Lent V, Year C
Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, 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.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 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. 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.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She 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."
Other than next week, it will be the Fourth Gospel that will occupy us from now until Pentecost. Our reading today highlights the Johannine ‘theology of the cross’ as it does in so many places in a covert manner. It’s covertness lies in the fact that it is an enacted parable. It is subversive because it exposes the true intention of one whose interpretation is flawed. Finally, it is of a piece with the story that precedes it, the raising of Lazarus. The plot to get rid of Jesus also turns into a plot to get rid of Lazarus as well.
‘Six days before the Passover’, if Passover was celebrated Thursday after sunset this meal will have taken place on Jesus’ last sabbath, the Friday previous. It prefigures in a remarkable way Jesus’ behavior in chapter 13. Just as Mary anointed Jesus feet after the meal, so Jesus will wash the disciples feet. In both stories there is a reference to Judas and his handling of money.
Judas has been previously mentioned in 6.70 as ‘the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray Jesus.’ Here, in 12.6 Judas is known as the ‘group treasurer’ who embezzles from the money bag. By the time of the meal ‘before the Passover feast’ the ‘devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Later during the meal, Satan will ‘enter that one’ and Judas will leave ‘and it was night.’ It is possible that 17.12 referring to ‘the one doomed to destruction’ is a reference to Judas. The last reference to Judas is cryptic. In 18.2-3 Judas simply guides the arresting detachment of Roman (?) soldiers and functionaries who represent (apparently), the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of elders in Jerusalem.
Judas had been real tight with Jesus. He was ‘trusted’ because he had charge of the group money. He sits close enough to Jesus at the table to receive bread from Jesus’ outstretched hand. He was so good at hiding his complicity that the other disciples around Jesus were clueless. In short, he faked being a follower of Jesus perfectly.
Mary, on the other hand, reveals that she understands the real nature of Jesus’ mission and treats him ‘as already dead’ when she pours the nard over his feet. She has understood the Johannine theology of the cross and enacts it. She reveals the preciousness of the victim. Judas will have nothing to do with Jesus’ dying (we tend to think Judas was trying to ‘force Jesus hand’ to bring about a national liberation), but he will expose Jesus to the temptation to take matters into his own hand, a temptation Jesus successfully resists (in all four gospels). Mary and Judas thus serve as exemplars of true and false relationships with Jesus.
[One could profitably compare the Judas/Mary juxtaposition of the Fourth Gospel with the true and false disciples of I John. I John contrasts ‘the one who loves’ with the ‘one who hates.’ Cain is archetype of the ‘one who hates’ (the shatan). Judas, as the one who betrays the victim, who singles out the sacrifice, who makes the originary gesture that others will imitate, is a type of the ‘Christian’ who engaged the generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism but who in doing so has ‘left the community.’ They have expelled themselves, they have become ‘anti-Christs.’ Their ‘Christ’ is not real, he is not flesh and blood. Their Christ is an illusion, a Satanic compromise, a murderer and a liar from the beginning.]
It is well known that the Marys get confused in the gospel tradition. Mary of Magdala becomes assimilated to an unnamed prostitute in the Christian tradition. (An unfortunate error, in our estimation.) Mary of Bethany, however, remains an archetypal disciple even when mentioned in the Synoptic tradition (Luke). The number of women traveling with Jesus named ‘Miriam’ would, it is to be expected, become morphed in the oral tradition, particularly as it was passed on by those who were not eyewitnesses. It is also important to observe that in the Fourth Gospel, the raising of Lazarus has the same strategic importance as does the cleansing of the Temple in the synoptic tradition.
Like Judas, the reason we shall have the poor with us always is because we lie to ourselves about our concern and care for them. We, that is, human beings and cultures, need ‘the poor’ the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the scapegoat, in order to secure ourselves from an all-encompassing violence. But the scapegoating mechanism is on its last legs today, it is breaking down under the revelation of the gospel in our own time. More and more people are beginning to see that violence is violence no matter whether it is good violence or bad violence.
Undoubtedly, those who so desperately wanted to be rid of Jesus, believed they were engaging in ‘good’ or ‘righteous’ violence to rid themselves of such a troublemaker. This includes everyone, especially, as the Fourth Gospel notes, Jesus’ followers. So before we get too smug, we had better come clean about the justification of our own violence and mimetic tendencies.
The more popular expressions of Christianity have chaffed under the knowledge provided by the awareness of ‘Jesus’ preference for the poor.’ Our mimetic greed has become part and parcel of our ‘gospel of success.’ Our lust for material things knows no boundaries and we ask and implore God to grandly meet our wants. And we complain any time someone takes the side of the victim, of our scapegoat. Like Judas, our dollar in the bucket compassion is shown up for what it really is, a covert theft of the resources that would truly meet the needs of the poor. We pride ourselves on our little ‘food ministries’ while we grow obese as a nation and starve the world with our gross consumption. More is better we hear. Our entire economic system depends on scapegoats, without them it would not function as a system of substitutions.
On the other hand, we may, like Mary, focus our actions on the imminent victim, and demonstrate our solidarity by honoring them and humbling ourselves. It is not our place to stop the victimage mechanism from operating. But, and this is the point of the deconstructive power of the gospel, the more victims it grinds, the more unstable it becomes, and at the beginning of the twenty first century it has become highly unstable. For the first time in human history there is a war on war, a war not against a nation-state but against an idea. We are using violence to cast out violence. And there will be many more ‘accidental’ tragedies, so-called collateral damage, as Satan attempts to cast out Satan. Will we anoint the victim or finger them in accusation?
Some sermon thoughts:
Suddenly, the crucifixion looms large in our field of vision. The Passion (the real one, not the movie!) takes center stage as Jesus speaks of his death less than a week beforehand.
If we are preachers of the Gospel, then we are preachers of Good News. It is challenging to look ahead as Mary and Jesus do, and contemplate Good News. Still, it is the Fourth Evangelist who reminds us that it is when the Son of Man is lifted up that He is truly glorified.
Still, this Gospel makes us sad. God’s Good News isn’t our Good News. We can’t help but mourn in advance our own cries of “Crucify him!” But let us mourn with Mary, express in our worship and preaching the intimate, even sensual gratitude that Mary showed with her pound of nard.
Perhaps we can invite our congregations to kneel with her at the feet of our beloved and weep. There is cleansing in those tears.