La passion du Christ
Painting by Gilles Catelin
One of the key themes of Easter is that God’s Will will not be thwarted. No matter what we raise against God’s Will – God’s Intentions – God will accomplish God’s Will. This comes into relief in today’s reading from John 11:45-57. It is a passage about the Jewish leaders’ sense of threat from the success of Jesus’ ministry, and their decision to eliminate him. Their concerns and actions are motivated by self-preservation, and they believe that eliminating Jesus will secure their future salvation.
Ironically, they could not be more correct, but not in the way they thought. Jesus’ death (the death of one person) did indeed make possible the salvation of the entire world – not just the Jewish nation, but indeed all people, everywhere, at all times, including both past and future.
God took their evil intent and incorporated it into God’s Will, to accomplish the great plan that God had already conceptualised at the dawn of time: to save the cosmos. God’s Will is glacial, moving inexorably towards its destination.
The Will of God will not be thwarted. We see this tenacity of God’s Will strikingly in Ezekiel 37:21-28, where God’s “will” is articulated 24 times in just 8 verses:
‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. 23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.
24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees.25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”
If God is able to accomplish so much when people are working against God, imagine what God can accomplish when people work with God! Today we are reminded of the remarkable opportunity to partner with God in implementing God’s Will, and in so doing, to be part of history-making.
Featured image of one of the glaciers in College Fjord in Alaska.
We draw closer and closer to the cross on this Lenten journey. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and then it is Holy Week, leading to Good Friday when we sit at the foot of the cross and watch Jesus die, and then we wait despairingly yet expectantly through Silent Saturday, until Easter morning when our Lord rises from the dead. Morbid though this may sound, this is indeed a time of death and devotion.
Mary, the sister of Lazarus, pours very expensive perfume (Nard) on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair (John 12:1-8). A parallel story is found in Mark 14:1-9. This narrative raises multiple messages, but two have resonated strongly with me this weekend: death and devotion.
This story is soaked with death. The previous chapter (John 11) told us of Lazarus’ death, how he was laid in a tomb for four days, and how Jesus then raised him from the dead. This same Lazarus now sits around the table with Jesus, eating a meal! Mary’s use of Nard to anoint Jesus’ feet suggests burial preparation, as if Jesus has already died and is being embalmed. In the next passage, Jesus makes his triumphal donkey entry into Jerusalem, signalling the start of Holy Week – Jesus’ final walk to the cross. He talks at some length about his impending death. In chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples feet, a kind of replication of Mary’s act (but with water, not perfume). Jesus shares his ‘last supper’ with the disciples. From here on, Jesus speaks almost only to his closest friends and family. There are no further public sermons. He retreats from the world, as he prepares to die, entering a quiet, reflective space.
We, as part of his closest friends and family, are invited in these last days of Lent to be present with Christ as he walks towards death.
Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. She does not wash them with water to cleanse them, as was typically done for guests, by servants. Nor does she rub oil into his feet to protect them from the dry, dusty roads, as would be done with an important guest, also by servants. Instead, Mary – one of Jesus’ hosts – pours expensive perfume over them. Nard came from the high mountains in India, particularly the Himalayas. It had a sweet and earthy fragrance, that lasted a long time. It was very expensive, and stored in alabaster jars to preserve the fragrance. Mary’s pouring out of this perfume is extravagant. Some suggest that this jar of Nard was her entire dowry. It is an excess of perfume, much like the wine that Jesus created at another banquet (in Cana) was excessive and extravagant.
She washes his feet with her hair. Jewish women treated their hair with modesty, typically covering it for all except their husbands. To let it loose would be seen by some as immoral. It certainly was profoundly intimate; she could have used a cloth, but instead used her hair.
We must imagine Jesus reclining – there were no chairs. So Mary must be on her knees, bowed low over Jesus’ feet, her face almost on his feet, so that her hair can wrap around them to dry them. It is intimate and devoted, a pouring out of her innermost being on Jesus’ feet.
We, like Mary, are invited in these last days of Lent to devote ourselves utterly to Christ as he walks towards the cross.
Jesus’ response to those who reprimand Mary for being so wasteful poignantly ties together death and devotion. He makes two main points:
We, like they, are invited in these last days of Lent to set aside our day to day responsibilities and to make ourselves available to be with Christ.
Featured image from https://www.gloriadei.ca/blog/worship-june-12
We all have, consciously or unconsciously, a hierarchy of people’s goodness to badness, of people’s worthiness of God’s loving attention or of salvation. Even if we believe in salvation through the work of Christ alone, we probably still can imagine people we think undeserving of eternal life.
This was the problem of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They were so focused on keeping God’s Law (see my related message on Jesus’ Law) that they could have nothing to do with people who were not righteous, people who were lower down on the hierarchy.
So when the Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with so called ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, they are horrified and mutter, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2). They regarded such behaviour as being absolutely at odds with being a Godly person.
