Lesson: Isaiah 43:16-21
16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.
19 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.
20 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,
21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
The Book of Isaiah is a composite of writings from three distinct periods in Ancient Israel’s history. The writings were compiled from about 700 BCE to about 300 BCE.
Chapters 1-39 are called “First Isaiah” and are the words of a prophet (one who speaks for YHWH – translated as “LORD” in all capital letters in the NRSV) who called for Jerusalem to repent in the 30 years before Jerusalem came under siege by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. “Second Isaiah” is Chapters 40 to 55. In these chapters, a prophet brought hope to the Judeans during the Exile in Babylon (587 to 539 BCE) by telling them they had suffered enough and would return to Jerusalem. “Third Isaiah” is Chapters 56 to 66 in which a prophet gave encouragement to the Judeans who had returned to Jerusalem (which was largely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE) after the Exile had ended.
Today’s reading is from “Second Isaiah” and is part of an extended discourse that YHWH will redeem the Judeans from Babylon. The people are reminded that YHWH led them in the Exodus from Egypt (“make a way in the sea” v.16). YHWH promised to “do a new thing” (v.19) by delivering the Judeans from Babylon. The reading concluded with the theme that the Judeans were chosen (v.20) and formed by YHWH so they could praise YHWH (v.21).
Epistle: Philippians 3:4b-14
4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 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 9 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. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 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. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Philippi was a major city in Macedonia on the Roman road to Byzantium (Istanbul), and most of its inhabitants were Roman citizens. Paul wrote this letter from prison. For this reason, some think the letter was written from Rome around 62 CE. Other scholars note that Paul was also imprisoned earlier in Ephesus and made trips to Philippi from Ephesus. Paul had a deep affection for the believers in Philippi and thanked them for gifts sent to him in prison (4:18).
Today’s reading is a continuation of Paul’s statements in opposition to those who claimed that one had to become a Jew by being circumcised before one could be a Jesus Follower (3:2-3).
To emphasize his standing to make these assertions, he described these opponents as “being confident in the flesh” (v.4) and stated that he himself was circumcised (as a Hebrew) and was a blameless Pharisee (v.6). He referred to all his religious “gains” prior to knowing Christ Jesus as “rubbish” (v.8). (The Greek word is literally translated as “dog poop.”).
Paul emphasized the importance of “faith in The Christ” (v.9) – by which he meant a transformation of one’s deepest “heart” that would lead one to “know” (have a close relationship with) The Christ and share in his sufferings “by becoming like him in his death” (v.10) – a death that was imposed on Jesus by the authorities because he lived and taught a life of selfless love. Paul aspired to have the hope of resurrection (v.11b).
Paul acknowledged that, as a human being, he had only partially reached the goal of sharing in the sufferings of The Christ (v.12) but that he was “pressing on” to the “prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (v.14).
Gospel: John 12:1-8
1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (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.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The Fourth Gospel is different in many ways from the Synoptic Gospels. The “signs” (miracles) and many stories in the Fourth Gospel are unique to it, such as the Wedding at Cana, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Raising of Lazarus.
The chronology of events is also different in the Fourth Gospel. For example, the Temple Event (“Cleansing of the Temple”) occurred early in Jesus’ Ministry in the Fourth Gospel, rather than late as in the Synoptic Gospels. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, but in the Fourth Gospel, it occurred the day before the first day of Passover so that Jesus (who is described as “the Lamb of God” in the Fourth Gospel) died at the same time lambs were sacrificed at the Temple for the Passover Seder that was to be held the night he died.
The story of Jesus’ being anointed before his Passion was told in each of the Gospels, though it may be a conflation of two different traditions.
In Luke’s account (Lk. 7:36-50), the event occurred in the middle of Jesus’ public ministry. In Mark (14:1-9), the event occurred two days before the Passover (and the festival of the Unleavened Bread – which Mark incorrectly separated from the Passover). In Matthew (26:6-16), the date is unspecified, but is clearly just before the Passover. In today’s reading from John, the event occurred six days before the Passover.
The place of the event is also different. In Mark and Matthew, it occurred at the home of Simon the Leper. In Luke, Jesus was at the home of a Pharisee who is later named as Simon (7:40). In John, the event occurred in the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary.
In Mark and Matthew, the woman is not identified, and in Luke she is identified only as “a sinner” (7:37). In today’s reading the woman is said to be Mary, Lazarus’ sister (v.3).
In Mark, Matthew and Luke, the woman had “an alabaster flask of ointment” which was described in Matthew as “very expensive.” Mark and John identify the ointment as “pure nard.” In John, Mary used a pound of nard (a Roman pound was 11.5 ounces).
Nard comes from the oil of the spikenard plant that is found in the Himalayas. Mark and John valued it at “300 denarii” which would be a year’s wages for a laborer (about $40,000 today for a worker paid $20 an hour and working 40 hours a week.)
In Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ head was anointed, but in Luke and John his feet were anointed. According to The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, perfume or oil would not usually be used to anoint feet.
In Mark and Matthew, the disciples or others present saw the anointing as a “waste” and urged that the proceeds of the nard could have been given to the poor. In John, only Judas raised the issue and the account used the story to call Judas a thief (v.6), a characterization not found in the other Gospels.
Giving alms to the poor is a Passover obligation (John 13:29). The statement “The poor you always have with you” is taken from Deut. 15:11 where YHWH commanded the Israelites to be generous to the poor in the land.
In Mark, Matthew and John, the anointing was presented as preparing Jesus for burial (v.7).