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- Creative Transformation
5th Sunday in Lent
March 21, 2010
The readings from the Hebrew Scriptures and Philippians have in common a theme dear to the heart of process thinkers—transformation. In describing his transition from his former faith to his new life in Christ in Philippians 3, Paul is able to look upon his past accomplishments and see them as “rubbish” (v. 8)—the NRSV’s polite translation of the Greek skubalon, a strong term that embraces such meanings as human excrement, filth, or dirt. The danger for preachers in stressing this point is that it might foster anti-Judaism. But Paul is engaged in a struggle against those who want to require circumcision for non-Jews who join the Christian fellowship, and it is important for him to stress the new path to righteousness that Christ has brought. He therefore finds it necessary to draw a sharp contrast between this new path and the righteousness through the law he formerly pursued. The point is that, by comparison to the new, the old seems worthless. The reading from Isaiah makes a somewhat similar point in 43:18, when the prophet counsels, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” But here the contrast is not nearly so sharp, since v. 16 references the old—that is, God’s action in the exodus from Egypt—as a positive point of comparison. The point is that what God is doing now, in delivering the Judahites from the Babylonian exile (v. 14), is like what God did of old. But it is still shocking that the prophet can use the phrase “Do not remember” as a lead-in to the proclamation that God is “about to do a new thing.” (v. 19) The point, again, is that, by comparison, the new overshadows the old. Psalm 126 lacks any note of such contrast. It is a celebration of. God’s past deliverance and restoration of Zion combined with a plea for similar divine action in the present. But in recognizing that God is indeed the One who can deliver and restore, it parallels the other texts with respect to the theme of transformation.
This theme is not immediately evident in the gospel lesson—Jesus’ anointing by Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, in Bethany. When this story is read in its Johannine context, however, we can see hints of that motif. In 11:28-44, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and in vv. 45-57 we have an account of the development of a plot to put Jesus to death. Then comes the account of the anointing, which mentions Lazarus in 12:1 and which is followed in 12:9-10 by another mention of Lazarus: Jews had gathered in Bethany to see the Lazarus, and the chief priests plot to kill the resurrected man along with Jesus. The anointing story is thus surrounded and pervaded by the motifs of death and resurrection. In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus transforms death into life, which provokes the authorities to try to reverse the transformation and turn life into death by killing both the one who gave life and the one who received it. And central to the story itself is Jesus’ allusion to his coming death when he interprets Mary’s extravagant action as anointment for his burial. But since the reader also knows Jesus as the one who gives life, his death is itself a prelude to new life. And the reader is prepared to make this latter projection because of the unknowing prophesy uttered by Caiaphas in 11:50: “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” Jesus’ death is redemptive and will serve to “gather into one the dispersed children of God,” as the narrator comments on Caiphas’s words (11:53).
The connection between the raising of Lazarus and the anointing is strengthened by the fact that in the prelude to the former story (11:1), the narrator identifies Mary as “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” Thus, Craig Koester proposes that it was precisely as a grateful response to the raising of her brother that Mary performs her extravagant act. Noting that washing another’s feet was a duty generally assigned only to slaves, that the ointment was very expensive, and that “well-kept hair contributed to a person’s dignity in the ancient world,” he concludes that her act showed her “utter devotion to Jesus following the resuscitation of her brother.” (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community,113).
The negative response of Judas can be seen as contrasting with Mary’s humble and grateful action. Although from one perspective he makes a valid point—that the money could have been given to the poor—the narrator’s comments, along with Jesus’ concluding statement, undermine its force. Without negating a concern for the poor, the story directs attention to the gospel’s main agenda: Jesus must die for the sake of the world, as Caiphas unknowingly acknowledged. And Bultmann sees in the notation that the fragrance of the perfume filled the whole house a reference to the fact that the gospel message “will at once fill the whole world.” (The Gospel of John, 415) Bultmann also notes that Mary’s action serves as a “contrast-parallel” to Caiphas’s words of unintended prophecy: “Like this enemy, the woman disciple did more than she realized.” (416) But Mary’s action is also parallel to Jesus’. As Koester notes (111-12), the anointing scene is one of two scenes “set in the context of the meals Jesus ate with his followers during the week before Passover (12:1-2; 13:1-2). In the second scene, it is Jesus himself who takes on the role of slave by washing his disciples’ feet. Thus, the themes of humble, self-giving service and Jesus’ sacrificial death are woven tightly together in this part of John’s gospel. And the reader of the gospel has been prepared from the beginning to understand that sacrificial death as redemptive and to understand Jesus as the bearer not of death but of life.
Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).