The Bible passage assigned to this week, the week before Palm Sunday, is the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. In a sense this passage looks skilfully backwards and forwards. Last week was the story of the prodigal (son). Mary is the female incarnation of the father in that story. She too is filled with extravagant love. The story of Mary also looks forward. In washing Jesus’ feet, Mary is acting as a precursor to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the last supper. Mary, in a sense understands the role of true discipleship. The story is also rich with Easter imagery. Jesus is about to be crucified and his body placed in a tomb. The stench of a dead body, like the events involving Lazarus, is contrasted with the sweet smell of perfume that Mary brings to Jesus. However, the main point of this whole passage is the contrast that it draws between Mary and Judas. Mary’s love is extravagant, sincere and selfless. Judas’ actions are stingy, deceitful and self-serving. Yes, there is always a case for good stewardship of resources, but this should not cause us to be mean. Despite the terrible poverty in the world, I still, on occasion, buy my children an ice-cream often when they have done nothing special to deserve it. God is like that with us. Mary was like that with Jesus on this occasion and Jesus recognised in her a true disciple and that is why he commends her.
What is it in our Christian lives that makes us happiest? The Bible reading this week is the parable of the prodigal (son). This is one of Jesus’ greatest parables because in it we see the heart of the Father. The Father delights in a repentant sinner. In the charity CAP, a bell was rung in the head office every time someone came to faith through the ministry of CAP. This must be like the response in heaven as God delights in someone coming to faith. Earlier on in the Biblical narrative, the shepherd goes looking for the one sheep who went astray from the ninety-nine. God is like that. He is passionate about welcoming people into the kingdom from all walks of life, backgrounds and circumstances. Back to the question at the start about what makes us happiest? If we love God, we need to re-discover his heart in ours. His greatest joy should be our greatest joy. How wonderful for everyone, one day, to come to know God as God. We should all strive to hasten that day by every possible means. Or, in the words of the classic hymn by Arthur Campbell Ainger, “nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” That, surely, above all else, should make us happiest.
The Gospel reading for this week is Luke’s account of the barren fig tree. The problem of the fig tree was that it was taking up space and not producing anything. It was taking out more than it was giving back. We are all in debt to life. We came into this world at the peril of someone else’s life and could not have survived without love and care. We also inherit a civilization and a Christian community which we did not create. While we have taken a lot out of life, what have we put back in? The calling of the Christian is to put back in more than we have taken out. However, there is something beautiful at the end of this parable. Although the fig tree has given no fruit in 3 years, the gardener wants to give it another chance. A fig tree takes 3 years to reach maturity. If it doesn’t produce fruit in 3 years it probably never will. But, with extra help and fertilizer, it may! God is the gardener and he wants to give it a fourth year – just in case. If we fail in our normal life-times, God wants to give us another opportunity to turn it around. However, there is also a warning contained in these words. Yes, we have a second chance with God but, there is a final reckoning. If we continue to reject God and do not turn our lives around then, like the fig-tree, we will be cut down. Let us seize the opportunity to bear fruit while we still have the chance.
In the Bible reading this week we have a perfect fusion of both bravery and tenderness. Some Pharisees came to warn Jesus that King Herod was out to kill him. It is an extraordinary story because it clearly shows that some of the Pharisees were on Jesus’ side. Jesus’ reply is equally remarkable. He publicly calls King Herod a fox. For the Jew, the fox was considered a worthless and destructive animal. For Jesus, the only king he sought to please was the King of Kings. But the story also shows Jesus’ tenderness. Jesus says about Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather together your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” This tends to indicate that Jesus made many visits to Jerusalem before this point in his ministry and yet the synoptic Gospels do not record them. Once again, we are made aware that in the Gospels we have the merest sketch of Jesus’ life. It is a remarkable life of such great passion, love, courage and bravery. As we journey through Lent, it is worth forgoing all the world’s values of coercion, destruction and selfishness to focus on the person of Jesus who encapsulates courage, bravery and tenderness.
On Sunday, I was privileged to be able to worship at a baptismal service where a large number of new Christians confidently articulated their faith and made their baptismal vows. One of these vows was a commitment to fight the devil. In this first Sunday of Lent we have the amazing story of how Jesus did precisely this whilst in the wilderness for 40 days. It is the most sacred of stories because it could only have been told by Jesus to his disciples who subsequently wrote it down. The wilderness was between the inhabited plateau of Judea and the Dead Sea. It was an area of over 500 square miles of barren land which was like a heat furnace during the day. The ground was not dust or sand but rather bits of limestone, shaped like loaves. Hence the devil says to Jesus, why don’t you turn these stones into bread? These are the shapes that Jesus would have seen all around him as he walked along and, in his acute hunger, his brain would have dreamed of them as being loaves of bread. The temptation for the church is to bribe people into faith by offering Christianity as a vehicle to material possessions. Christianity makes you richer, but not in material possessions. Humanity can never find fulness in material things. In this season of Lent, we give up physical pleasures to remind ourselves of this fact. Just like those new Christians who made their baptismal vows, following Jesus is fundamentally a spiritual transformation because “man does not live by bread alone.”
How clearly do we see God’s plans? In the New Testament reading this week, the Apostle Paul uses the idea of a veil to illustrate the problems we may face in this regard. Paul suggests that his legalistic compatriots were reading the scriptures with a veil covering them. As a result, they could not see clearly what God was saying to them with regard to their salvation through Jesus Christ. What about us? Perhaps we read the Bible only to confirm our existing views rather than to be challenged by new ideas. Perhaps we only use the Bible to find what we want to find and not what is actually there. We may delight in reading about the mercy of God but ignore his call to holiness in our lives. If we persist in only reading parts of the Bible that we enjoy and are familiar with, then we run the real risk of not clearly seeing God. Like Paul’s contemporaries, we may be blind to the true meaning of salvation through Jesus Christ.