A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C
The table was set for Thanksgiving dinner. Family and invited guests began happily to devour the feast before us. In due course, the small talk started.
“Have you seen it yet?” Jane, a seminary classmate of mine asked me. I knew what she meant but I played a little dumb. “You know,” she continued, “the latest Harry Potter movie?”
“Yeah, I saw it,” I said, hoping she might drop the subject.
“Well, what did you think?” she asked with interest. At this point, even in seminary, I had developed the reputation of a movie-buff.
“It was good,” I replied with no further comment. “I’m dropping a hint, Jane…”
“I guess you heard that some right-wing fundamentalist types think that it’s evil,” Jane continued. “Unbelievable…” she said rolling her eyes, picking up her glass of wine. I probably picked mine up my glass of wine at that moment too. You see, I knew something Jane didn’t know about the other people gathered around the table. In this case, my mother!
As you can imagine, the silence was palpable. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked. Suddenly every one was intensely interested in what was on our plates. “More potatoes, anyone?” I croaked.
Isn’t that the worst, when someone says or does something awkward over an otherwise pleasant dinner? Someone mentions politics or tells an off-color joke. Thankfully in this case, no one stormed out of the room or even raised their voices. We actually had a good conversation about our love of and also our discomfort with the Harry Potter phenomenon. Jane enjoyed a good fantasy, while my mother was worried it might encourage children to explore witchcraft.
No doubt there are some who love a good, meaty conversation over dinner, no matter how uncomfortable it may get, but there are also those of us who in the face of such conflict prefer to “check out” mentally and are magically transported to a beach in the Bahamas somewhere sipping a mojito.
I wonder about the tension in the room where Jesus and his friends were having dinner that evening in our gospel reading. Talk about awkward moments! The full shock of what was happening at this dinner is lost to us. So it would behoove us to look at this relatively short story in its larger context and to consider how meaningful this moment in time truly was for Jesus and his friends gathered for dinner.
Today is the last proper Sunday in Lent – yes, folks, you’ve almost made it – next week is Palm Sunday, and it is no mistake that this lesson comes this week in the lectionary cycle. Consider its context in the Gospel of John. Immediately prior to this dinner scene, the gospel writer recounts a somewhat heated interchange between the high priest in Jerusalem, Caiaphas, and the chief priests. The public opinion about Jesus had taken a serious turn, and the religious authorities had had enough of this insurrectionist and troublemaker. They were poised to arrest Jesus, the first chance they got. They even wanted to arrest or kill Lazarus, for the story of Jesus raising him from the dead had spread this problematic rabbi’s fame far and wide. Lazarus was living proof. They wanted him dead too.
Immediately following this passage in John’s Gospel is the triumphal entry. Indeed we are told the triumphal entry takes place on the very next day after this dinner. In that moment Jesus would directly confront the religious establishment. He enters the gates of the city not stealthily but with a parade, a very public gesture, but that gospel story must wait for next week.
So this passage, today’s gospel, is a seemingly short vignette nestled between these two much more “exciting” events in the story of Jesus. Here we witness Jesus in what would seem to be an unguarded moment. He has retreated from Jerusalem and the growing tension stirred up by the plotting religious authorities and goes instead to Bethany, just outside the city, to spend time with his disciples and his close friends, including this Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
Martha and Mary are there as well, these sisters of Lazarus whom we encountered earlier in John’s gospel at the death and raising of Lazarus. The only other time Martha and Mary are mentioned in the gospels are in Luke, when we hear the story of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and Martha complaining about having to do all the work. If this was indeed her reputation, the aside we hear in today’s story, “Martha served,” makes us smile. What else would she be doing? She’s exactly where we expect her to be – in the kitchen. Mary is also where we might expect her – at Jesus’ feet. She is not a disciple. Women weren’t allowed, and yet she takes her place at Jesus’ feet as if she were. Lazarus is sitting at table with Jesus, the writer takes pains to point out. This is no small thing – Lazarus is paid a great honor to be at table with Jesus and his apostles. Jesus isn’t distancing himself from Lazarus, but has done him a great honor.
