Monday of Holy Week
INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
ISAIAH 42:1-9 This is one of four poetic passages in the Book of Isaiah referred to as “The Servant Songs.” They describe Israel’s mission as God’s servant people chosen to bring “light to the nations.” They represent some of the most advanced theology of the Old Testament.
Though composed by an unknown prophet during Israel’s exile in Babylon (586‑539 BC), the early Christian church regarded these poems as prophecies about Jesus, the Messiah/Christ. Some biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus himself adopted these Servant Songs as the pattern for his ministry which began with his baptism by John.
PSALM 36:5-11 The steadfast love of God for Israel and for the whole of creation brings praise to the lips of the faithful and a prayer that this love with continue for “the upright of heart.”
HEBREWS 9:11-15. This brief reading presents another in a long series of arguments for regarding Jesus Christ as the one mediator between humanity and God. It declares the supreme efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in contrast to the repeated sprinkling of the blood of animal sacrifices on the temple altar customary in the Hebrew tradition.
JOHN 12:1-11 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.
The conflict between Jesus and the Jews reached a crucial point with this incident because the raising of Lazarus, Mary’s brother, had drawn many of the people to Jesus.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
|Open passage in new window|
This is one of four poetic passages in the Book of Isaiah referred to as “The Servant Songs.” They describe Israel’s mission as God’s servant people to bring “light to the nations.” Though composed by an unknown prophet during Israel’s exile in Babylon (586-539 BCE) who has been named by scholars as Deutero-Isaiah (or Second Isaiah), the apostolic church appears to have regarded these poems as prophecies of Jesus, the Messiah/Christ.
Arguments have persisted as to who the servant referred to actually was – an individual or the nation as a whole. There is no generally accepted answer to this question. Many OT figures from the patriarchs onward were identified as “servants of Yahweh.” In this instance, it would seem that while vss. 1-4 appear to identify an individual, vss. 5-9 seem to refer to the nation as God’s representative. It is also possible that the latter verses were not part of the original song. Furthermore, it is now thought that the four “Servant Songs” did not necessarily come from the same hand nor were they part of a separate collection included in the Book of Isaiah by the final editor(s). Generally speaking, the nation has been incorporated in an individual in the same way that a monarch incorporates a people – e.g. in the law courts using English Common and Criminal Law, “the Queen vs. Smith and Company.”
Some biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus himself adopted these songs as the model for his ministry which began with his baptism by John. The authors of the four Gospels nowhere cite Jesus himself quoting from these songs. There is little doubt, however, that they had these passages in mind as they told the story of his ministry and passion. (Matt.26:24, 54, 56; Mark 9:12; Luke 18:31, 24:25-27, 46) He alone fulfilled all the qualities ascribed to the Servant. His character completely exemplified the gentleness, righteousness and justice described in this passage, moral qualities which to this poet/prophet come directly from Yahweh. The role of the Servant is clearly defined as creating a new covenant that will bring this knowledge of Israel’s moral monotheism to other nations. At the beginning of the Christian era, some Jews thought of the Servant as the Israel’s Messiah, but surprisingly Christian interpreters dissented from this view until the end of the 18th century.
PSALM 36: 5-11
|Open passage in new window|
The steadfast love of Yahweh for Israel and for the whole of creation brings praise for the goodness of Yahweh to the lips of the faithful. The psalm concludes with a prayer that this love with continue for “the upright of heart.”
This abbreviated reading provides a fascinating counterpoint to the first four verses of the psalm which have been excluded from the lectionary. Most commentators agree that the two parts probably represent two originally separate compositions which a later editor brought together. Yet the two complement each other in such a way that two conflicting ways of life are cast in bold relief. The first (vss. 1-4) is said to belong to the category of Israel’s Wisdom literature, with special affinity for Proverbs. It emphasizes the way in which people of lesser moral character flatter and deceive themselves, and secretly plot mischievous misbehavior. This theme appears to have been picked up in the concluding verses (vss. 11-12). The part included in this reading (vss. 5-11), reflects the sovereignty and universalism of divine providence characteristic of the later prophet-poets like Second Isaiah and Job.
Vss. 10-12 raise a question that still troubles many modern Christians. Does God love only the faithful and morally upright? Is divine love exclusive? The covenant motif of the OT did have a strong ethical component which finds wide expression in the psalms. The opening verses of this psalm exhibit this aspect of the Hebrew tradition. The second part of the psalm reveals a more tolerant view found in the prophecy of Second Isaiah. Vs. 6, for instance, extends Yahweh’s steadfast love to animals as well as humans. Vs. 7 includes all people, not just Israel, within the purview of divine protection and providence.
