Last revised: April 26, 2022
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FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR C
RCL: Isaiah 43:16-21; Phil 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
RoCa: Isaiah 43:16-21; Phil 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? — Isaiah 43:19
A potential stumbling block for preaching the Gospel of New Creation is the timeframe. Isaiah began to proclaim God doing a new thing more than 2500 years ago. The New Testament authors, especially Paul and John, pick up on that theme of New Creation as beginning with the first Easter — which is 2000 years ago. Where is this new thing that God has been doing? As we look around at our broken world, with the threat of apocalyptic violence deepening, do we perceive it?
In my 2022 sermon, “Doing a New Thing? Where?: Learning to See the New Thing God Is Doing,” I address this issue as a prelude to a number of subsequent sermons that seek to learn to perceive the new thing that God is doing in the world. The key to answering the question about the timeframe is to accept science’s overall picture of evolution. God has been creating the universe for over 14 billion years, with life first appearing (to our knowledge) about 3.5 billion years ago, and the evolution of Homo sapiens for the past tens of thousands of years. So does God doing a new thing for the past 2500 years make better sense within that timeframe? With an evolutionary perspective, we might see that God takes thousands of years to do new things.
In chapter 24, “Find the Flow,” of his new book Do I Stay Christian? (May 2022), Brian McLaren proposes such an evolutionary timeframe for seeing the new thing God is doing with humanity. He begins by referring to past studies of his which map out human history in terms of “movements.” But what if we occasionally need to see things in terms of “meta-movements”? He proposes three such meta-movements for seeing the big picture on human evolution: (1) the stage of being hunter-gatherers for the first tens of thousands of years of human development; (2) the transition to humans living in landed civilizations over the past 10,000 years, growing toward the imperialistic structures to our societies that operate in terms of extraction, exploitation, and oppression; and (3) the new thing that God is doing in line with the Hebrew prophets that moves humanity slowly into a new way of being human based on reconciliation, love, and mutual care that prioritizes the marginalized.
So we might say that for more than 2500 years God has been doing this new thing. Do we perceive it? How can we learn to do so? (Pre-order McLaren’s new book as a first step!)
1. For a general Girardian approach to Second Isaiah, see James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred, pp. 146, 157-162.
2. Tony Bartlett, Signs of Change, ch. 4, “The Servant,” especially pp. 66ff. This passage is not mentioned in Bartlett’s exposition of the Servant, but the new thing which God is doing is certainly the evolution of nonviolence — finally seeing the true God as nonviolent and thus living into the nonviolence as a truer way of being human.
3. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the text in 2019, “A God Who Does the Same Great New Thing.”
Reflections and Questions
1. A theme which might be developed through all these lessons is around our neglected sense of smell. When God through Isaiah calls us to perceive the new thing God is doing, can you smell it? Newness has a smell to it. Fresh. Newly alive. The smell of Spring. The old things also have a smell, the smell of “garbage” or “crap” (Phil 3:8; skybala in Gk) of Paul’s forsaking the old way for a new way in Jesus the Messiah. The Gospel Lesson is the most fragrant of all. Passover time, the crowding of Jerusalem with thousands of pilgrims, was a time of strong smell, not only the crush of people but eventually that of thousands of animal carcasses in various stages of blood sacrifice. Into the midst of that comes Mary’s act of devotion: “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). God is doing a new thing, establishing a new perception of God’s righteousness, through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. Can you smell it? The way of life, a new Exodus (clear imagery in this passage) out of the way of death, is being established in the desert. Can you smell it?
1. This passage also appears in the lectionary at Proper 22A; see notes there.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from March 28, 2004 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from March 21, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
3. Three weeks ago we had Phil. 3:17-4:1, a passage important to mimetic theory because it includes Paul’s exhortation to imitate him — presumably imitation relating to what he has outlined about himself in this day’s passage. And this is all anchored in the portion we read each Passion Sunday about having the same mind of Christ, his self-emptying, his kenosis. See the notes for Lent 2C for the former passage and Passion Sunday C for the latter.
