Lent 5, March 17, 2013
Today we dip into the gospel of John. Which is a little surprising since most of this year we are reading from Luke. But we get a little of John every year, which says something about its importance as well as its uniqueness.
The gospel of John has a different language world. The viewpoint is vast. Where Matthew and Luke talk about geography and historical context of Jesus’ birth, John speaks of deep eternity as the well from which Jesus comes. And so often when Jesus speaks in John it is almost as it were from heaven.
But note this, the gospel is a series of personal encounters with Jesus. And here is where I think John is going. As he tells us plainly at the conclusion he wrote the gospel so we could have access to Jesus and come to trust ourselves to him. In that relation we have life that transcends this world, he says. And these personal encounters are entry points for us into a dialogue with Jesus. We can be successful Nicodemus, or ostracized woman at the well. The Scornful Nathaniel or weeping Mary Magdalene. The blind man who grows slowly in faith or the disciple Thomas who is synonymous with doubt.
So here we come to the family of Bethany.
Bethany, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. There is scant mention of Bethany1 in Hebrew scriptures, but it pops up regularly in the New Testament. It is a place on the eastern side of the tree covered Mt of Olives. Its name means house of dates. Only a short walk from the holy city (1 ½ mile). We read it is where Simon the leper lived, that the road to Jericho passed nearby. We read that then Jesus ascended he walked up the Mt of Olives as far as Bethany. It was Bethany where the disciples were told they would find a colt ready for use on Palm Sunday. Bethany. The place where olive groves, date palms and fig trees abounded. 2
And it was in this village where his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. When Jesus came to Jerusalem for any of the big feasts this home provided a treat in the evening. The coffee was always on. There was the smell of home cooking in the kitchen and a fresh pie on the counter. This was the kind of place you could kick off your sandals and be yourself.
John 12 is about a special get together. They are celebrating and especially jolly because of what happened in John 11.
In our lesson Jesus has come back to Bethany where only a short while before he raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus had gotten the message that Lazarus was seriously ill and near death, but he doesn’t budge. Some assumed he was holding back because of all the signs of how authorities were looking to nab him. Herod was on the lookout. The priests had spies.
But when Lazarus dies Jesus abruptly decides to go. Thomas points out the folly but at last consents to come. “Let’s go die with him.”
By the time they arrive the funeral is over. There is still a crowd of mourners. But instead of going in, we read that someone whispered to Martha, “The master has arrived.” And Martha goes out to meet him. A short moment later she come back and whispers to Mary, “Jesus wants to see you.”
Mary quietly and quickly leaves and the crowd assume that she is going to the grave and follows her. That is when the crowd sees Jesus.
And you know the rest. They go to the tomb . Jesus weeps with them all and then he asks for the stone to be rolled away. Martha cautions “It has been four days, Jesus. The corpse will stink. Jesus insists. The tomb is unsealed. Jesus prays and then calls out in a great voice “Lazarus come out.” and the deceased Lazarus come stumbling out , wrapped in bands of burial wrapping.
Everyone was happy, amazed, confounded. Had there ever been such a sight?
Only God could do such a thing. Word spread like wildfire and that very day when Lazarus is raised, a committee of temple authorities meet secretly and decide that Jesus has to be eliminated lest he lead a revolt. But it has to be done carefully, stealthily, so as not to upset the crowd.
Lazarus lives, but now Jesus must die.
Jesus had retreated over the Jordan and was keeping low profile, but now it was 6 days before Passover. One week before the celebration in Jerusalem. And so here he is today back at the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. And they are throwing a party. Shouldn’t they?
Martha was serving– of course. Lazarus was just sitting there in the middle of it all. And that is when it happened in the middle of that meal of thanksgiving, that feast for victory over death, Mary slipped out and returned with a little jar of nard. Spikenard, distilled from the roots of a flower from the steppes of India. immensely expensive. A kilo cost a years salary. One of the eleven spices used in temple incense. It is twice mentioned in the Song of Songs as bedecking the lovers. Achilles perfumed the corpse of his dead comrade Patroclus with it.
Mary did something no one there ever forgot. She opened that jar, a big jar for such a spice. And she anointed Jesus’ feet.
Now a king was crowned by anointing the head with oil. A priest was consecrated by anointing of the head. But anointing the feet– well that is something you do for the dying or the dead.
Not only did she pour out this expensive perfume she sopped up the extra with her unbound hair. The odor filled the room.
What is going on? A few days later Jesus would echo this action in the upper room when he wrapped himself in a towel and stoop to was the feet of his disciples. He would ask, “Do you know what I have done? I have enacted service and love for you. Now go and give yourself in service and love to each other.”
Love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than to lay down his life for his friend. …You are my friends.”
Peter would be embarrassed when Jesus bent down to serve him.
Jesus was about to give extravagantly.
Mary is expressing love to the one who had always treated her graciously, and taken her seriously and been a friend who had risked his life to come raise to life her brother Lazarus.
Judas complains that this perfume could have been sold for 300 dinarii and the money used for the poor. And of course this is true. But it misses the truth of the moment. And it is ironic that Judas who complains about misuse of 300 denarii is willing to sell Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. What is Jesus worth to each of them?
“A few years ago there was a true story about a man in New York City who was kidnapped. His kidnappers called his wife and asked for a $100,000 ransom. She talked them down to $30,000.
