Isaiah 43:16-21 Psalm 126 Philippians 3:4b-14
As the season of Lent takes us closer to the death and resurrection of Jesus, today’s texts sound different and distinctive notes. The Old Testament reading and the psalm proclaim, look forward to, and pray for God’s salvation of the people. The mood is joyful. The New Testament readings are not so clear. Paul’s letter to the Philippians announces the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ, affirming his faith in the resurrection, and – with a note of warning – calling for his readers to press on with him and hold true. In the Gospel, we see Mary’s love for her Lord, but also a foreshadowing of Judas’ treachery and the death of Jesus.
The pilgrimage toward Easter has taken us almost to Palm Sunday, which is next Sunday. It is so appropriate that we come to it with a Gospel message that prompts us to think of Jesus preparing for death. Previously in John 11, we experience the death and raising of Lazarus. And it is this event that encourages the plot against Jesus’ life. The story seems to be about the death and raising of Lazarus, but just beneath the surface we see the deeper subject – the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. Next Sunday we will hear the “Hosannas”. We know what is to happen, but the disciples do not. A similar anointing story also appears in Matthew and Mark. John’s event is different, it happens before Jesus enters Jerusalem. All the accounts speak of the anointing with nard. Nard is a fragrant ointment imported from the mountains of India. That made it very expensive. Mary has purchased the very best for Jesus. The amount that Mary used was worth a year’s wages.
Jesus’ final words, “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me,” place in tension her pure personal adoration for Jesus and her social responsibility. To acknowledge the endless needs of the poor was not unusual. Jesus’ presence among the poor is unique. This is not to deny our responsibility to the poor, but it alerts us to the wonder of who Mary and Martha are hosting this day.
As we revel in Mary’s devotion to Jesus, her demonstration of that devotion is breathtaking, but then we are struck with Judas’ comments and attitude. Judas’ comments would have likely been echoed by church members today. “Can’t we do something for the poor with the money instead of fixing the office window? We could feed the hungry or house the homeless.” But if we had Jesus among us today, wouldn’t we be tempted to show our love in some similar extravagant way? Much like with Bishop Frank last Sunday!
Judas was the treasurer. He knew what they had and what they needed. He often dipped into the disciples’ money bag for his own use. There never was an audit. Jesus probably knew what Judas was doing, but never said or did anything about it. Judas uses a pious phrase to hide his true motives. But Jesus knew what was in his heart. Just as Jesus knows our hearts. Judas’ life had become a lie. He was already being pulled off the path as a follower of Jesus. He was being tempted by Satan to turn against Jesus. Jesus wasn’t who Judas expected as the Messiah. The Messiah was to return Israel to a place of power, military might and wealth. But we know that the Messiah is to be a suffering servant.
It is easy to overlook the fact that Jesus chose Judas to be his disciple. We may also forget that while Judas betrayed Jesus, all of the disciples abandoned him. The only disciple standing at the foot of the cross was John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. With the other disciples, Judas shared a persistent misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission. They all expected Jesus to make the right political moves. When he kept talking about dying, they felt varying degrees of anger, fear, and disappointment. They didn’t understand why they had been chosen if Jesus’ mission was doomed to fail.
We don’t know the exact motivation behind Judas’ betrayal. But we do know that someone had to play that role, the role of the betrayer. To have everything play out as it did, someone had to betray Jesus to the authorities. What we do know is that Judas allowed his desires to place him in a position where Satan could manipulate him. Judas accepted payment to set Jesus up. He identified Jesus to the guards in the dimly lit Garden of Gethsemane.
John’s Gospel has the anointing of Jesus happening between the raising of Lazarus, the event that led to the decision to kill Jesus, and his entry into Jerusalem, the occasion on which Jesus announced that the hour of his death had come.
The place of the anointing is Bethany, where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. According to John, Jesus knew that calling Lazarus out of the tomb meant that the Son of God would have to enter the tomb so that life would be given, not to Lazarus alone, but to the world. In his words, the Son of God would be glorified as a result of the event in Bethany. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was from Bethany, not Galilee. In John’s account, the crowds were already in the city and were not followers from Galilee. The excitement had been generated by the reports of raising Lazarus and the resulting plots against both of their lives. Bethany, the city of Lazarus, figures now into the death of Jesus.
Another signal that the anointing is a passion story is its location at Passover time. Passover is, for John, death time: the cleansing of the temple, with its prophecy of Jesus’ death is a Passover story; the feeding of the five thousand, with its message of Jesus’ life-giving death, is a Passover story, and of course, Jesus died as the Passover lamb.
The fourth indicator that the anointing points to Jesus’ death is at the banquet table itself. Not only is Lazarus there, the one whose life sets in motion the forces against Jesus, but Judas is also present. This dark intruder upon this scene of life and joy in the home of the grateful family casts the shadow of the approaching death of Jesus across the table.
And finally, there is the statement of Jesus himself to the effect that what Mary did was for “the day of my burial” – not that it was Mary’s intention to anoint Jesus for burial. This is an act of hospitality, love and gratitude for Jesus. In John’s writings, words and deeds have meaning far beyond the intentions of those who speak and act. We speak and act in ways we think most appropriate for the occasion. We may never know what lives are influenced, what differences are made because God takes a word spoken, a gift given, a hand extended, an effort begun, and gives it a life and a power far beyond our intention and expectation.
I was delighted when I ran across StoryCorps. StoryCorps’ mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” StoryCorps began in Grand Central Terminal in New York City in 2003 when two people were interviewed and asked to tell their story. It began with people telling the person with them what they meant to them – how they had impacted their lives - words that they may not have spoken if not given the opportunity.
After the contentious campaign and election in 2016, they realized they needed to do more to inform and heal the country. The growing divisions in our country posed a threat to who we are as a nation. “One Small Step” “brings people with different political views together to record a 50-minute conversation – not about politics, but about who we are as people. Each conversation is archived at the Library of Congress.”
“One Small Step” is based on “contact theory”, which states that meaningful interaction between people with opposing views can help turn “them” into “us.” One Small Step’s scientific and systematic approach is supported by a group of advisors that include scientists, researchers, and psychologists. It isn’t the advice of the experts that I celebrate, but the wisdom of Jesus. Jesus knew about “contact theory” when he touched the lepers and ate with tax collectors and sinners. It wasn’t about judging them, but about getting to know them – seeing their humanity, seeing them as children of God – and loving them without judgment. We can take one small step in moving more toward Jesus and what he offers for all of us.
Yes, we have a choice in how we share in our lives – our gifts, our time, our money. We can be hoarders or sharers. Yes, we are called to be followers of Jesus. Jesus shared his whole life. On this one occasion, he received an amazing display of love. He felt Mary’s love and devotion and appreciation for all that he had done for her family and for so many others. He felt that appreciation as the nard dripped from his feet and the fragrance filled the house. There was love in the air. That is what we are called to do….to live fully and to love wastefully. Not to neglect the poor, but to show our love in actions, words, and responses. To be Jesus to others…to give and receive love. You can almost smell it in the air! Amen.