From tension to hope – exiles to home, the hungry to harvests, the Law to faith, and a rich consecration for death.
This Sunday’s readings continue to anticipate great NEW things that contrast awesomely with OLD things.
The prophetic reading has the prophet of the exile proclaiming God’s imminent new work that will outdo the exodus as a past marvelous deed of redemption. The great Red Sea event is alluded to – not recognizable unless you know the old story. The Song of the Red Sea had exclaimed,
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army [God] cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone. (Exodus 15:4-5, NRSV).
Here, in the prophet’s time, the Lord speaks of God’s characteristic action:
… who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick… (verses 16-17).
The message now uttered by this Lord is, “I am about to do a new thing…I will make a way in the wilderness / and rivers in the desert” (verse 19).
This kind of speech is ecstatic; it speaks of a sublime reality that seems to contrast sharply with the concrete world of second generation immigrants. The prophet’s audience in Babylon were well-settled people who had long ago accepted their subservient place in this larger world of the nations (the “gentiles”). Are these people ready to venture forth on a long and parching migration to a land that belonged to their fathers or grandfathers? The heightened and urgent tone of the prophet’s speeches is aimed at arousing them to take on this challenge – and to expect great things of it.
The prophet’s hearers are urged to perceive the hand of God in the world movements of their historic moment. They are urged to live at the peak and to know that miracles are indeed possible, because the one mighty Lord of the universe is recruiting them for renewed servanthood. They live – the prophet insists – on the verge of the great transition from the old things to the new things.
The Psalm reading continues the ecstatic speech of the prophet and speaks of the Lord’s great new deed either as an accomplished fact or as a certainty. The Lord has acted to restore the fortunes of Zion and there is great joy because of it. Even surrounding nations will recognize that “the Lord has done great things for them” (verse 2b, NRSV). The ecstasy of the first part of the psalm is, then, very much in line with the prophetic speech.
The second part of the psalm (verses 4-6) is more in accord with the hopeful but uncertain situation of the prophet’s audience in Babylon – though the setting here is definitely in the old country of Judah, now awaiting renewal and restoration. Here, all hope is focused on the grain crop. As the wadis of the southern drylands provide a brief period of rapid growth for barley crops (verse 4), so the farmers look forward to a joyful harvest following the sowing in the rainy season.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves (verses 5-6).
The community’s hope has been restored, and they sing of the impending joy of bringing in these sheaves!
The Epistle reading also presents a contrast between before and after, though the contrast is not in the physical landscape but in the spiritual landscape of the Jewish apostle. The contrast is between one who was once perfect in the Law but now is justified only by faith. This is one of the key autobiographical passages from Paul himself in which he lists his high-achievement credentials as an upstanding Pharisee in order to contrast that with his status “in Christ.”
Paul was circumcised, one of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (from whom an earlier Saul had come, I Samuel 9:1-2), a native-born Hebrew, a Pharisee in observance of the Torah, so zealous in his Judaism that he was an early persecutor of the Jesus followers, and one justified before God by his observance of the Law. This was the Before.
As for the After, all of these outstanding credentials visible to people Paul counts as loss, compared to life in Christ (verse 7). What Paul wants, instead of these honorable credentials in Judaism, is “to gain Christ and be found in him…” (verses 8-9, NRSV). “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” (verse 10). He wants what is elsewhere called dying with Christ. “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).
From a top-achieving religious champion Paul is content to trudge a path to suffering and death because that is the path of his life-transforming Lord, Jesus the Christ.
The Gospel reading presents us with a symbolic act sanctifying the transition from one life stage to another – life to death.
All four Gospels have a story of a woman who anoints Jesus with oil or expensive ointment, a woman whom the bystanders criticize. In John, as in Mark and Matthew, the anointing is just before the passion narrative and anticipates Jesus’ death. It is anointing for burial in advance of the event. (Luke’s story is set in earlier times when Jesus was hosted by a rather uppity Pharisee, Luke 7:36-50.)
The woman is criticized, in the version attached to the passion, because the ointment is very expensive (costing nearly a year’s salary for a worker, say around $35,000 in our current economy) and the money should have been spent for the poor (John 12:5; Mark 14:5; Matt. 26:8-9). In defense of this criticism (from Judas in John, but from others in Mark and Matthew), it can be said that this was indeed an extravagant demonstration. The only defense would be that an unparalleled occasion was at hand. This, of course, is the defense Jesus makes for her. Nothing less than his own death is the occasion. This is a moment that overrides all other considerations, even the most worthy act of sedakáh, righteousness or charity.
The John narrative ends with one of the more abused sayings in the Christian tradition. “You always have the poor with you, but…” The passage provokes a serious consideration for us: How can the urgency of these critical last moments in Jesus’ life be weighed against the continuing needs of the suffering poor? The question persists in the subsequent life of Jesus’ followers – for about two thousand years, so far.
It is a matter that must be laid heavily on heart and conscience during the season of refraining and recommitting that Christians call Lent.