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5th Sunday of Lent

25 March 2022

3 April, Passiontide begins: Isaiah 43.16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8

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ONE commentator describes Isaiah’s vision as an “ecological transformation”. Jackals and ostriches are not creatures chosen at random. They stand for the ruin of what we might once have called “civilisation”. After humans have fled, or been driven out, streets and buildings revert to a wilderness state, where “beasts of the field” (wild creatures) wander undisturbed.

Two approaches do battles in the womb of our minds (Genesis 25.22). One sees the buildings and fortifications of cities as protection from external threats; the other sees cities as places where God is forgotten. God declares that cities will not remain waste without inhabitants (Isaiah 6.11): he will rebuild access (making roads) and secure the water supply without which nothing can live.

Recent events in Europe are a bitter reminder that civilisations are only a thin crust over the churning magma of human sin. In the passage from Philippians, Paul does not explore the universal dimension of sin: he focuses on the individual dimension, speaking from experience of what religious transformation is like.

He starts where sin begins. “All sin is pride,” it has been said. This puts pride in a category of its own, although, in the traditional list of “deadly sins”, pride is merely one of seven, nothing unique. Thomas Aquinas offers a more acute perception: “pride corrupts every virtue and every mental capacity.”

Paul calls pride in his Jewish ancestry “confidence in the flesh”. His life has been virtue-filled: he is “zealous” and “blameless”. Looking at virtues and vices and assessing them according to a canon (the word originally meant “measuring stick”) of propriety is not how God judges. The Lord looks on the heart, the source of our attitudes and motivations (1 Samuel 16.7); and, for God, intentions matter. It is not enough to “do the right thing.” We must do the right thing for the right reasons. That is why Paul reminds us that he is a persecutor before he points out that — according to the Law — he is blameless (v.6).

The passages from Isaiah and Paul guide us in making sense of the gospel. Some who listen to this gospel will be in instinctive sympathy with Judas, even though they know that such sympathy is not the “correct” interpretation. Even giving to the poor can sometimes be the wrong answer.

There is already a difficulty for scholars in deciding how many women anointed Jesus and on how many occasions. Mark, Matthew, and John describe an anointing in preparation for burial (Mark 14.3-9, Matthew 26.6-13). Luke (7.36-38) describes Jesus being anointed by a woman who is a sinner.

Such questions do not stir my interest as much as wondering why she (or they) used hair to wipe off the perfume: I cannot think of a less absorbent material for removing an unguent. But, if wiping with hair is not practical, it must be telling us something at another level. It may not be practical, but it is intensely personal. It is certainly sensual.

Another clash of practicality and symbolism: why wipe it off as soon as it has been poured on? True, the perfume — made from an aromatic plant — would have been (for want of a better word) “gunky”. And “a pound” is a lot: a couple of packs of butter gives us a fair impression. It would have been dripping off Jesus. Again, why did she pour the perfume six days before the Passover, when Jesus tells us that she bought it to keep “for the day of my burial” (v.7)?

I have no scholarly answer to such questions. My answers come from imaginative prayer. She wanted to make a dramatic gesture, like Babette’s Feast. Not a parsimonious one like a bishop I once saw baptising someone by dipping his thumb in the font and touching it three times to the candidate’s forehead. Only something spectacular would do to express her feelings. As for the anointing happening six days before the Passover, if the woman took the opportunity to offer her gift — and show her love — earlier than she had planned, she would not be the first gift-giver who simply could not wait another moment.

Finally, a word about v.4 of the psalm. God does not always give us what we want, exactly when we want it. To see what an answer to prayer, after a long wait, looks like, go to youtube: https://youtu.be/bMm8wWNo7cA.

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