The New Testament goes much farther.The Gospels in particular show unequivocally that God’s love extends even to those most alienated from God and immoral in their behavior. Is it too much to believe that the words of the Islamic prayer Sadam Hussein offered on the gallows which seconds later ended his life were sincerely offered? However, God loves sinners like us so that we may respond to that love by changing our ways and seeking to follow Jesus in all we say and do. Jesus came to reconcile us all to God by revealing just how much God does love us and wants us to learn from Jesus how to live in a loving relationship with God, with all other people, and with the planet Earth on which we pass our years.
|Open passage in new window|
This brief reading presents another in a long series of arguments for regarding Jesus Christ as the one mediator between humanity and God. It declares the supreme efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in contrast to the repeated sprinkling of the blood of animal sacrifices on the temple altar customary in the Hebrew tradition.
From the internal evidence of this letter, some scholars have concluded that the audience for this whole argument consisted of Jewish Christians who may have been in danger of reverting to Judaism from their recently acquired Christian faith. Others have proposed that these new Christians were not necessarily Jews, but still were in danger of falling away from their earlier confession. The historical-critical data suggests that while no one key to its interpretation has been found, the background of the document may have been some form of Hellenistic religious speculation. Brevard Childs describes it as “a word of encouragement” based on 13:22. (The New Testament
As Canon, Fortress Press, 1984, 404) On the other hand, for Childs, the acceptance of the document by the Christian community was the chief factor in its inclusion the canon. According to Childs, the letter presents a “programmatic statement of the theological relation of the two covenants which receives its content from scripture and not from its historical setting.”
This lectionary reading gives ample support to Childs’ conclusion. In these few verses, the author is saying that atonement for sin, abolishing of guilt, reconciliation with God and sanctification for a new and holy life come only through the sacrifice of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. This is a standard approach to exhortation found in many of the Pauline letters, notably Corinthians and Galatians. We may never be able to penetrate behind this rhetorical situation to determine the historical situation out of which the letter arose.
The author had an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and of the continuity of the Christian faith with those scriptures. He was particularly responsive to the prophetic element in the OT which emphasized the spiritual reality that the living God speaks both judgment and mercy to people with whom God had made an eternal covenant. God’s purpose was to create a faithful people within a renewed creation. This God had accomplished through Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who offered himself as the all-sufficient sacrifice on the cross instead of the repeated sacrifices of the old covenantal system. The task of the Christian believer in this new covenant, therefore, is to accept this new relationship with the living God so provided and to live out this new relationship with purified conscience and grateful worship in the ordinary round of daily life.
|Open passage in new window|
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 a common tradition shared by 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 toJerusalemfor the celebration of the Passover. It is not difficult to see why.Bethanywas a hamlet just over the eastern ridge of theMount of Olives. Today, when one looks eastward toward the Mount of Olives from any vantage point in the city overlooking theKidronValley, 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 two or three kilometres; and less than that from the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
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 by Mary’s affection for Jesus. 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 may have used this as a warning to some of the members of his own diaspora community in the latter 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. Love of riches for their own sake is a notoriously common detractor from sincere faith.
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 anyone in need, large or small, are tokens of our loyalty and commitment, as well as expressions of our love for Christ.
The conflict between Jesus and the Jews reached a crucial point with this incident.
The raising of Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead had confirmed in the minds of many that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. So many had come to believe that it became strategic for the chief priests to plot Lazarus’ death and well as that of Jesus. This set the stage for the final confrontation which would end with the crucifixion. Having played his part in the drama, Lazarus disappeared from the narrative. On the other hand, one noted American scholar, Ben Witherington III, has reopened the question of whether Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple of John’s Gospel and the unnamed source behind the unique traditions of that Gospel. (Biblical Archeology Review. 2:02, Mar/Apr 2006. “Biblical Views: The Last Man Standing.”) It is a provocative opinion which is still quite beyond proof at this stage of scholarly discussion.
Throughout Holy Week our attention is focused on what we call “vicarious sacrifice.” One might well characterize this approach to life as “compassionate care,” but it must be carried out in actions, not abstract words.
This approach to spirituality was expressed most profoundly in the OT in the Servant Songs of Deutero-Isaiah. It also appears with a touch of humour in God’s demands on the prophet Jonah and with grace and kindness in the story of Ruth. It reached its high point in the NT in the death of Jesus on the cross. John 15:13 expressed this attitude most concisely: “There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.” (New English Bible, 1970)
Jesus personified this sacrificial love in the way he lived and died. After his conversion, the Apostle Paul had no other desire than for the same Spirit of Jesus Christ to live in him and he in Christ. It must have been a great sacrifice for him to turn from a brilliant future as a rabbi of the Pharisees to be an itinerant missionary of the Gospel. In the Gospel lesson above, Mary’s gift can be seen in a similar light. Judas Iscariot thought otherwise, but Jesus recognized the sincerity of what Mary had done, rebuked Judas and used the interchange as a teaching moment. The lesson from Hebrews expounds the same truth in its interpretation of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ replacing the annual atoning sacrifices of Israel’s temple liturgy.