Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Lent in Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)
By Dennis Ormseth
The Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year C
The significance of the encounter at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany in the reading from the Gospel of John appointed for this last Sunday the season of Lent, is illumined by interpreting it against the background of the Lukan parable of the Man Had Two Sons from the previous Sunday. This story incorporates several themes from that parable: a meal is held to celebrate the return of a brother who was dead but lives again, as did the feast in the parable. The fragrant smell of expensive perfume envelops the participants in an experience of love and adoration, similar to the way the sound of music signaled joy over a lost son returned home. But here, too, the mood of celebration is broken by a divisive figure who might have been expected to join in, only in this instance Judas is actually already part of the circle at the table. The father rebuked the elder son in the name of the love he had for both his sons equally, seeking thereby to restore the unity of the family: so also Jesus here rebukes Judas in favor of Mary’s action, which reveals what binds the group together, their great love for Jesus present in their midst. As with the elder brother, we are let in on the reasons for the division by the agent of dissension himself: the brother revealed his resentment at what he thought was loss of place, while John has Judas indiscreetly disclose his greed and the implied loss of opportunity for theft of the group’s funds. In each case, there is a tie to the opponents of Jesus: the literary device of the parable linked the elder brother to the scribes and Pharisees; so now the mention of Judas’ coming betrayal links him to the chief priests and Pharisees who have just met to plan the death of Jesus. Prompted by the excitement of the crowds over Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, they are determined to put Jesus and Lazarus to death, in order to quiet any civil unrest during the feast of Passover, which could provoke violent action by the Roman garrison (John 11:47-50).
Thus the narrative of this meal recapitulates crucial elements from the readings for Lent which drive the story of Jesus toward his cross: by eating with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus has drawn to himself participants in the new kingdom of God whom his opponents castigate dualistically as “sinners.” His teaching in parables has opened up the hidden anger and resentment that lie beneath the surface of their rejection. What was parabolic fiction suddenly becomes reality: the encounter of Jesus, Mary, and Judas at this meal builds on these motifs to anticipate Judas’ betrayal as part of the conspiracy of the high priest and the Pharisees. Thus the narrative strikingly exemplifies the development of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes as “altruistic violence,” the product of religiously sanctioned dualism (characterization of Jesus’ companions as “sinners”), linked to a sense of victimhood (Jesus is endangering the peace on which their ruling position is based), which provides the rationale for acting against a scapegoat whose death can forestall open conflict in society (“it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,” 11:50).
The exchange between Jesus and Judas accordingly thrusts this plot of “altruistic violence” into the inner circle of Jesus’ company. John suggests that Judas’ motivation for participating in this scheme is the fact that he was a greedy thief. However, the obscurity of his motivation elsewhere in the passion narratives has prompted scholars to suggest that he was led by the desire to provoke Jesus into action that would triumph over his enemies. As Raymond Brown summarizes these views, Judas has “grown impatient with Jesus’ failure to inaugurate the kingdom, an impatience born from zeal (those who think Judas was an ardent nationalist) or from ambition (those who note the sequence in Luke 22:21-24 where the woe against the betrayer is followed by a dispute as to which of the disciples is the greatest). In either case, Judas can be seen to be “the instrument of Satan, the main agent in giving Jesus over” (John 13:2, 13:27, and Luke 22:2). We recall that beginning with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Satan’s interest with Jesus has been to engage him in actions of domination over nature and nations that test God (Raymond E. Brown’s, “What Was Judas’ Motive for Giving Over Jesus?” in his The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, Volume Two. New York: Doubleday, 1944, pp.1401-1404; see also our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent).
But if the meal in Bethany thus foreshadows the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, it also anticipates Jesus’ action in the narrative of his passion to foster unity among his followers. Again there is precedent in the Lenten narratives: the shepherd and the woman searching for their lost possessions, the mother hen who would shelter her chicks under her wings, the infertile fig tree that responds to gracious feeding, the son who “remembers mama”(or at least the nourishment he enjoyed at home), and the father who comes out to greet not only the younger son but the elder one as well. As this collection of images includes diverse representatives of the creation in the proclamation of God’s will for all creation to be included in the loving embrace of their creator, it is undoubtedly significant, as Gail O’Day argues, that witness to this message is given here to the woman Mary. Her strikingly womanly act of anointing Jesus feet and drying them with her hair, as O’Day points out, foreshadows two important aspects of the coming passion narrative, namely, Jesus washing of his disciples’ feet at the last supper and Jesus’ burial (Gail O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, The Gospel of John. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, pp. 702).
