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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fifth Sunday in Lent - Year C
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4(b)-14; John 12:1-8

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Fifth Sunday In Lent - Year C


ISAIAH 43:16-21          To the Israelites in exile in Babylon, this
unnamed prophet whose words are recorded in Isaiah 40-55 delivered a
message of great hope and promise: the exiles were going home.  The capture
of Babylon about 539 BC by Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, had made
this possible. 

The way home led through the wilderness, recalling the first exodus and the
journey through the wilderness to the promised land under Moses many
centuries earlier.  This would happen because God willed it for God's own
people. 


PSALM 126                This Song of Ascent celebrates the return of the
exiles to Jerusalem.  It echoes God's intervention in Israel's history as
proclaimed in the prophecies of Isaiah 40-55.  It may have been sung by
pilgrims approaching the temple as part of a liturgy preparing for a new
year.


PHILIPPIANS 3:4b-14      Despite his background as a zealous Pharisee, Paul
tells of giving up a promising career as a rabbi to follow Jesus.  The one
source of power for his new life came from his faith in the resurrection of
Jesus, in which he longed to share.  That had become his one goal which he
now sought as zealously as he had sought to obey the Mosaic law in his
youth.


JOHN 12:1-8              Mary of Bethany expressed her love and dedication
to Jesus by perfuming his feet with a costly ointment.  When Judas Iscariot
protested the waste, Jesus acknowledged the gift as a symbol of preparing
his body for burial; but he did not forget the poor as well. 
                                    
************

ISAIAH 43:16-21   It is always difficult to know where to begin and to end
a particular selection from Deutero-Isaiah.  Different commentaries are
likely to make different choices as to the extent of specific poems and
oracles.  Generally speaking, however, the phrase "Thus says the Lord ..."
is a clue to the beginning of a new oracle.  How several oracles may be
included in a longer poem is a more complex issue. 
     
In *The Interpreter's Bible,* vol. 5, p. 491ff. James Muilenburg places
this selection in a longer poem extending from 43:14-44:5 of which this
selection is but the second, third and fourth of nine strophes or stanzas.
Muilenburg entitles the poem "Redemption By Grace."  He also states that
the key to the whole poem lies in the first strophe (43:14-15) just prior
to the beginning of this reading.
          
To the Israelites in exile in Babylon, this unnamed prophet delivered a
message of great hope and promise: the exiles were to be set free and sent
home.  The capture of Babylon in 539 BC by Cyrus, king of the Medes and
Persians, had made this possible.  There was to be a new exodus.  It
actually occurred in 536, so this poem may well date from the intervening
three years. 

Vs. 16 recalls the first exodus and the journey through the wilderness to
the promised land under Moses many centuries earlier.  The passage of
Israel through the sea and the subsequent destruction of their Egyptian
pursuers (vs.17) demonstrated that nature and history are both under the
sovereign control of Yahweh.  The prophet then calls for the exiles in
Babylon to turn from memory to hope (v.18) for a great new deliverance is
about to occur. 

The road home is open to them as was the road through the wilderness and
across many rivers to the Promised Land.  This would happen because Yahweh
willed it for Yahweh's own people.  Yahweh would provide life-giving water
for them in the thousand-mile trek through the desert.  That had been a
crucial issue for the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt.  Unlike their
ancestors, the promise of water and freedom from lurking wild animals would
reassure those of weak faith. 

The return from exile in Babylon was not only an act of divine grace but
also as a testimony to Yahweh's mighty purpose for Israel.  Vs.21 states
unequivocally that Yahweh's intent was that the exiles would declare
Yahweh's praise.  Imagine the amazement of every tribe through whose
territory the returning exiles passed.  Two generations earlier, their
Babylonian overlords had led the Israelites eastward in chains.  Now they
were marching homeward in a rejoicing throng spreading the good news of
Yahweh's blessed deliverance as they went.


PSALM 126   This Song of Ascent, one of fifteen contained in Psalms 120-
134, celebrates the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, yet reflects life of
a later, more difficult period in Israel's history.  Writing long after the
event, the psalm echoes God's intervention in Israel's history as
proclaimed in the prophecies of Isaiah 40-55 and other prophets of the
post-exilic period, Zechariah, Haggai and Ezra.  These psalms may have been
sung by pilgrims approaching the restored temple as part of a liturgy
preparing for one of the great festivals.
     
Yet this particular psalm may actually be more of a lament for hard times.
It begins and ends with a plea for restored fortunes.  Do the references to
water and the harvest suggest a time of drought?  Could this be a hint that
the psalm was used in the new year's liturgy or at the harvest festival of
Succoth when hope for better days was much on the minds of worshippers?
 

PHILIPPIANS 3:4b-14   Do you suppose that Paul either had a very low self-
image or was constantly attacked for having inadequate credentials as an
apostle?  He seems to have felt called on to defend his qualifications on
several occasions.  Here he cites his background as a faithful Jew of the
strictest kind.  Despite this background as a zealous Pharisee, he had
given up a promising career as a rabbi to follow Jesus.  But note the
antecedent to this self-defense.  It throws his subsequent assertions into
high relief.
     
