Lent 5, Year C
March 16-17, 2013
Here are the readings. Here is a recording!
May only God's Word be spoken, and may only God's Word be heard. Amen.
These 8 verses in John’s Gospel are saturated with symbolism and seasoned with imagery. On the outside it looks like a simple dinner party with friends, but the meal is laced with betrayal and accusation and the guest list includes Israel’s Most Wanted and even...a zombie.
In the chapter before this, Jesus performs a miracle for his friends Martha and Mary. At Jesus’ command, their brother, Lazarus, who’s been dead for four days, comes alive and walks out of his tomb, still wrapped in the cloths they buried him in. That’s right; Jesus’ friend has become a member of the walking dead. Jesus’ popularity, already on the rise, explodes.
Not surprisingly, this terrifies the chief priests and Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders. They are threatened by Jesus’ power and popularity and are fearful of retribution by Rome, a nation not so fond of disturbances within its territories. In order to protect the nation and the temple, the leaders decide that Jesus must be stopped--permanently. They order the people of Jerusalem to inform them of Jesus’ whereabouts so that they can arrest him. The act of bringing someone back to life has set in motion Jesus’ own death.
When today’s passage opens, it is six days before Passover, the religious festival remembering how God brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land. As part of preparation for the festival, Jews able to do so travel to Jerusalem in order to purify themselves. In the midst of all the excitement, there are whispers of whether or not Jesus will dare to show up, now that his life is in danger. Rather than become a fugitive, however, Jesus travels to Bethany, only about two miles away from Jerusalem. He does not shy away from his fate but continues his ministry.
At this meal, waited on by his friend Martha and in the presence of the resurrected Lazarus, he dines with the disciples. Everyone always talks about how beautiful this next part of the passage is, but from the point of view of the people sitting at the table I’m betting the whole situation is pretty awkward…Just imagine it: the guys are having a lively conversation and all of a sudden Jesus’ friend (a woman, no less) walks in and begins to pour perfume on his feet. The men gasp and stop talking, their wine glasses hitting the table as they crane their necks to get a better look. Undaunted, she continues, noticing with sadness the blisters and layers of dust on his tired feet. She gently rubs the oil into them and then takes her hair down and wipes his feet with her hair. Such an intimate gesture is not common among friends, especially friends of different genders. To let her hair down and use it to wipe his dirty feet is to lower herself to the status of servant. It’s unclear whether she is motivated by gratitude for restoring her brother to life or whether this is an act of worship, but regardless, it is a powerful scene.
Judas Iscariot, beginning to get a headache from the strong smell of the perfume, interrupts the moment with a protest. He is upset at what he deems a misuse of money, and no wonder--the perfume is made of nard that comes all the way from India. It’s worth a year’s wages--which, if going by today’s minimum wage standards in Nebraska, translates to roughly $15,000. “Mary, are you crazy? We aren’t exactly rolling in dough here. Just think of how many people we could have helped with that money!!!”
To be fair, Judas does have a point. $15,000 would make a huge impact in their ministry; just think of how many times large crowds follow them around! When faced with such poverty on a regular basis, Mary’s action seems excessive, wasteful. But John (who really doesn’t like Judas--at all) lets us know that Judas isn’t thinking of the poor when makes the accusation. The hypocrisy of complaining of misuse of money while lining his pockets with coins from the common purse is not lost on us.
In response to Judas’ protest, Jesus comes to Mary’s defense: “Leave her alone.” He sees in her action a foreshadowing of his approaching death. Whether or not she knows it, by anointing his feet Mary is preparing him for burial. The very next day Jesus will make his way to Jerusalem, flocked by crowds hailing his arrival with palm branches. By the end of the week his body will be taken off of the cross and placed in a tomb.
“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” This verse has been misused over the centuries to justify indifference toward the less fortunate. But Jesus is not saying to ignore the poor; his entire ministry is focused on the “least of these.” Think of the feeding of the 5,000, the healing of the sick, the simple, nomadic lifestyle he chooses. Jesus is referring here to a verse in Deuteronomy (15:11), which reads, “Since 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.’ ” Fundamentally, Jesus is saying, “Yes, Judas, it is essential that we continue to make helping the poor a priority; this is what I have been teaching you all along. But Mary is right to honor me this way; I’m not going to be here forever. Your work with me will be done soon, and then I’ll need you to continue my ministry after I’m gone.”
We might expect Judas to go storming off in anger, which is what he does in Mark and Matthew’s versions of the Gospel. In their accounts, immediately after the anointing, Judas goes to the chief priests and provides them with information that will lead to Jesus’ arrest. In John’s version, however, while Judas will eventually betray Jesus, he waits around for a few more days before doing it. Surely by now Jesus knows who is going to betray him, and yet, Judas is still included at the table, is still part of the inner circle.
Both Judas in his brokenness and Mary in her extravagant devotion are present at the meal. Sounds a lot like another meal I know of. We have elements of both Mary and Judas within us. Some days we’ll approach the altar with hearts bursting with love and faith that can move mountains. On other days we’ll approach the altar tentatively, our hearts heavy with the knowledge of our brokenness. Either way, all of us are welcome to the table exactly as we are. We know this because we see God’s love revealed in the person of Jesus. Regardless of our faithfulness, God’s love for us is unconditional. And if Jesus can welcome Judas to the table, then there’s room enough for us.