Kris Litman-Koon, Columbia, SC

Warm-up Question

What are some customary ways that our culture “pays respect” upon the death of an individual?

Show Some Respect!

Recently, a student from McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, NY caught wind of a ministry in Ohio that he felt could be done with some of his friends. So he recruited some fellow classmates to begin a unique ministry: students volunteering to serve as pall bearers for deceased homeless individuals.

shutterstock_92893804Those of us who have families on whom we can depend may not be aware that there are plenty of others in our society who – for various reasons – no longer have a family or friends for support. If homelessness becomes a part of the equation and the individual dies, there might not be a known next-of-kin. In these circumstances, little can be afforded to “pay respect” to the individual and often there is no one in attendance at the burial.
The students from McQuaid desired to change that in their community. They let it be known that they are willing to serve as pall bearers for homeless individuals in their hometown. It would be their way of showing respect for a life that should not be defined by the fact that this person died in a state of homelessness.

Recently, the students were able to act on their offer to be pall bearers. A local shelter reached out to the students to see if they would help with the burial of a man known as Big Shawn. The students agreed, and McQuaid senior Andrew Vaccaro reflected, “We all went into it with the understanding that we were doing something that was sacred for this person.”

Not only did the students carry the coffin to the grave, but they learned about Big Shawn’s life and they offered their own prayers. “We had an image of a person that needed people,” said Vaccaro. “Being able to do that service for him in the end was an incredibly powerful thing.” Fellow student Ian Gonzalez added, “Hopefully we can show these people respect in life, not only after they die.”

Discussion Questions

  • What are some words that you would use to describe the actions of these student volunteers from McQuaid?
  • Although Big Shawn and others may die in homelessness, do you think their story is bigger than that?
  • Openly reflect on the ways that the community of people around you – family, friends, school, congregation, etc. – supports you in various ways. Are you able to fathom not having any of that support network in your life?
  • Do you think Big Shawn would appreciate the actions of these strangers? How are the actions of the students reflective of Christian thinking? [The poor are not lesser people; all life is valued; God is capable of making community where there once was no hope of community.]

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 43:16-21

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

In our gospel passage, Mary takes costly perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet with it, even using her hair to do so. This is her way of showing her deep appreciation to Jesus (he had recently raised her brother, Lazarus, from the dead). In verse seven, Jesus reveals to us that this act of anointing is a way of preparing for Jesus’ own burial, whether Mary knew that or not. In our language today, this was an act is one way of “paying respect.”

Judas has a fit over Mary’s display of reverence. His argument is that the money for the oil would be best used for the poor. That is his public argument, but we are told his intentions were to keep the money for himself. Jesus disputes Judas, saying, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
So we have two themes that unfold in this gospel passage. First, we can discuss Mary’s use of her resources when she decides to show reverence to Jesus by anointing his feet with costly oil. Second, we have Jesus making a statement about the poor among us. Are these two themes opposed to one another? I don’t believe they are. Are these themes related? I believe the answer is yes.

When Jesus disputes Judas, Jesus is paraphrasing a section of scripture (in bold) from Deuteronomy 15. In this section of Hebrew scripture, the people are being reminded of God’s generous offerings to them, notably their release from Egyptian slavery, and how God’s generosity should be the source of their generosity.
7If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. 10Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
~Deuteronomy 15:7-11

Note the ending of that statement: because the poor will always be present, “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” It can be easy to misinterpret Jesus’ statement in John 12:8 as an excuse to not care for the poor, but that is not his point. His point is that the act of anointing was to prepare him for his burial. This anointing is a timely act of reverence, and therefore should be done. Deuteronomy 15:7-11 informs us that the Israelites could show their reverence to God through the way that they thought about and responded to those in need in their communities.

What does all this mean for us today? As Christians, we have been brought into the fold of God’s people through baptism. Our lives – similar to the lives of the Israelites – are lived in response to the grace and generosity that God shows us. Everything in our lives – including life itself – are gifts from God, and we are supposed to be tend to these gifts and see that they are used properly, because they ultimately belong to God.

This means that the way we live our lives is a way of showing reverence to God. Since showing reverence to God is at the heart of what worship is, the way you live your life is an act of worship. All of the ways that you spend your time, your talents, and your treasures (or “the time, talents, and treasures that God has entrusted to you”) are important to God because through all of these you are capable of showing reverence to God.

The point Jesus makes in the gospel passage is that Mary is showing reverence to God by her act of anointing Jesus’ feet with oil. The way that we live our lives should show reverence to God in all the things that we do. This includes (but is not limited to) the way that we view and interact with individuals who are poor in our communities. The act of the McQuaid students to be pall bearers for their community’s homeless individuals is a choice of how they use their time and talents in order to show reverence to God and to God’s values. Ultimately, the students’ actions are an act of worship directed toward God.

Discussion Questions

  • The gospel passage tells us how Mary responded to Jesus raising Lazarus, and it tells us how Judas responded to Mary anointing Jesus’ feet. There were also other people present in the story: Martha, Lazarus, and presumably other disciples. Put yourself in their shoes; how would you have responded to the raising of Lazarus and to the anointing?
  • Why do you think it is so easy to be “hard-hearted or tight-fisted” (Deut. 15:7) toward others around us? What does this say about our view of ownership of our possessions; are they ours, or do they belong to God? If they are God’s, what does it mean that they are entrusted to us?
  • Name some of the common ways that we use our time, talents, and treasures in any given day (e.g. studying, meals, conversations, etc.). With these in mind, what are some ways that we show our reverence to God through these common activities, and what are some ways that we might fail to be reverent?

Activity Suggestion

Brainstorm together some ways that individually and collectively you can “open your hand” (Deut. 15:8) of time, talents, and treasures to live out God’s values of generosity. What are some ideas that you have for showing reverence to God through your care of others, especially those in need in your community?

Closing Prayer

Pray together the prayer “Blessed are you, O God” on page 107 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. This prayer is written for the beginning of the communion liturgy, but it speaks of the generous gifts that God gives us, and how these gifts are intended to be used.