The LORD “makes a way in the sea…” Impossible. Mary lavishes Jesus’ feet with anointment one cannot imagine being able to afford. Incredible. And in the Epistle to Philippians, Paul claims that everything in his life, in this whole world, is “rubbish” compared to “the righteousness from God based on faith” in Christ. Too strong?
The impossible, incredible, unthinkable is exactly what God is about. It’s a new thing. Preachers have to imagine our way into this promising prospect so that those who have come to worship on this Sunday will leave with an inkling of the goodness that comes through the cross. This day is full of hinting paradoxes that will arrive with increasing force as Good Friday approaches.
The story of Jesus’ dinner with his good friends – when Mary anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair (surely one of the most exotic and evocative events in the Gospels) – could appear at first glance to be sort of normal. Friends for dinner. And yet…
The scene marks a key transition and link from Jesus' teaching and healing ministry (the gospel of signs) to his paschal ministry (the gospel of glory). The author drops many clues and prepares the reader for any number of elements of the story to come: the death of Jesus at Passover, the anointing oils of burial, the resurrection story of Lazarus, now extended into the “prequel” to the resurrection story of Jesus, and the betrayal of Judas...
The reading concludes. . . “You always have the poor with you. . .” The saying is unfortunately used to . . . excuse indifference toward the ministry of care for the poor.
An effective homily will challenge these hidden assumptions and equip the listener to challenge it appropriately whenever it emerges in conversation. . . The poor we will always have; they are not helped by theft from the common purse. And, they are not hurt (but will be helped) when Jesus completes his earthly mission and unleashes the power of God's Spirit through his risen body. – Jeffrey VanderWilt
This new thing is a liberation on all fronts.
The forty years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness is no different than the forty years of exile in Babylon. Indeed, it could be argued that the stories of Moses and the Israelites were solidified in the time of Exile precisely in such a way as to make sense of the captivity in Babylon and the difficulties faced by the returning Israelites. . . God will “make a way in the wilderness” for the returning exiles. – Jeffrey VanderWilt
Paul urges freedom from cultural patterns and cultic practices in order to see beyond temporal gain. In other words, the passages calling for the vision of the new thing come, at last, to reside in our very bodies.
Some Philippian Christians were apparently being pressed to accept circumcision, if for no other reason than to avoid persecution under Roman law; if circumcised. . . they could claim to be Jews and so be exempted from the requirement to worship the emperor. Paul's argument, in a word: do not put your trust in a sign of the flesh or even in righteousness under the law. Rather, share in the sufferings of Christ and become like him in his death, prepared to lose all things, so as to gain all things in the power of his resurrection. – Jeffrey VanderWilt
How does this focus on the “new thing” lead us to the ending of Lent when we contemplate the enter point of our faith?
Each year the readings for the last Sunday in Lent confront us with the claim that God's new thing, the new life we have together in Christ, our hope in Christ for the resurrection of the dead, for God's future, is grounded in the suffering and death of Jesus. Our own agendas are nothing next to this. Any pain we may suffer in keeping or breaking our Lenten discipline is as rubbish next to this: that the suffering and death of Jesus are essential to God's plan of salvation. Mary “got it.” Judas never did “get it.” And it is in our own “straining forward” to “get it” for ourselves that we “press on” to Holy Week and the Great Three Days. – Paul G. Bieber
Paul Bieber is pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church, San Diego, California.
Jeffery VanderWilt, author of Communion with Non-Catholic Christians (Collegville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003) teaches at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Southern California.
Homily Service 40, no. 4 (2007): 33-44.