Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Click here for the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.
As we approach Holy Week, things are continuing to advance in the march towards the cross. Tensions are running high.
But before I jump into Mary’s bold move in anointing Jesus’s feet, I want to reflect on this short yet punchy and powerful reading from Isiah.
It starts out describing a Rambo-like God — a God who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters. One who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.
But then, the paradigm is shifted…
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?
And they say that the Old Testament is all about an angry, bloodthirsty God:) But here, we see God adapting Godself. Or is it humans adapting humanself to God? Kind of a chicken and egg thing, perhaps. Anyhow…
The tyrannical, dominance-based God is starting to soften. We are to make way for a new ‘thing’. From Rambo to… Mary Poppins?
(Or from Trump to Jacinda Ardern, perhaps — it’s seasonally appropriate and one can only hope, but maybe that’s just me…)
This Hebrew Bible quote is foreshadowing Jesus. Out with the iron-fisted, masculine God for a more feminine soul one that even the wild animals aren’t frightened of.
I want to jump right quick — as we do — to Paul’s letter to the Philippians…
First of all, he click-baits us with circumcision (really, Paul — we modern Westerners don’t openly talk about such things unless we’re in a doctor’s office or under an anonymous screen name in a dark and musty internet chat room). But then he outs himself in his self-importance and faux righteousness.
All the things he did ‘right’ before the law (his circumcision on the 8th day being one of them, apparently) — he now sees as useless. Not only useless, but he sees them as a loss. Things that set him back a few pegs in his relationship with the divine because they pointed at his own self-justification — a burden he couldn’t shoulder after realizing how flawed of a soul he was for persecuting ‘the other’ (Christians) at the time. The only thing that gave him a release of this burden was Christ. In Christ, he needed none of it. All of it only led to self-absorption and fragile arrogance which led to a brittle sense of self.
So again, we have a transition from an individual upholding of the law (masculine) to a complete self-emptying in Christ (feminine).
Keeping with this masculine = > feminine God theme in this week’s Lectionary, Jesus ends up (in the gospel of John) around a dinner table (because Jesus is the master of the intimate dinner party) with his resurrected pal Lazarus and — fittingly — Mary and Martha. Hair, perfume and bare feet are involved. It paints a scandalous picture to the puritanical soul as personified by the traitor, Judas (so #woke, that Judas) as he calls Mary out for not selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor.
Wow… Kinda sounds like five minutes on Twitter if you’re in the progressive religious algorithm as I am. Anyhow, as is written…
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.
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?”
(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.)
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.”
Jesus knows better (doesn’t he always). Thinking abundantly, prophetically, and contemplatively as ever, he knows that even though he’ll be cruising into town on a donkey with a motley crew of underachievers and nobodies (to the high society of Jerusalem, that is), this moment deserves a little pomp and circumstance. This is a big damn deal and he’s not going to let the self-righteous pettiness of Judas ruin the moment.
(I love this so much.)
After doing a decent number of these Lectionary reflections, I’ve learned to look deeper into the context of these readings to give me a bigger picture. As I read the account from John, I went back a chapter to John 11:49–52. It’s here that I noticed something profound when it comes to Jesus crucifixion story…
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.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.
Let me zoom in on the important part here…
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.
There it is, in scripture: the human propensity to bring momentary peace through scapegoating. This is what we do, friends. In the midst of our rivalrous bloodbath (literally or metaphorically), the only thing that saves us is when we can stop killing each other and point out the group/person on the margins of our culture to otherize, band against, scapegoat, and sacrifice.
This scapegoating used to be more rampant and blood-laden than it is now, it seems, but turning on the news will reveal this propensity alive and well within the human condition to this day. It’s a spiritual exercise to be honest with yourself and ask yourself just who you’re scapegoating right now — either in your head or in-person.
Jesus was our scapegoat. We needed a blood sacrifice. Not God. God leapt into flesh and jumped in front of us to take it on in the experience of Jesus of Nazareth.
The difference between Jesus and all of the other countless scapegoats throughout time is that Jesus gives us a play-by-play beforehand (during his life), while it was happening (during his crucifixion), and afterward (during his resurrection). And the kicker is, as a spokesman for this masculine/feminine and human/divine God, he loves and forgives us even more because he knows that only God’s love and profound forgiveness in the face of this atrocity can restore humanity.
May it be so.