17 march 2013/lent 5C - John 12:1-11
It is six days before Passover, or the night before Palm Sunday, making it 12 days before Good Friday, and thus 15 days before the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is in Bethany at the home of Lazarus in a story that centers on his sisters Martha and Mary. Previously in chapter 11 it is described as the home of Martha and Mary in a story that centers on Lazarus in which Lazarus, who had been dead , anointed and in a tomb for four days – long enough for Martha to point out in the finest phrasing of King James English, “Lord, he stinketh!” – stumbles out of his tomb very much alive.
A link is made, therefore, between the life and resurrection of Lazarus and the life and death of Jesus, as Mary is pictured at Jesus’ feet, anointing, massaging, his feet with the oil of the spikenard plant – an aromatic ointment that grows above 3,000 feet in places like the Himilayas, making it a rare and expensive import, used in perfumes, medicinal ointments, and to prepare bodies for burial hopefully to stave off the fate of those like Lazarus who after a few days “stinketh.”
After giving Lazarus new life, with his and Lazarus’ lives under threat by those in the employ of the Roman occupation, Jesus had left Bethany for some time in the nearby wilderness. Jesus is flesh and blood, and has been walking great distances on dusty, rocky roadways and paths, presumably wearing only sandals, if that. Is it too much to assume that having Mary massage and perfume his tired feet with her hands and wipe them with her hair might feel really really good? The Greek word ekmasso, to wipe, is the same verb used in the Fourth Gospel to describe Jesus washing the disciple’s feet at the Last Supper (John 13). Jesus’ command that disciples must be those people who wash one another’s feet is then presaged and demonstrated by Mary’s devotion of gratitude and love toward Jesus.
While Mary attends to Jesus’ physical needs, we are told, quite simply, that “Martha served,” and that Lazarus sat at table with him. It ought to be duly noted that later in this same chapter 12 Jesus states, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am my servant will be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor (12:26).” Thus, Martha’s service becomes another model act of discipleship, again before Jesus speaks on the subject. [Gail O’Grady, John, Westminster John Knox Press,Louisville:2006 – p.123]
In addition to the four of them being friends, it may be construed that this family of two sisters and a brother are grateful for what Jesus has done for Lazarus – that this is a meal of thanksgiving, and that the sisters in particular serve and attend to Jesus out of sheer gratitude and love. The only other person identified as being present is Judas, “who was about to betray him.” Unlike the sisters, the only disciple present is shown to be acting in ways utterly unlike those expected of disciples of Jesus.
Unable to grasp what is happening at this thanksgiving meal and celebration of new life, Judas complains that using the costly spikenard ointment is wasteful. After all, it cost upwards of 300 denari, or nearly a year’s wages for the average worker. This money, he argues, could have been used for taking care of the poor. The editors of John insert, “But he said this not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put in it.” Judas, as we all know, is only in it for the money. And, evidently, either has not been paying attention to the several times Jesus has alluded to his soon to be accomplished death on a Roman Cross, or has no real grasp of the consequences of his own upcoming actions.
No doubt with some sense of resignation and tedium at having to repeat himself, Jesus says, “Let her be – leave her alone. She only bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
It was the late Kurt Vonnegut, who in a Palm Sunday sermon points out that this can come across as somewhat of a joke – albeit a dark one at that. Vonnegut also points out that whatever Jesus said, it was in Aramaic, translated into Koine Greek by the evangelist, and later rendered in archaic English before presenting itself in its more familiar rendering in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). And that when it comes to translation, jokes are the first to go!
Unfortunately, as Vonnegut also observes, this statement – which in one sense is a statement of fact since Judas appears not to “have” Jesus at all, but rather sees Jesus as a means to a monetary end – has often been paraphrased by those who want to blame the poor for being poor as meaning something like, “The poor are hopeless, we will always be stuck with them.” Which inevitably leads to the kind of talk that says the poor are lazy, or dumb, have too many children, drink too much, do drugs, cheat the government, and somehow still manage to drive around in Cadillacs.
What are you worried about, Judas? There will be plenty of poor people for you to serve and care for after I am gone. Why, you could be out there serving them right now. Can’t you see, Mary and Martha are acting out of love and devotion, and you can only think about your greedy little self? There are people right outside the door just waiting to kill me and Lazarus (verse 11). Lazarus, the silent one over here, is still adjusting to new life. I have been walking from pillar to post to proclaim my Father’s message of mercy, love, justice and reconciliation for all people, including our enemies. Tomorrow I am walking into Jerusalem to confront the rulers of this age and my certain death. Mary gets it. Martha gets it. Lazarus gets it. Some of the folks outside the door get it. Are you really the only one here that still does not see why I am here? This is a thanksgiving meal. We all give thanks that Lazarus is still among us. Could you please just for one moment not think about the bottom line, but try to live into this moment of mercy and grace? The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.
Vonnegut concludes that this is a Christian joke, “which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him about his hypocrisy all the same.” [Hypocrites You Always Have With You, The Nation, April 19, 1980-p.469]
We might wonder just why it is that Lazarus, who in a sense is the central character of chapters 11 and 12, is depicted as never saying a word in the midst of all of this: being set free from the tomb, given new life from having been dead, to having Jesus in his home, at his table, sharing a meal – a celebration of thanksgiving for the Lord who offers to sit with each of us every moment of every day. Thanksgiving, by the way, is the translation of the word Eucharist, the ancient Greek word used in the early church to describe Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, Mass. This last, Mass, itself from the Latin word for dismissal, the final action of the weekly Eucharistic Feast – that moment when those who do choose to sit with Jesus at table week in and week out are sent back out into the world, into the mission field, to serve those Jesus loved – the poor, the widow, the orphan and the resident alien. We can always have Jesus – provided we choose to go where he goes and serve those he serves. If only Judas could have seen this. If only he could have known. Yet, we must never forget, as St. Luke observes in the first chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, “he was numbered among us.” May his loss be our gain.
Judas, and all of us, might benefit from Lazarus’ silence. Sometimes it is better to say nothing and just listen. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am my servant will be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor (12:26).” Amen.