4. v. 9 (NRSV): “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.” This is an example once again of translating the genitive construction dia pisteos christou as “through faith in Christ” rather than its more common rendering of “through the faith of Christ.” This has become a crucial point for me. The translation of “faith in Christ” puts the emphasis on our faith and has become a works righteousness around our believing. I strongly believe that Paul’s primary emphasis is on the faith of Christ which then can be communicated to us through the Holy Spirit. It is Christ’s faith that saves us as a free gift of grace and establishes the new righteousness of God (new to us, not to God) that Paul is talking about here and in Romans 3:21ff. See the more extended remarks on this issue in “My Core Convictions” and the page for Reformation Day (in the latter, reflection #5 refers specifically to this passage as another obvious instance of this point).
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” lecture series, tape #9. Here are my notes on this passage:
- vs. 1-2: “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.” In the gospels, one of the things that distinguishes Jesus’ ministry at dinner parties. He is accused of eating and drinking, of being a glutton and drunkard.
- vs. 3: “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” In these last verses of the Book of Signs, we get a picture of how this campaign to get others to identify with him has worked out. In the example of Mary, we get a picture of how it should be. She bestows on Jesus a gesture of lavish, unreserved devotion, throwing aside all caution and practicality. It was an outrageous social act to perform. This gospel presents her as one who got it right.
- Last week [in the very important lecture on John 11] we saw that the raising of Lazarus comes in the same place in the synoptic gospels as the cleansing of the temple, just before the final plot to kill Jesus. This story also has its parallel in the synoptics, which is the point when Jesus’ invitation to identify with himself reaches its culmination: at Caesaria Philippi when Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the disciple and then Jesus makes his first passion prediction. Peter tries to talk him out of it, and Jesus calls him Satan. This anointing is parallel, except where in the synoptics one person, Peter, gets it both right and wrong, this story has two figures: Mary gets it right, and Judas gets it wrong.
- Mary gives everything. John is giving this as a symbol of having no reservations at all, which is precisely what is called for.
- vs. 4-5: “But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?'” At Caesaria Philippi, Jesus tells Peter that he only knows the world’s way, not God’s way. Here, Judas represents the world’s way. He says what everyone was thinking. Jesus had been spending his time with the outcasts of society, the marginalized. He has demonstrated a special empathy for those who are excluded. So it was natural for everyone to see Mary’s act as extravagance. It’s as though we gave a party in honor of Mother Theresa and brought out a $800 bottle of wine. How embarrassing! Judas was just saying what everyone was thinking.
- vs. 6: This evangelist is hard on Judas by stating his motives as thievery. Most scholars see Judas as a political character and are more sympathetic to him.)
- vs. 7-8: “Jesus said, “‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.'” This is one of the most misunderstood sayings of Jesus. It has been interpreted as the Adam Smith Jesus, who recognizes the economic realities of life. This is sheer nonsense. Jesus’ point focuses on the “you will not always have me.” He’s telling them that the end is near. In other words, he’s interpreting what Mary’s doing. This is like Caesaria Philippi in warning them about the end.
- Read this story in terms of last week’s theme at the raising of Lazarus. Jesus is concerned — at the death of Lazarus, in this passage, and at the empty tomb story — with the possible results of a wailing ritual. He is trying to avoid the kind of ritualization of death which only results in the regeneration, reenforcing, of conventional religious habits and reflexes, and the whole business of the primitive Sacred. He urges those people who have witnessed the raising of Lazarus to see this as his anointing, so that any other anointing is unnecessary. With regards to his burial anointing, which he knows they’ll want to do, he’s either going to be present for it, as he is in this story, or be totally absent for it, such as when the tomb is empty. In other words, ‘if you going to engage in the cultic commemoration of death, you better do it when I’m here, because when I’m here (Schillebeeckx says it’s existentially impossible to despair in the presence of Jesus) you realize that I’m here to announce the messianic banquet. You feel that joy in my presence, so if you want to mourn my death, mourn it in my presence, where you can’t forget the messianic banquet and convert my life and death into another feature of conventional religion.’ The act of Jesus reinterpreting Mary’s gesture is extremely important.
