Saturday, March 5, 2016

Devotion and Deceit

I don't suppose there is any clearer illustration of the contrast between devotion and deceit than in John 12:1-8, the gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent in the Year of Luke.  Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazurus, fills the house with the fragrance of the perfume she pours over Jesus' feet, while Judas Iscariot fills the room with fear and hatred as he disingenuously suggests that this perfume might better be sold and the money given to the poor.  Jesus' rebuke is swift:  "Leave her alone!"  And so Jesus' rebuke and commendation come to us in this passage.

(The following questions are a sample from the appendix in my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is present in this text, both commending and rebuking.  He commends Mary for her extravagant act of love and devotion, and he rebukes Judas for his self-righteous suggestion of disingenuous generosity.  In the same way, Jesus both commends and rebukes us when we follow the lead of either Mary or Judas.  There is also something much deeper going here, as suggested by the opening words of this passage: "Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany."  Is this not a hint that the final preparations for the slaughter of the Lamb of God have begun?  So perhaps there is a word of Gospel here - the suble announcement that the Christ is about to be slain for the sins of all the world.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  As I said above, the Gospel is not explicit here, that Word which announces, "Here is Jesus, given for you."  The Word of Law, the Word which says, "You need Jesus," is also not explicit in this text, although the parenthetical comment in verse 6, that Judas was a thief, is a clear statement of Judas' need for a Savior.  This text is unique in that, in its artistry, clear lines of Law and Gospel are not immediately obvious.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices, Judas or Mary.  It is tempting for preachers to identify with Jesus, who rebukes and commends, but as usual, we need to steer clear of that.  If we assume the role of Jesus, then this text becomes simply an opportunity for us to lift up certain behaviors - commending devotion and condemning deceit.  If, on the other hand, we assume the role of Judas or Mary, we can hear these words of rebuke or commendation as to us.  That is much more helpful.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the function of the Word which says, "Follow Jesus."  In some ways this seems obviously how the Word is functioning here.  But rather than being called out of deceit to devotion, perhaps this story calls us followers of Jesus to recognize the beginning of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, and to celebrate that.  Perhaps what is being lifted up here is our predisposition to see God's extravangant love as something wasteful.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Because of the artfulness of this storyteller, we must also think outside the norm to find couplets.  A few ideas:  blind/seeing; lying/truth telling; focused on self/focused on Jesus.

6.  Exegetical work:  It is always important to look at the context of a passage, but with today's reading it is especially important.  In the preceding chapter, John 11, we have the story of the raising of Lazurus of Bethany.  In this passage from chapter 12 we are again back in Bethany, at Lazurus' home.  Lazurus, the raised one, is at table with Jesus. (A foretaste of the feast to come?)  Again, as in chapter 11, there is mention of an aroma.  Here it is the aroma of pure nard; in chapter 11 it is the stench of death.  In chapter 11, the scoffers say, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"  Here the scoffer is Judas: "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"  In this story, the death Jesus speaks of is his own; in the preceding story, it is Lazurus'.   In Peter Ellis' interesting analysis of this story, he suggests that there exists here a chaistic structure that goes from chapter 10:40 to chapter 12:11, with the inclusio being that "many believe in Jesus." (The Genius of John, pg. 177)  If that is true, then it is all the more important to look at this story in the light of all that surrounds it.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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