A new thing

7 April 2019
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Lent 5C (RCL)

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

In one way or another, all of these readings have to do with something new emerging. The Isaiah passage ironically recalls God opening a way through the Red Sea, and then calls on the people not to remember this anymore, because something new is about to happen. This time God will open a way through the desert, and water the dry places. Psalm 126 also seems to refer to the return from Exile.

Paul recalls his former life in Judaism, and then says he counts all of those accomplishments as worse than trash for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. I believe that this letter was written on his way to his martyrdom (certainly Ignatius copied the style of Philippians in the letters he wrote on his way to his martyrdom). That accounts for the almost schizophrenic tone of the letter: I long to remain here, but I long to be with Christ. Paul is looking forward to the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ. Martyrdom was often portrayed as an athletic contest. Here, Paul is straining forward for the prize, hoping he is courageous enough to complete the race.

The John passage is a strange little episode. It is reminiscent of Luke’s story of the woman at the banquet of Simon the Pharisee, but in this case, it is Mary of Bethany. She has her hair down, and is at Jesus’ feet, so is she part of the entertainment? We are told she is serving, so she is not one of the guests. The verb John uses for wiping Jesus’ feet occurs only two other places in the New Testament: in Luke’s story of the woman and Simon’s banquet, and in the narrative of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Mary’s action looks forward to Jesus’ action.

When Jesus washes his disciples feet, he is dressed like a slave, and takes the role of a slave, and encourages his disciples to do to others what he has done for them. Judas complains about Mary’s waste of the nard, and Jesus replies that we will always have the poor with us. The passage in Deuteronomy to which this refers (Deuteronomy 15:11) suggests that the poor provide the opportunity for liberality. We can practice our liberality on them when Jesus is gone.

Mary’s action is extravagant. Jesus’ pouring forth of himself is extravagant. Perhaps we are being called to be extravagant, and in the process create a new kind of household, in which women are welcomed at the table, and the host takes the role of a slave. The smell of her perfume filled the house, and stands in opposition to the stench that would have come from Lazarus’ tomb (narrated just few verses before this). This is what the resurrection looks like.

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