The latter of these, the anticipation of Jesus’ burial, has captured primary attention from John’s interpreters, as the example of Raymond Brown demonstrates: “The theological import of the anointing in both John and Mark,” Brown notes, “is directed toward the burial of Jesus (John xii 7; Mark xiv 8), and there is no evidence that the story was ever narrated in Christian circles without such a reference.” Like Judas’s anticipated betrayal, her action, too, follows in the wake of the Sanhedrin’s decision to put Jesus to death. As Brown comments, “The session of the Sanhedrin is the supreme expression of refusal to believe; the anointing by Mary is a culminating expression of loving faith. In each there is an unconscious prophecy of Jesus’ death (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII). New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 454). So the contrast between Judas and Mary is telling: while Judas may have thought his participation in the Sanhedrin’s scheme might only have resulted in Jesus’ arrest and trial before the Jewish authorities, Mary is prescient in her knowledge that the anger and resentment of Jesus’ opponents will necessarily be visited by Roman authorities upon his body. She no doubt sees what Ta-nehisi Coates in his letter to his son laments as truth gained from long experience of racial oppression, that “all empires of humans” are “built on the destruction of the body” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015, p. 143; see our introduction to this series of comments on the Lenten lectionary). As O’Day puts it, “Mary’s actions model the life of love that should characterize Jesus’ sheep.” Judas’ “self-centered disdain,” on the other hand, leads to the destruction of the flock. Judas is caught up in the all-too-human impulse to dominate one’s enemies; Mary exemplifies what it is to be a servant in the beloved community, respondent to God’s love.
So with the narrative for this Sunday, we are brought into a very dark moment. Or at least it would seem that way, if God were not “about to do a new thing,” as the prophet Isaiah reminds us in our first reading. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). What is the new thing God is doing? The death of a prophet is not a new thing. Nor, to update the narrative, is the sacrifice of a scapegoat. The latter is the all too common eventuality that occurs when, as Jonathan Sacks observes, conflicting powers need to ease conflict in society, and a third party is available who can creditably be seen to be powerful enough to cause trouble, but is not actually powerful enough to resist the action against him (Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, New York: Schocken Books, 2015,Sacks, p. 76). Jesus clearly fits this requirement for the action of the Jewish and Roman authorities acting together, but not uniquely so. He will die in a crucifixion suffered by many others for the same purposes of imperial intimidation and domination.
The new thing God is doing actually counteracts that way of domination. It is foreshadowed in this Gospel text, of course, first of all by the presence of Lazarus, raised from the dead. But the new thing God is doing is also anticipated in Mary’s action of washing Jesus feet, As O’Day reflects, in the last supper “Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet as an expression of his love for them (13:1-20), as a way of drawing them into his life with God (13:8). He will also ask them to repeat this act of service for one another (13:14-15).” But what Jesus will do for his disciples and will ask them to do for one another, Mary has already done for him in 12:3. In Mary, then, the reader is given a picture of the fullness of the life of discipleship. Her act shows forth the love that will be the hallmark of discipleship in John and the recognition of Jesus’ identity that is the decisive mark of Christian life (O’Day, p. 703).
Mary’s action, in O’Day’s view, is an “eschatological announcement of the promise of discipleship” that is companion to Jesus’ “eschatological announcement of the fullness of God available in Jesus and the fullness of life,” represented by Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. Thus the meal reveals the way in which the mission of Jesus leads to refusal of a relationship of domination between people.
It is this new thing, furthermore, that the Apostle Paul celebrates in our second reading for this day, in the wake of what he counts as the “loss” of the “righteousness” he possessed as a Pharisee and persecutor of the church. That loss has been replaced by his knowledge of “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” (Philippians 3:10-11). Paul, so to speak, is as an elder brother in the narrative of Israel’s sibling rivalry, who has put himself in the place of the younger son and so joined now in the Father’s welcome. “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13), he moves to overcome the dualism of Jewish righteousness and others’ unrighteousness that divides God’s people.
If the overcoming of the way of domination between peoples and nations makes up a good portion of the new thing God is doing, our first reading identifies one thing more: the new thing God is doing, on account of which the people of Israel in exile are also to forget the “former things” when God made a way through the sea and made “the chariot and horse” to fall down, “extinguished, quenched like a wick,” is a new time when God
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 (Isaiah 43:18-21).
The God who “blots out your transgressions” for God’s own sake, the prophet continues, and who “will not remember your sins,” will
pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams (44:3-4).
The God who overcomes the way of intimidation and domination between persons and peoples, is the same God who will restore the land so that the people may flourish, even as they are on their way home! Like the father who comes out to greet his two sons, this God comes out to renew the creation with a flood in the desert! Nature, no less than neighbor, is the beneficiary of God’s new action of love! Then it shall be as the psalm for this Sunday suggests it should, that God will restore all earth’s fortunes “like the watercourses in the Negeb” at the end of winter: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (126:4-6).
How can this be? How can the death and resurrection of Jesus offer so complete a restoration of creation as God would wish to have it become? How is the narrative of the man who was a scapegoat for national and imperial authorities, acting together to silence their opposition, transformed into a narrative of hope for the reconciliation and renewal of all things? As the light of day lengthens and the Season of Lent opens up to the Festival of Easter, answer to these questions will be provided in the readings for Passion Sunday.
Suggested hymn of the day: 808 Lord Jesus, You Shall Be my Song
Prayer petition: O God, source and goal of all creation, in Jesus’ company we enjoy hope for the restoration of all of life—our lives, the lives of our neighbors, and the life of your world. Help us to follow in Mary’s way of service; strengthen us in courage to stand firm against the powers that make us fearful. Lord in your mercy . . .