In vss.2-3, he had castigated the Judaizers who promoted circumcision as a
prior commitment for Gentile Christians.  There may have been few Jews in
Philippi, but obviously they were very orthodox.  Archeologists have not
discovered a synagogue among the considerable ruins of this substantial
Roman administrative centre.  What is more, it would seem to have been
women like Lydia who first responded to Paul's preaching at a place of
prayer by the river (Acts 16:13-15).  Such a situation would almost
certainly give rise to jealousy and controversy from those who wished to
preserve orthodox, male domination in the new community Paul was helping to
create in Lydia's 'house church.'
     
In the light of these circumstances, it is not surprising that Paul should
use his own experience as a zealous Pharisee to clarify for the Philippians
both the sacrifices and the promises of  being a Christian in a hostile
world.  It has even been speculated that Paul had sacrificed his own
marriage to a high-born Jewish women of Jerusalem, perhaps the daughter of
Caiaphas or some other dominant family.
     
Three words stand out in what Paul had to say about the gains he had
received in knowing Christ: righteousness, faith and resurrection.  William
Barclay defines what those words meant to Paul: Righteousness meant "a
right relationship with God."  Faith meant "taking Jesus Christ at his
word;" and "accepting what God offers you through Christ."  Resurrection
meant "the guarantee of the importance of life in this body in which we
live;... the guarantee of the life to come;... the guarantee that in life
and in death the presence of the risen Lord is always with us." 
(Edinburgh: Church of Scotland, Daily Bible Readings: The Letters to the
Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. p. 77-79.)

Paul now knew that the one source of power for his new life came from his
faith in the resurrection of Jesus, in which he longed to share.  That had
become his one goal which he now sought as zealously as he had sought to
obey the Mosaic law in his youth.

It is not unusual for converts to be forceful enthusiasts for their new
faith.  Conviction tends to transform even normal life experiences into
opportunities for witness.  Church history has many such ardent
evangelists.  Some, like John Henry Newman, a prominent Anglican churchman
of Oxford, converted to Roman Catholicism, and became a cardinal of his new
tradition.  John Newton, a degraded slave trader, was known as "the
perpetual deacon of Olney" and left a plethora of saintly hymns celebrating
his new faith.


JOHN 12:1-8   Women play an unusually large part in John's Gospel.  In this
incident, Mary of Bethany, expressed her love and devotion to Jesus by
perfuming his feet with a costly ointment and wiping them with her hair. 

We know who Mary was from John's explicit identification (vs.1) which
follows Luke 10:38-42.  But she was not the woman who performed a similar
act according to Luke 7:36-50.  That error is still being offered by some
interpreters.  Nor was she Mary Magdalene with whom the Western church
identified her from the 6th century, a fictional assessment followed by
modern movies.  The Eastern church rejected this mistaken identification.
John's story, however, does show dependence on the Synoptic tradition of
Mark 14:1-9 and Matthew 26:1-13.
     
Jesus appears to have made the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus his
headquarters during his last visit to Jerusalem for the celebration of the
Passover.  It is not difficult to see why.  Bethany was a hamlet just over
the eastern ridge of the Mount of Olives.  Today, when one looks eastward
toward the Mount of Olives from any vantage point in the city overlooking
the Kedron Valley, one can see the spire of the ancient church erected on
the traditional site of the home where this incident occurred.  The minaret
of a nearby mosque is even more visible.  The distance to Bethany from the
Beautiful Gate to the Temple would have been no more than three kilometres;
and less than that from the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane at
the foot of the Mount of Olives.
     
There the Bethany family gave a dinner party for Jesus.  Martha and Mary
played their customary roles.  Mary's anointing of Jesus' feet and wiping
them with her hair was a most astonishing display of affection and
devotion.  Is it too much to give a 20th century Freudian interpretation of
this demonstrative display?  Many devoted Christians has found their piety
and their sexuality strangely and simultaneously enhanced.  Perhaps this
was what motivated the confusion of Mary of Bethany with Mary of Magdala,
although there is no scriptural evidence that the latter was in any way
promiscuous.
     
Judas was quick to put an economic value to what happened.  John had his
own agenda in casting Judas in the role of a thief (vs.6).  John used this
as a warning to some of the members of his own diaspora community in the
last decade of the 1st century.  Here Judas corresponds to the Ephesian
"evildoers... who claim to be apostles but are not" in Revelation 2:2; or
to the Laodicean "rich (who say) I have prospered, and I need nothing," in
Revelation 3:17.  
     
When Judas Iscariot protested the waste, Jesus acknowledged the gift as a
symbol of preparing his body for burial; but he did not forget the poor as
well.  They would be with us always and needing our concern and help.  As
the parable of Matthew 25:31-46 so beautifully describes, our gifts to the
anyone in need, large or small, are tokens of our loyalty and commitment,
as well as expressions of our love for Christ.
 
                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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