This prompts Jesus to tell three parables, intended to reveal God’s soft heart for “sinners and tax collectors”, for the lost, and to challenge the Pharisees’ misalignment with the God they sincerely followed:
In this parable (commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son, ‘prodigal’ meaning financially wasteful) we meet a father and his two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance up front, and then squanders it on wild living. Eventually he comes to his senses and, realising that his fathers servants live better than he is now living, returns to his father, acknowledges his sinfulness and asks to be hired as a servant. The father is overjoyed at the son’s return, hugs him, clothes him and throws a lavish party for him.
In most preaching about this parable, this is what we focus on. Rightly so, because it reveals the extravagantly loving heart of God, God’s willingness to reconcile with anyone who turns to God, God’s unconditional love. It exemplifies Jesus’ ministry, which is to find those who are disconnected from God, and welcome them back into fellowship with God. For example,
But actually, the narrative focus of the story is on the older son, whose attitude towards his wayward brother is the same as that of the Pharisees. Jesus wants the Pharisees (perhaps us also) to recognise themselves in the older son, whose attitude is so at odds with his father (who represents God, who in turn is represented by Jesus):
This is exactly what the Pharisees did to Jesus (as the father in the story) in his engagement with sinners and tax collectors (as the younger son in the story). They said to Jesus, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”, just as the father in the story welcomed his younger son and threw a feast for him.
The father, however, recognises that this older son is also, in his own way, lost. He has lost his sense of fellowship with his father. He does not share his father’s values and outlook on the world. He has dissociated himself from his father’s family. But the father says:
As children of God, we (like the Pharisees) are urged to adopt the heart of God, as evidenced in the behaviour of the father in this parable, and to welcome and eat with so called ‘sinners’.
This painting by Rembrandt van Rijn is called ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ c.1662. The original hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The older son is depicted on the right, in a red cloak, looking rather disapproving, and distanced from the father and younger son on the left.
Notice also the father’s hands – the one on the left is smaller and thinner than the one on the right. Most people think Rembrandt was endeavouring to depict both the fatherhood and motherhood of God.
Henri Nouwen has written a book about this narrative and painting called, ‘The return of the prodigal son’. You can read some of it here on Amazon. Read particularly pages 71 and following, about the older son. Or click here for a brief reflection on this painting.
God calls us to humility – in our relationship with God, and in our relationship with other people.
Luke 18:9-14 gives us the parable of the pharisee and tax collector, both at prayer.
Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.
Of course, this ‘humility’ is not about self-denigration or having a poor self-esteem or negative self-image. Paul says clearly in Romans 12:3 that humility is about assessing our strengths and weaknesses honestly and accurately: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”
In our other reading for today – Hosea 5:13-6:6 – there is a dialogue between God and Israel:
Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.
Feature image ‘Kneeling in Prayer‘ by Nadine Rippelmeyer (2006)
In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus presents (albeit very briefly) his most comprehensive teaching on his view of Law of Moses. He says that he has not come to abolish the law, that the dot on every i and the cross on every t is vital, that the Law has not passed away, and that we need to practice and teach it. Many commentators (naturally) read this to mean that the First Testament Law is as binding on Christians today as it was on the people of Israel in years between Moses and Christ.
However, when we look at Jesus’ teaching and behaviour, even just within Matthew’s Gospel, we see him repeatedly massaging the Law, challenging the Law, even brazenly disobeying the Law – certainly as the Law was understood by the Pharisees of his day. For example:
How do we reconcile Matthew 5’s apparently strict teaching with the rest of Jesus’ teaching and his daily behaviour? They do appear to be at odds with each other!
I suggest the following:
I end with a paraphrase of Matthew 5:17-20 by RT France (2007, pp. 190-191) in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:
“Do not suppose that I came to undermine the authority of the OT scriptures, and in particular the law of Moses. I did not come to set them aside but to bring into reality that to which they pointed forward. I tell you truly: the law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that is points forward to will in fact become a reality (and is now doing so in my ministry). So anyone who treats even the most insignificant of the commandments of the law as of no value and teaches other people to belittle them is an unworthy representative of the new regime, while anyone who takes them seriously in word and deed will be a true member of God’s kingdom.
“But do not imagine that simply keeping all those rules will bring salvation. For I tell you truly: it is only those whose righteousness of life goes far beyond the old policy of literal rulekeeping which the scribes and Pharisees represent who will prove to be God’s true people in this era of fulfillment.”
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, when we reflect on Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, and the way the devil tempted him during this time (Luke 4:1-13). Here’s the point I believe God wants us to hear from this passage today:
Jesus experienced this during his 40-day fast. We experience it when we fast. Fasting creates these intensified opportunities to turn to God. It is the gift of the fast.
How can we turn to God? Here are two ways:
Use the verse or prayer to remind you that you have made a commitment to God. Use it to help turn your focus towards God. Remind yourself that while breaking your fast may, actually, be trivial, remaining true to God is not.
Blessings as you journey through Lent.
Featured image from https://thewellarmedwoman.com/blog/fork-in-the-road/