The story had a happy ending: the man returned home unharmed, the money was recovered, and the kidnappers were caught and sent to jail. But, don’t you wonder what happened when the man got home and found that his wife got him back for a discount?
Calvin Trillin was the writer of this story. He imagined out loud what the negotiations must have been like: “$100,000 for that old guy? You have got to be crazy. Just look at him! Look at that gut! You want $100,000 for that? You’ve got to be kidding. Give me a break here. $30,000 is my top offer.”
Mark Trotter concluded his rendition of the story with this thoughtful comment: “I suppose there are some . . . who can identify with the wife in that story, but for some reason I find myself identifying with the husband. I’d like to think if I were in a similar situation, there would be people who… wouldn’t haggle over the price. They wouldn’t say, ‘Well, let me think about it.’ I like to think that they would [think “whatever it takes”]
There is a place for calculations, but Judas misses the point. Sometimes we act extravagantly to express what is too huge to be put in words.
As for Judas’ comment on the poor. There is always a place for helping the poor and working for those in crisis in the name of Jesus. As much as we do it to the least of these, we do it for Jesus. But in the meantime there are time for Bethany.
Jesus says “I am here right now and soon I will die, and she has seized the moment to do something wonderful for me, and I won’t let you pour cold water on that.”
Sometimes the love, the gratitude we have for the Lord needs to be expressed with great abandon Sometimes we express that love in hard practical works of benevolence and sometimes we express it in ecstatic pouring out of the soul, in music and dance and adoration.
Mary uses the intimate language of touch and smell.
What do we do after we have been given life back? Lazarus is present with Jesus, Martha is serving, Mary gives. Presence, service, giving– all sides of our response to what the Lord has done for us.
Judas cannot understand such giving. He is counting pennies. He sees all that going down the drain. And he objects. We could have held on to it a while. It sounds so prudent. reasonable, good planning.
But holding on too much– never letting go?
Then we fail when the thing we are called to is extravagant sacrifice.
During Lent we talk about giving up, denial of ourselves, and is possible to see this as a terrible restriction on delights. But Mary shows that giving up can be a joyful expenditure which imparts a sweet smell to all around. Not the stink of death but the perfume of the spirit.
Nathan Nettleton: So what this story and Jesus’s attitudes and behaviour within it are pointing to is that extravagant expressions of love and generosity are a sign of the kingdom of God, the new incoming culture of God. And by contrast, as important and laudable as it is to have a concern to avoid waste and make as much as possible of our resources available to the poor, as soon as that turns into a miserly preoccupation that frowns on every pleasure or indulgence and wants to ration out everything in scrupulously measured and accounted handfuls, it undermines its own purpose and becomes destructive of hope and joy and life itself.
Not saving up our lives for an emergency later but giving what we can now. Something of Mary’s no holding back kind of sacrifice is the proper celebration of grace.
As Christ poured out himself on the cross, as Mary poured out her precious oil, so we are bid to spend our lives.
Lottie Moon who poured her life out for Chinese, starving herself quietly to have food to give the hungry children.
Albert Schweitzer giving up the career of concert and scholarship to bury his life in bringing health to the sick in isolated jungles. Dorothy Day who gave up her life and comfort to care for homeless and hungry.
There is something of Jesus in each person who for the sake of love has given up what they hold precious to pour out themselves in gratitude for the gifts Christ gives.
In this “now,” this moment, there shall be what beauty we can offer. And love will pour itself out without holding back.
Six days is all that is left till that fateful day– but Mary has Jesus today and she will demonstrate love and celebrate that Lazarus is alive and Jesus is right here right now.
There is a moment when we too are impractical and extravagant.
When the only proper response is killing the fatted calf and hiring musicians.
Paul Tillich called it holy waste. This pouring of resources into a moment of beauty and worship.
Six days shalt thou work. The Seventh day is to act as if you didn’t have to work. To waste time in holy worship, to give so worship is adorned. To give so others may have.
Life doesn’t wait till heaven to celebrate the joy which is part of this moment, this time. AMEN.
For further reflection:
DURWOOD L. BUCHHEIM In the delightful book, Zorba the Greek, the main character is certainly no Mary, but there are striking similarities. Zorba is impulsive, spontaneous and irresponsible, but at the same time he is warm and loving. Zorba’s uptight boss is envious of Zorba’s attitude, but he can’t break the tight string of respectability and responsibility. Zorba describes him in this fashion:
A man’s head is like a grocer; it keeps accounts. I’ve paid so much and earned so much and that means a profit of this much or a loss of this much. The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string.
And the Boss responds:
All that Zorba said was true. As a child I had been full of mad impulses, superhuman desires, I was not content with the world. Gradually, as time went by, I grew calmer, I set limits, separated the possible from the impossible, the human from the divine, I held my kite tightly, so that it should not escape.13
1“Bethany is today el `Azareyeh (“the place of Lazarus”-the L being displaced to form the article). It is a miserably untidy and tumble-down village facing East on the Southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, upon the carriage road to Jericho.”
2“In those days the mountain must have been far different from its condition today. Titus in his siege of Jerusalem destroyed all the timber here as elsewhere in the environs, but before this the hillsides must have been clothed with verdure–oliveyards, fig orchards and palm groves, with myrtle and other shrubs” Bible Encyclopedia.
- 3 Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek, (New York, Ballantine Books, 1964), pp. 334-35.