- Isaiah 43:16-21 and Psalm 126
- Philippians 3:4b-14
- John 12:1-8
First Reading: Remember not the former things
Thus says the LORD,
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:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise. (Isa 43:16-21)
This passage reflects the change in emphasis – from condemnation to encouragement – as the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah moves from anticipating destruction (which came with the Babylonian forces under the command of Nebuchanezzar ca. 586 BCE) to looking for a divine restoration of Israel’s fortunes.
The much-celebrated wonders of the Exodus tradition, as Moses led the people from slavery in Egypt to a new future as the covenant people in the land God promised them, was held up as a great moment of blessing. Yet, says the anonymous prophet of the exile, God is about to do something even greater and they do not need to think about the past. Rather, they should look to the future.
Second Reading: Paul’s personal quest
The excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Philippians fits very well with the central theme of the first reading and psalm while also contributing to the change of gear as we move into the final two weeks of Lent. Like the anonymous spiritual leader within the Isaiah school during the Babylonian exile, Paul’s previous commitments to the great acts of God in the past have been relativized by his sense that God was doing something new. In Paul’s case, it is his personal investment in identity, learning and religious practice that is being discounted (indeed, “trashed”) by the new and better thing he has found in Christ.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:4-14 NRSV)
The radical nature of Paul’s religious commitment to Christ can easily pass us without its full impact being felt. By his own account, Paul was a Torah-observant Jew with an impeccable pedigree and an unblemished personal record. How many of us could claim (like Paul – and the rich young ruler) that we have observed all the requirements of Torah? Yet this Paul has had an encounter with Christ that has turned his life upside down. While it is undoubtedly correct that we should not decribe the Damascus road event as his “conversion” from Judaism to Christianity, it is clear that Paul has undergone a profound religious conversion; albeit one that left him no less a Jew than he was before. Without abandoning his Jewishness, Paul has come to appreciate that he belongs to Christ, and the measure of his own worth will now be the extent to which his life reflects the character of Jesus.
Gospel: A woman anoints Jesus with Oil
Each of the NT Gospels has a version of this story. As the following horizontal line synopsis shows, the relationships between these versions is complex.
Mark: While he was at Bethany
Matt: Now while Jesus was at Bethany
John: Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany,
Mark: in the house of Simon the leper,
Matt: in the house of Simon the leper,
Luke: One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him,
John: the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
Mark: as he sat at the table,
Matt: [see below]
Luke: and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.
John: There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
Mark: a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard,
Matt: a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment,
Luke: And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.
John: Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,
Mark: and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.
Matt: and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table.
Luke: She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
John: anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Mark: But some were there who said to one another in anger,
Matt: But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said,
Luke: Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him–that she is a sinner.”
John: But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,
Mark: “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?
Matt: “Why this waste?
Mark: For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,
Matt: For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum,
John: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii
Mark: and the money given to the poor.”
Matt: and the money given to the poor.”
John: and the money given to the poor?”
Mark: And they scolded her.
John: (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Mark: But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her?
Matt: But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman?
Luke: Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
John: Jesus said, “Leave her alone.
Mark: She has performed a good service for me.
Matt: She has performed a good service for me.
John: She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
Mark: For you always have the poor with you,
Matt: For you always have the poor with you,
John: You always have the poor with you,
Mark: and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish;
Mark: but you will not always have me.
Matt: but you will not always have me.
John: but you do not always have me.”
Mark: She has done what she could;
Mark: she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.
Matt: By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.
John: [see above]
Mark: Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world,
Matt: Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world,
Mark: what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Matt: what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
While Matthew is clearly dependent on Mark, both Luke and John represent something of a puzzle. The host in Luke is still a man named Simon, but now he is a (Galilean?) Pharisee rather than a leper resident in Bethany. In John the hosts have become the three Bethany siblings (Martha, Mary & Lazarus), and that gives the Johannine version a special twist.
A story such as this raises several questions. Mostly they defy our desire for explanation, but some of them are still worth consideration and reflection:
- Does the tradition preserve a memory of female prophets within the original group of Jesus’ followers? Was this strand ignored or suppressed as traditional patriarchal values reasserted themselves in the early Christian community?
- Is it possible that John preserves a memory of Mary of Bethany as such a prophet?
- Was the unnamed woman in Mark/Matthew originally Mary Magdalene?
- What is it about Jesus that seems to have inspired such an expression of love?
- How does the freedom with which the early Christians have treated this story affect our views of Scripture?
- Why has the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) chosen to use John’s version of this episode, rather than the version in Luke 7, and especially in this year of Luke?
- 192 Woman with Ointment – (1a) Mark 14:3-9 = Matt 26:6-13, (2a) Luke 7:36-50, (1b/2b) John 12:1-8, (3) Ign. Eph. 17:2.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.