Fifth Sunday in Lent, John 12:1-8
It’s a lovely occasion described in today’s passage from John’s Gospel: Martha and Mary are throwing a dinner party at their place in Bethany to honor Jesus who had raised their brother, Lazarus, from the dead.
Martha, described in Luke as the scrupulous, duteous sister, served. Mary, the one who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened in Luke’s account, takes a full pound – an entire pound! – of costly perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair.
You know that with perfume a little bit goes a long way; less is more when it comes to fragrance. So it was that the entire house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume – this very much in contrast to the stench that John mentioned emanating from the tomb where Lazarus had been for four days before Jesus got there to raise him.
Again, the dinner is a lovely domestic setting, a moment of intimacy among dear, dear friends. Good food, no doubt. Engaging conversation. Expressions of gratitude for Jesus who raised his beloved Lazarus from the dead. Mary’s extravagant outpouring of loving affection with the anointing and with the fragrance of essential oils pleasantly filling the house. Picture in your mind’s eye this appealing occasion….
Then there’s Judas, who also happened to be present, Judas who was already conspiring to betray Jesus to the religious authorities. There he was at the party, a thief who stole money from the common purse kept by Jesus and the disciples. Judas, a conniving cynic who wants to cast a pall over the joyous proceedings: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?”
Thus, wickedness is also there at the banquet, that lovely occasion. That’s what’s happening inside the house. Outside the house is also wickedness. What precedes this story in John is a plot to kill Jesus because of the miracle of raising Lazarus. The religious leaders called an official meeting of the council to seek ways to put Jesus to death. Jesus, becoming aware of this plot, “no longer walked about openly among the [religious leaders].” (John 11:54). Moreover, “the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” (John 11:57)
That’s what immediately precedes John’s story of Jesus at the dinner party at Mary and Martha’s house. What follows today’s story is a plot by the religious leaders to kill Lazarus, not just Jesus.
Inside the house, amidst the lovely smell of perfume, was the stench of wickedness and betrayal. And the house was surrounded by the same, indeed, the whole countryside was thus polluted with conspiracy.
Isn’t this part and parcel of the human condition in our experience, as well? It is painfully too common for lovely occasions among our own family members, friends, colleagues and acquaintances to be tainted by people and behaviors which revel in forms of divisiveness, betrayal and deceit. Isn’t that true? You all can probably name dinner parties you’ve been to where someone says something or does something to ruin the occasion, or at least dampen spirits. Memories of such occasions might be returning to you even as I speak.
It's on such occasions, when ugliness enters the lovely scene, that Jesus claims a teaching moment, in the case of the story today to address Judas at Mary and Martha’s place. Jesus said to Judas, who had accused Mary of wasteful extravagance, “Leave her alone. She bought [the costly perfume] 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.” (John 12:7-8)
Here Jesus, as interpreted and elaborated on by John, casts the whole event of the dinner and sees Mary’s actions as a pointing to Jesus’ death soon to take place. It’s even a foretaste of the Last Supper, where in that case, Jesus washes the disciples feet in parallel fashion to how Mary anointed Jesus’ feet at the dinner with Lazarus. And, of course, the raising of Lazarus is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection after having been dead three days in like manner to Lazarus who also was in the tomb a few days.
In these ways, John’s account points to the life-giving conditions that will address head on and ultimately heal and bring an end to the betrayal, the wickedness, the cynicism, the exploitation, the deceit, and more. Those conditions of victory over sin and death are indeed Christ’s death and resurrection.
Jesus’ death and resurrection are the new things that God is up to that the prophet Isaiah describes in what is today’s first reading. Hearkening back to the events of delivering God’s people out of slavery in Egypt in the parting of the sea as a means of escape, Isaiah points to new, future things when he prophesies in the voice of the Lord who “will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, [says the Lord] the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” (Isaiah 43:19b-21)
Our desert wilderness, where the betraying, thieving Judases lurk, and where even religious leaders conspire in the ways of sin and death, are likewise watered – with the waters of baptism rushing over us once and for all, but also coursing throughout our Christian journey and lifetime.
According to Isaiah even the jackals – wild, predatory dogs that hunt in packs and feed on the flesh of other animals – even the jackals end up honoring God. Likewise, the ostriches – which when faced with danger flop down, stretching their long necks to the ground to hide from other predators – yes, even the timid, danger fleeing ostriches end up honoring God with praise. These animals become metaphors for the broken ones among us in need of life-giving waters flowing from God in our deserts to restore us, refresh us, cleanse us, and quench our thirst.
And speaking of having our thirst quenched, we can also see the dinner at Mary and Martha’s place as a type of Last Supper, pointing to our own Eucharist where at first we seem to host Jesus, but who in fact is our host, as we give thanks for our having been raised in baptism like Lazarus, and as we also share in Christ’s victory over sin and death in a banquet of bread and wine, Christ’s very body and blood.
But like the dinner described in John for today, our own gatherings which remember Christ and celebrate his death and resurrection can be marred by betrayal. Remember that Judas was also present at the Last Supper. Even that most holy occasion was tainted by the presence of sin. Likewise present at our Eucharistic feasts are all the sins and shortcomings of two thousand years of Christian history throughout which the church has failed to honor God’s gracious will, betraying our Lord anew.
We, as the body of Christ, simultaneously saint and sinner, inevitably bring our conflicts and divisions with us to this table. This happens locally; it happens nationally; it happens globally. In terms of racial divisions, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that Sunday morning is the most segregated day and time of the week when we gather separately in our own ethnic enclaves. So it goes in a church that is both redeemed and broken still.
Yet, we know how the story ends with Christ’s resurrection victory, so that the words of Paul who writes in Philippians give expression to our aspirations: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own….”
Paul continues: “…Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:10-14)
We press on, too, living as we do in these in-between-times, the epoch between Christ’s death and resurrection and Christ’s promised return one day to usher in the fullness of God’s reign, God’s dominion of peace, of commonwealth, of well-being, when the Judas’ and jackals and ostriches of the world are finally tamed.
And what do we do in this meantime? Very simply, we bear witness to Christ by attending to the poor and their needs. So, let’s return to Jesus’ teaching moment with Judas one more time. Again, in John, Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Indeed, we don’t have Jesus with us in the manner in which he walked this earth two millennia ago because after the resurrection, Jesus quickly returned to the One whom he called Father. But who are we left with? The poor are with us, in whose faces we see Jesus in the least of these who are members of Jesus’ family (cf. Matthew 25:40).
“You always have the poor with you.” This phrase has been used as a cynical justification to let the poor remain poor, condoning their status as a natural state, their fault perhaps.
I don’t read it that way at all. “You always have the poor with you.” I see this as a missionary exhortation from Jesus to continually seek out the poor, to be with them, to accompany them, to feed them with the abundance of our common purse with the same extravagance that Mary used with the costly perfume to anoint Jesus in anticipation of his burial, even as we may also get down on our knees lovingly to wash the feet of the poor as Jesus mandated on the night of betrayal.
So, like Paul, we press on with the guiding winds of the Holy Spirit, giving thanks to God for the sweet fragrance of God’s lavish, extravagant grace by serving and accompanying the poor, for whom God’s heart pours out and in whom we yet again encounter the living Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.