March 17, 2013, Fifth Sunday in Lent
Year C, Lent V
March 17, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
It is a little discombobulating, how the Lenten lectionary is laid out for us this year. We have not followed Jesus and his friends on their journey chronologically or geographically. Lent, in Year C, is St. Luke, and is expressed rather thematically, but this week, we are plopped into St. John’s narrative in Bethany, on the doorstep of Jerusalem. The scene is six days out from the Passover, much as we are a seven days out from Holy Week, our Christian nod to the Passover remembrances. We find ourselves scripturally with Christ at the final push before the tragedy and loss of Holy Week, preludes to the mystery and joy of the Easter event. And St. John paints for us quite a scene in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
Who were Mary, Martha and Lazarus? _____ They were siblings. Lazarus, most famously, was raised by Jesus from the dead. Remember, everyone complained about the smell? But it worked out. And Mary and Martha? In Luke, they hosted Jesus in their home. Martha bustled around the kitchen while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to His teaching which rather annoyed her sister, but when she complained to the Rabbi He pointed out how distracted Martha was, how all over the place she was and that “…Mary has chosen the better part and that will not be taken away from her.” I am just glad that it is Martha and Mary, not Martha and Gary because we men-folk would never hear the end of that one. Basically, they were part of the community that Jesus formed around Himself. They were supporters of the movement, housing and feeding them when they were in town, maybe gathering friends and family in Bethany to hear Him preach, or maybe to talk or pray together when He was not there. Probably they raised money, too.
There is deep humanness in this story, not just John 12:1-8, but the whole of the Gospels, the whole of the Bible, actually. Remember, Jesus is a person, a man. Fully human and fully divine; you can’t realize your full humanity, facing death, facing pain and loss and joy and happiness if you somehow also floated above it as God. No, to be human is to be in this morass with the rest of us. And Jesus Christ was up to his neck in humanity, I can’t imagine that He fully understood the depth of His true divinity. The humanity of it all is incredibly important to remember as we involve ourselves in the Gospel. This is not a story about them, the Holy ones, Others… no, the Gospels, the Bible is about us, people, living our lives in our own extraordinary times and places.
This story today focuses our attention on the full humanity of two people who don’t usually get a fair shake. Adoring Mary and famously horrible Judas. These two people, like any of us, do not lend themselves to a single frame interpretation.
Adoring Mary. We know very little about Mary, other than that she must have been a force to reckon with in her day because not many women are mentioned in the gospels and even fewer by name. She must have been influential, important to the movement during the life of Jesus and probably afterwards, too. She was a listener. Maybe a contemplative. Sitting at the feet of a Rabbi is a contemplative act. And she listened, deeply. Jesus had been speaking of his coming death and this whole nard anointing unmistakably alludes to the preparation of a body for burial. She listened to Him, heard Him and did what she could do. And what could she do? Love Him; care for Him as she knew how and was able.
Mary could have been a flake, lazy or just plain irresponsible. Again in this scene, Martha is doing the serving while Mary anoints Jesus with 300 Denari a pound perfume. A denari was a day’s wage… this stuff was expensive, extravagantly expensive. What help could we offer with $20,000? Folks here complained about a $250,000 organ. What if I picked out some $5,000 vestments? Or we wanted antique salvaged teak for the building addition we are envisioning? Yes, probably the same reaction that Judas had to this extravagance. Mary was a whole person.
So was Judas the Betrayer. Unlike Mary, most everything we think we know about Judas is negative. He betrayed Jesus to the collaborationist Temple authorities who betrayed Him to their masters, the Romans. He was paid off with unclean blood money. And depending on the account, he hung himself, his bowels exploded or even worse depending on the source. He was very bad, betraying God with a kiss. Now if that kiss was the will of God because Jesus needed to be betrayed in order to die in order to be raised, I just don’t know, it is a slippery slope into very bad theology. It would be like saying that the Holocaust had to happen so that Israel could be founded so that the end times could begin in a Jewish Jerusalem. It doesn’t make sense; or at least it doesn’t make sense in relation to the God that I know and follow.
But there is another side of Judas. The pragmatist. To him, maybe the nard worth a year’s salary was just another foolish, pie in the sky, out of touch with reality decision that his companions are making. Another bad decision in a line of bad decisions by a bunch of flaky activists. “Why are we even going to Jerusalem?” I can imagine him asking. “Are we idiots? Are you, Lord? We’re going to lose this fight.” He kept the purse maybe not because he was stealing it, but because no one else could handle it. He knew what he was doing.
Judas was a Zealot. What was that? ____ A radical anti-Roman sect advocating tossing the Empire (and the collaborators) out of Palestine. Zealots led the 66 – 70 revolt. He was a serious revolutionary. He had been in movements for a long time and I can imagine him bristling at the naiveté, or even incompetence of his fellow apostles, or at least at this twit Mary. $20,000 on His feet? Urrrgh!!! My new favorite theologian remarks regarding Judas, “only fools follow lost causes.” Maybe he wasn’t a fool. Maybe the betrayal was a last ditch effort to save the movement. “Jesus is great, but He’s dangerous. We need him out of the way if we are going to really take on the Romans.” And the cause here sure looks lost from our vantage point; what it must have looked like in a pre-resurrection world?
We have two people finding themselves in a very dangerous, very stressful moment in time. Someone they love, a community they believe in, a movement, a way of life they are risking their lives for was at a crossroads. Two good people came to very different conclusions about what was to be done. And in this very case, who’s to say which had it right? Well, Jesus tells us, but these are real people.
I have been talking recently about how we know right from wrong when we see it. We know good. We know evil. Right? We can smell it; it is a faculty we have been blessed with (well blessing or not, that depends on how you read Genesis.) We do know right from wrong, but rarely are the actionable options before us easy to differentiate.
We all know that poverty is terrible, it needs to be ended, but how? Or homelessness, or federal budget woes or guns or your husband’s drinking, your daughters refusal to speak with you, the cat peeing on the couch. All terrible things, but what to do about it? What do we do about complex, dynamic problems involving other human beings? In short, how do we approach anything of importance?
Now if I had a definitive answer to this I’d have done better in that election in Rome this week. I struggle with this every day in my life and ministry. Do you think I preach a hard sermon like last week’s lightly? I say some crazy stuff from up here, crazy because it is not stuff you are hearing elsewhere, and I am always wondering, “Is this too much?” “Is this about me and my opinions or about the Gospel and the movement of the Holy Spirit in this community right now?” Is this village the right way to approach homelessness? I don’t know. I know what is happening now doesn’t work. Ask anyone on the street if you doubt me. So we might as well try something different, right? How do we know what we are doing is right?
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” St. Irenaeus observed this truth in the 2nd century and it stands today. You have the answers. You… They live in your being. Maybe not on the tip of your tongue, but in the blood that flows in your veins. Maybe you can’t tap the truth out on a keyboard but it is apparent in the living of your life. In breathing in and breathing out, truth manifests; it is encoded in you, in each of us, in the creation of the universe. Being fully alive, being fully yourself, opening yourself to encounter this world real time; that is the expectation and the answer. No matter how scary or painful it can be, no matter how tempting it may seem, no matter how many times you have fallen flat on your face, all God in Christ expects of us is to be who we were created to be. You are a most precious Child of God. Being that is being the truth, and the truth will set us free, free of doubt and fear, free of hatred and misunderstanding. Mary and Judas came to radically different conclusions about what to do in that moment so long ago. But what they did, what they chose reflects precisely them being the fully alive human beings that they were made to be. May we have that courage to be, too. AMEN