- This part about “You always have the poor with you.” We should not let this be quoted as resignation, or acquiescence, or shrugging of the shoulders in the presence of poverty. Not at all. What he means is, ‘Yes, indeed, we should minister to the poor, and you will have from now until the end of time to do that. You must do that. Plenty of time for it. Have at it. Except you won’t even be inspired to do that, unless you get what it is that I’m here to reveal to you.’ The empathy for victims as victim is something that is born of the biblical revelation. ‘Your concern for the poor is not something that’s in juxtaposition to your devotion to me. Your devotion to me is the source of your concern for the poor. It is only as you understand me as the one rejected, as the supreme victim, that you will stay in touch with your empathy for victims. You will have plenty of time to do that. But in order to ensure that you will have the desire to do that, attend to me. Watch what is about to happen. Be present to the passion. And then the determination to minister to the poor will be a permanent feature of your awareness.’ It’s not as though Jesus is being cavalier about poverty.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from April 1, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
3. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the text in 2013, “A Scandalous Woman as Extravagant as Jesus.”
4. Mark Anspach, “Global Markets, Anonymous Victims,” Interview by Yannick Blanc and Michel Bessières, in The UNESCO Courier, May, 2001, pages 47-51. This is the best short essay that gives a glimpse of how our economics also descend out of the Scapegoat Mechanism. Jesus’ comment about the poor always being with us is a reflection of this reality. As long as the Scapegoat Mechanism is in play, we will continue to have the poor as the victims of our economic institutions. The importance of Mary anointing him for the cross is that she is signaling God’s anointing of the Messiah as he embarks on the event that begins the defeat of the Scapegoat Mechanism. Someday, we will no longer have the poor with us, but only because Jesus enacted the unveiling of the mechanism that keeps the poor in place.
Reflections and Questions
1. This passage is John’s version of a Passion prediction. Jesus knows something that the others don’t, so things are not what they appear to be. Many scholars of the Historical Jesus discount such predictions as unlikely from Jesus. But Martin Luther King, Jr., had veiled references to his premonitions of an imminent death on the night before he was assassinated.
I use the King speech as an example in a 2001 sermon titled “Things Are Not What They Appear to Be.” Girardians generally have little trouble in believing that Jesus could have had such insight into his own fate. We believe that he had anthropological insight into what we are about and knew his mission to be one of revealing that our cultures aren’t what they appear to be either. But the Good News is that, just as we are learning to see behind the appearances to the dark origins of our cultures, we also come to see the bright light of God’s forgiveness for it in Jesus Christ. (There is also a 2016 version to this sermon.)
2. John’s version of this story, compared to the version in Mark (14:3-9) and Matthew (26:6-13), has been carefully woven into the surrounding context. Mary, beyond being the nameless woman in Mark and Matthew, has been introduced in the previous story as the sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus raises. Such an act of devotion, especially one that prefigures burial, is an understandable response to Jesus’ raising of her brother. It also follows the theme of John 11 of Jesus teaching his disciples how to respond to death. (Gil Bailie has made a brilliant reading of John 11, in the lecture mentioned above and, more generally, around the Gospel theme of “The Empty Tomb.”)
Jesus’ pending death also fits into the context of plots for his death in John 11:45-57, containing the crucial statement of the mimetic theory’s scapegoat mechanism:
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:49-50)
In the aftermath of the raising, there is not only a plot against Jesus but also against Lazarus:
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:9-11)
Finally, this well-crafted story by John also looks ahead to what follows in John 13, his version of the Last Supper. Judas plays an anti-figure in both. But instead of Mary anointing, or washing (the Greek allows both), Jesus’ feet, Jesus washes his disciples feet. Just as Jesus provides an “example” for his disciples as the servant Messiah, Mary prophetically provides an example of discipleship to that servant Messiah.