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Revised Common Lectionary Commentary

Fifth Sunday in Lent - March 17, 2013



Saint Dominic contemplating the Scriptures

Saint Dominic
contemplating the Scriptures

Comments have been prepared by Chris Haslam using reputable commentaries, and checked for accuracy by the Venerable Alan T Perry, of the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. While not intended to be exhaustive, they are an aid to reading the Scriptures with greater understanding.

Comments are best read with the lessons.

Feedback to is always welcome.


Lessons for this week from the Vanderbilt University web site

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Isaiah

This book can be divided into two (and possibly three) parts. Chapters 1 to 39 were written before the exile, from about 740 BC to about 700 BC. These were difficult times for the southern kingdom, Judah: a disastrous war was fought with Syria; the Assyrians conquered Israel, the northern kingdom, in 723 BC, and threatened Judah. Isaiah saw the cause of these events as social injustice, which he condemned, and against which he fought valiantly. Chapters 40 to 66 were written during and after the Exile in Babylon. They are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will soon end the Exile. Some scholars consider that Chapters 56 to 66 form a third part of the book, written after the return to the Promised Land. These chapters speak of hope and despair; they berate the people for their sin, for worshipping other gods. Like Second Isaiah, this part speaks of the hope that God will soon restore Jerusalem to its former glory and make a new home for all peoples.


Isaiah 43:16-21

Babylonian armies captured Jerusalem in 587 BC; many residents were deported to Babylon. Chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah were written there in the final years of the Exile. The author had great faith in God as intervening in human affairs when needed throughout history. He sustains the theme of a new Exodus throughout Second Isaiah: God will surely restore the Israelites to Judea (v. 14).

A prophet serves as a channel of communication between the divine and the human realms. Today we say that history repeats itself; this prophet would add: continually. In vv. 16-17, he recalls God’s saving act of enabling the Israelites to cross the Reed (or Red) Sea: how the waters separated, providing “a way in the sea”, and how the Egyptian chariots, “army and warrior[s]”, were swallowed up by the waters, “never to rise again” (Revised English Bible). This is who God is: he was the motive force behind Israel’s deliverance; he saved Israel from slavery. (Perhaps the audience is people who, in exile, have given up on God.) But, says God through the prophet (v. 18), do not wallow in the past to the extent of being blind to what is happening now! God is “about to do a new thing” (v. 19); in fact, he has already begun (“now”). Can’t you see it? He is providing a godly way for his people, protecting them and giving them sustenance (“water”, “drink”, v. 20). The allusion is to return from exile across the Arabian desert: the animals who will honour God live in the desert. Israel, the people whom he moulded by his instruction and discipline (“formed”, v. 21) are to declare to all that he is praise-worthy for his love and actions on their behalf. However, say vv. 22-25, the covenant relationship between God and his people has become one of weariness for, in spite of God being reasonable in his expectations as to how the people should honour him, the Israelites have ignored him. All they have done is complain and stray from his ways. Even so, God is merciful; he will forget their waywardness.


Psalms

Psalms is a collection of collections. The psalms were written over many centuries, stretching from the days of Solomon's temple (about 950 BC) to after the Exile (about 350 BC.) Psalms are of five types: hymns of praise, laments, thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms. Within the book, there are five "books"; there is a doxology ("Blessed be ... Amen and Amen") at the end of each book.


Psalm 126

This is a prayer for deliverance from national misfortune. Vv. 1-3 recall past events: it was a joyous occasion when God showed favour towards his people (“Zion”), almost beyond belief (although “those who dream” can be translated as those healed.) Other nations recognized what God had done for Israel (v. 2). Then the community prays that God may grant them his favour once again: may it spring up, as the parched dry wadis (“watercourses”, v. 4) in the “Negeb” desert rush with water during the seasonal rains. Perhaps v. 5 is a proverb: may our fortunes be reversed! V. 6 expands on v. 5. The good times remembered may be the Exodus or the return from Exile; if the latter, it reminds us that life in Palestine was difficult: it took years to restore agriculture.


Philippians

Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, a prosperous Roman colony in northern Greece, from prison. We do not know whether this imprisonment was in Ephesus or in Rome. It appears that he was held under house arrest. It is possible that the epistle is actually made up of three letters. It contains many personal references, exhorts members of the Philippian church to live the Christian life and to good ethical conduct, introduces Timothy and Epaphroditus as his representatives, and warns against legalists and libertines. Lastly, he thanks the Philippian community for their material support.


Philippians 3:4b-14

Paul has warned his readers about those who try to convince them that being a Christian requires acceptance of Jewish law, including circumcision. True circumcision is of the heart – and not of the “flesh”, i.e. following legal precepts, as in Judaism. Inner circumcision is what is required of us.

He cites his own experience as an example. In early life, he was as true to Judaism as anyone could be: he was circumcised; he is from the elite tribe (“Benjamin”, v. 5), as Jewish as one can be (“a Hebrew born of Hebrews”); like other Pharisees, he knew the Law well and applied it in daily life. He zealously persecuted Christians and faultlessly kept the Law. And yet, knowing Christ has made him realize that a Jewish, law-based, approach to God is a “loss” (vv. 7-8) for Christians: it obstructs God’s free gift of love. True “righteousness” (v. 9) comes through “faith in Christ”, not self-assessment of godliness, per legal precepts. He has cast aside all his Jewishness in order to realize the gain Christ offers (v. 8).

He wants to “know Christ” (v. 10) as risen and living. This involves attaining oneness with him through sharing his sufferings and participating in his death. Out of this, he will come to know “the power of his resurrection”. He is still working on understanding Christ completely (v. 12), an obligation he has – for Christ has chosen him (“made me his own”).

He has made progress not on his own, but through God’s grace (v. 13); however he has left his past behind and eagerly seeks what lies ahead. As the winner in a Greek foot race was called up to receive his “prize” (v. 14), so he seeks God’s call to share in eternal life. (“Heavenly” is literally upward.)


Symbol of St John

John

John is the fourth gospel. Its author makes no attempt to give a chronological account of the life of Jesus (which the other gospels do, to a degree), but rather "...these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." John includes what he calls signs, stories of miracles, to help in this process.


John 12:1-8

Jesus has raised Martha’s and Mary’s brother, “Lazarus”, “from the dead”, because Martha trusts that Jesus is the Messiah. Many people are making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. The religious authorities, aware that Jesus has performed “many signs” (11:47), and afraid that the Romans will destroy the Temple and the nation because of him, ask that anyone knowing where he is tell them so they can arrest him.

Now Jesus returns to Bethany, on the Mount of Olives, a mere three kilometres (two miles) east of Jerusalem. “Perfume made of pure nard” (v. 3, spikenard oil), was derived from the roots of a plant grown in the Himalayas. If the guests were reclining on couches, Jesus’ feet would be accessible for anointing, but a respectable Jewish woman would hardly appear in public with her hair unbound. Judas’ reaction points forward to Jesus’ arrest (18:1-11). “Three hundred denarii” (v. 5) was close to a year’s wages for a labourer. Anointing was the last step before burial, but not for executed criminals. Perhaps in v. 7 Jesus means that Mary bought the perfume so as to have it ready for his burial, that what she did has a meaning she does not realize, and that the perfume is not wasted. Perhaps v. 8 says: the poor are constantly in need, but Jesus’ impending death is unique. There is a place for spontaneous love of Jesus.

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