March 13-The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Reading 1:  Reading 2:  Reading 3:  Reading 4: 
Isaiah 43:16-21 Psalm 126 Philippians 3:4b-14 John 12:1-8

by Lydia Schon

Old Testament
Isaiah 43:16-21

We are currently smack in the middle of lent. In last week’s commentary, I mentioned that the 40 days in Lent derives from notable stories in the Bible that deal with a time in the wilderness. There is a distinct wilderness genre within the Hebrew Bible and that genre contains themes of distance from God, a scarcity of resources and repentance. The author(s) of this passage however, harken to the wilderness tradition not to remind the people of what that entails but rather, to communicate that God will do something very different than what God has normally done during wilderness seasons. This time, God will do something new and instead of experiencing the usual struggles of abandonment and scarcity, God will “make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” 

In the field of psychology, I have often read that most people, especially as they grow in age, can alter their behaviors and personalities but usually only to a moderate degree. Change can happen (and this is why many forms of therapy exists) but the truth is, one cannot transform a chicken into a fish. In many ways, this is true of God. I know when God is nudging me in a certain direction or speaking to me because I have previous experiences with which to compare them to. God is fairly consistent in terms of how God acts in my life and also throughout the history of the world. This consistency is a comfort to me for I know I can always depend on God’s unchanging goodness, love and wisdom to guide me. This Isaiah passage though, reminds me to never limit God as God may be up to something completely new, something that has yet to be done or imagined—either in the world or in my own life. 

The Response
Psalm 126

A common observation of this psalm is the tense change that happens from verse four to verse five. As one reads this psalm, one notices that the first four verses recalls what God has done for the Israelites and therefore, the verbs are in the past tense. But suddenly it switches to the future tense, asking God for more help and fortune. 
Biblical scholars date this passage to after the Babylonian exile, when the Israelites were reminiscing on the miracle of released and yet, continue to encounter hardships of a different sort. 

Being in this place of remembering God’s faithfulness and at the same time, hoping for more in the future might seem like a place of tension but it is actually the reality of most people. At any moment, we can look back on our lives and be grateful for how God has been present through our good as well as challenging moments while simultaneously long for more. We live in a perpetual state that contains both gratefulness and longing until our life journeys come to an end. 

The Epistle
Philippians 3:4b-14

This human temptation and tendency to boast of and rely on one’s pedigree has not changed since Paul’s time almost 2,000 years ago. The markers of class have changed but the hierarchy and value of markers have remained consistent. Salary and raw net worth aside, the markers of class for us 21st century people are: education levels, what one reads, the car one drives, where one vacations and if one vacations, one’s neighborhood and one’s profession. Since it is uncouth to simply share with one another how much we make, we communicate our worth and value indirectly through these other markers. Thus, we can understand just how radical it was for Paul to claim that these markers, which he has depended on his whole life to provide him with certain privileges and opportunities, now mean nothing compared to knowing Christ.

As a person with a fairly respectable career, brand name education and who takes regular vacations both abroad and in higher income places in the United States, I find myself quite challenged by Paul’s confidence in Jesus alone to provide worth and dignity as a human being. And yet, I think back to my response when my brother asked me what my aspirations were for my child whom I am expected to deliver this summer. I found myself saying that his intellect, looks or future career were not as important to me than two things: his health and his happiness. It seems to me that Jesus’s ministry primarily focused on raising the quality of those two facets of life amongst all the people he related to. So perhaps then, Paul’s message is not quite so extreme. Perhaps at the end of the day, we all, deep within, know what truly matters.

The Gospel
John 12:1-8

This is a well-known story with a different version in each gospel (Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-49, Matthew 26:6-13). The author(s) of John seem to have combined these versions to create this unique Johannine version. In the Matthew and Mark versions, the anointing takes place in the home of Simon the leper and an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head with oil instead of Jesus’ feet. In this version, the disciples or people who witness the anointing complain about the waste of the costly oil as opposed to Judas, who is the one to complain in John. In the Lukan version, the act happens within a pharisee’s home and woman is a “sinful woman” who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair. The complainer is a pharisee who criticizes Jesus’ close interaction with such a person. 

The author(s) of John combined the foot washing and anointing in one story to convey a message about true discipleship. In the Johannine version, the woman is Mary, a recurring figure within this gospel and known for being a follower of Jesus yet not an official member of the twelve disciples. And the one who complains is Judas, one of the twelve disciples. The event takes place in the home of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, instead of Simon or a Pharisee. This is a family whom Jesus has gotten very close with and even raised Lazarus from the dead one chapter earlier.

Scholars have noted that the anointing in both Matthew and Mark represents the Jewish custom of anointing a person before they die. As such, the story foreshadows Jesus’ cruxifixction and this Johannine version works similarly. What is also foreshadowed though, is Jesus’ foot washing of his disciples in chapter 13 and when he gives a new commandment to his disciples to “love one another just as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The New Interpreter’s Bible points out that Mary then, has fulfilled this new commandment even before Jesus has taught it to the rest of the disciples. Her actions and behavior stand in stark contrast with Judas’ words and behavior as a model true discipleship. Judas’ concern was not truly for the poor as he was stealing money. He simply did not understand that to follow Jesus required a radical change in life direction, priorities and values whereas Mary, a woman who was not a part of the inner club of disciples, did.