is both poignant and powerful!


  1. Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007), 447.
  2.  James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 399.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

Lois Malcolm

Using his own life as a paradigm, Paul presents us in this passage with a brief existential description of what it actually means to live “through the faith of the Messiah Jesus” rather than trusting in one’s own righteousness (3:9).1 To understand what Paul is talking about, however, we need to do two things: (1) unravel some false assumptions about what we think he is saying and (2) realize that he is referring to a reality in which we already participate even now through trust or faith.

Confidence through one’s own or the Messiah’s righteousness?

In this passage, Paul addresses the way some rival apostles are demanding that the Philippians, as Gentile converts, do certain things (like become circumcised). Paul counters by saying that these demands are based in the “flesh.” Given centuries of later Christian interpretation, we need to clarify what Paul means when he speaks of the “flesh” (sarx). He is not negating the human body in and of itself. Indeed, he speaks positively about bodies, whether they be personal or corporate. Rather, Paul uses “flesh” to refer to what is mortal—what will eventually decay or die and thus can be corrupted in its attempts to secure its survival at all costs. 

Further, by linking “flesh” with his rivals’ demand that the Philippians do certain things, Paul is not negating or demeaning Jewish law. Indeed, Paul affirms that the law is good and holy (Romans 7:12) and that the Messiah’s purpose is not to abolish the law, but rather to enable us to fulfill it (Romans 10:4). Moreover, as indicated in this passage, Paul is very proud of his Jewish heritage; he is especially proud of the fact that he is “righteous under the law, blameless” (3:6). 

What, then, is at issue here? Whether we are seeking to secure our survival at all costs—by, say, meeting our own or others’ expectations and demands for what it means to be “right” or “good”—or whether we are simply trusting in God’s promises to us in the Messiah Jesus. In other letters, Paul expands on how it is Abraham’s faith or trust in God’s promises to him (for example, that he and his descendants would be a blessing to the nations) that makes him righteous. His being circumcised is something that takes place afterwards as a sign of his faith in this promise (Romans 4:1-16). 

Defining faith and righteousness

Again, however, we need to clarify what Paul does not mean by “faith.” It does not mean adherence to some cognitive or behavioral formula that specifies what we are to think or do, even when it contradicts our best sense of what is true and just. Rather, “faith” has to do with fidelity or loyalty to the way of life God’s promises open up for us—a way of life characterized by holding fast to God’s promise of unconditional goodness and mercy, precisely when we are in the midst of what appears to be a precarious future or an irreversible past. 

In turn, the “righteousness” that comes through faith does not refer to some kind of legal merit, whether that be something we achieve by our own effort or something forensically declared to us as if in a law court. Rather, “righteousness,” as defined by its usage in scripture, has to do with living in such a way that we embody God’s mercy and justice, as exemplified, for instance, by how we care for those around us, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, and thus are not in a position to reward us for our good work.

Losing everything and gaining the Messiah 

What is at issue, then, with “faith” and “righteousness” is how we “regard” or “lead” (hēgomai) our lives—that is, how we interpret and respond to the circumstances we are facing (3:7). Earlier in the letter, Paul urges the Philippians to “regard” others “as better than yourselves” (2:3), just as Jesus did when he did not “regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” but rather “emptied” himself, even to the point of “death” on a “cross” (2:6). In a similar vein, Paul states that he “regards” everything as “loss” and “garbage” in view of the excess of value that comes from knowing Jesus as Messiah and Lord (3:8)—a theme echoed in the Gospels, where Jesus asks plainly, “What will it profit them to gain the whole world, and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:36; see also Matthew 16:26; Luke 9:25).

Knowing the power of the Messiah’s resurrection and sharing in his sufferings 

What Paul wants “to know” (ginōskō) in all this is the Messiah (3:10). Such “knowing” has to do with intimacy—participating in the other one “knows,” as in a sexual encounter. It is in this participatory sense that Paul wants to “know” the “power” of the Messiah’s “resurrection” and to “share” in his “sufferings” (3:10).  

Of course, resurrection here does not mean the resuscitation of a body. Rather, it has to do with the way the Messiah’s being raised from the dead vindicates his death for others by ushering in a new creation. Jesus’ being raised from the dead vindicates his crucifixion and the way it signifies God’s unconditional love and reign of mercy and justice—precisely in a world that contradicts that love and reign. 

Paul’s ultimate “goal,” then, is to attain, through the Messiah Jesus’s own faith, the vindication of unconditional love his being raised from the dead signifies. Of course, such vindication is impossible in this life where we constantly face evidence that contradicts God’s mercy and justice. Yet Paul maintains that he can make it his own through the Messiah Jesus who has already claimed him as his own. Thus, because he has already been claimed in the Messiah’s life, he presses on toward his goal, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (3:14).


  1. I am translating dia pisteōs Christou (3:9) as “through the faith of Christ” rather than “through faith in Christ” (as in the NRSV translation).