Biblical Words 
From oppression to hope – exiles to home, the hungry to harvests, the Law to faith, an extravagant consecration for death.
This Sunday in
Lent continues to anticipate great
The prophetic reading has the prophet of the exile proclaiming God’s imminent new work that will outdo the exodus as a marvelous deed of redemption.
Here, in the prophet’s time, the Lord speaks of God’s characteristic action:
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 migrants.
The prophet’s audience in
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. Babylon
hearers are urged to perceive the hand of God in the world movements of their
historic moment. (The Persian Cyrus is
about to conquer their overlord
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
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.
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 Judean apostle (Paul). 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 in Paul’s letters. Here he lists his high-achievement credentials as an upstanding Pharisee in order to contrast that with his status “in Christ.”
This was the Before.
As for the After, all of these outstanding credentials, visible to people, Paul counts as loss, compared to being “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 an earlier time when
Jesus was hosted by a rather uppity Pharisee,
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 $40,000
in our current economy) – and the money should have been spent for the poor!
In justification 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.