The only other person mentioned by name at this dinner is Judas Iscariot. Lest we forget what becomes of Judas, the writer of this gospel reminds us parenthetically, “he who was to betray Jesus.”
And so the cast is in place and the scene is set — they are at dinner. Small talk is being made, perhaps discussing the rising tension between Jesus and the religious leaders, and then this shocking, awkward moment happens. Mary does what no one at that dinner would have expected her to do. She bathes Jesus feet in expensive perfume, pure nard probably imported from India. This is an extravagant show of honor and affection. But Mary does not stop there; she wipes Jesus feet with her hair. A proper Jewish woman simply did not uncover her head, let alone take down her hair in public, especially at a meal! This is an extraordinarily intimate gesture between Mary to Jesus. I’m sure most of those around the table suddenly became quite uncomfortable. I’m sure some of them went to what was their equivalent of going to the Bahamas – a Dead Sea spa perhaps?
Can you hear the gasps? Judas breaks the silence. “That perfume is worth a year’s wages,” he says, “what a waste! We could have given that money to the poor.” In reality this is a way on Judas’ part of redirecting attention away from this very intimate display of affection between Mary and Jesus. It is only in retropsect that the gospel writer impugns Judas, again parenthetically. No one there knew he was a thief. At this point he is still clearly one of the twelve. No one knew that in a matter of days, he would betray Jesus into the hands of Caiaphas.
Nor did any of them know the true symbolism of Mary’s act. How could they? Jesus says that Mary was saving this ointment for his burial. She couldn’t have known that in less than a week the feet she was anointing would be pierced, that his lifeless body would be taken down from the cross and buried so quickly she wouldn’t have time to touch, let alone anoint it.
No one at that dinner knew that just a few nights hence, Jesus would be washing their feet, another intimate gesture, and he would call on them to serve each other. No one knew the full meaning of Jesus’ words – “the poor you always have with you, but you will not always have me with you.“ This is not a political statement endorsing the class system, as another very conservative friend of mine suggested recently while discussing welfare. Jesus isn’t saying, “Oh, the poor are the poor. They’re kind of like rats – always underfoot. What are you gonna do?” This is a personal statement between Jesus and his friends. Jesus is emphasizing that their time together is short. All too soon, this group of friends, made a little uncomfortable by Mary’s act of devotion, would be scattered like sheep without a shepherd. On their lips would be denials and curses. This was in one sense Jesus’ last supper with such an informal gathering of friends.
There is a similar scene in all four gospels – a rare occurrence indeed! Only John’s gospel identifies her as Mary, and some scholars suggest this is indeed Mary Magdalene. Luke’s gospel places this story early in Jesus’ ministry and makes it a teachable moment with the woman portrayed as a woman of bad reputation and Jesus teaching about forgiveness. But Matthew and Mark, like John, set the story in Bethany, except they identify the house as belonging to Simon the Leper. Matthew and Mark recall the story as happening after Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, thus during Holy Week, and it is this very moment, this awkward encounter between Jesus, Mary and Judas, that sets Judas off. It is the event that precedes his betrayal in Mark and Matthew’s accounts. He immediately goes to the chief priests in order to betray him.
Here in John’s account, the contrast between Mary and Judas is remarkable. Mary, not allowed a place at the table, assumes the place of a disciple at Jesus’ feet. She takes a risk, does the unthinkable and opens herself up to potential humiliation and embarrassment. Do you wonder what Martha thought when she smelled the house fill with the powerful odor of nard? What is Mary up to now? Was Lazarus embarrassed for his sister? Regardless, Mary displayed her love and her loyalty to Jesus in a way that might make us all uncomfortable.
All Judas can think to do is criticize. Whether he truly wanted to get his hands on the money as the writer suggests, or is simply being a wet blanket, Judas would have denied Jesus this great honor ostensibly for the sake of charitable giving, but Jesus knows the significance of Mary’s unselfish and lavish gesture.
As the days of Lent begin to draw to a close, as the story of Jesus’ life and ministry comes to its terrible yet beautiful climax, who might we be at this table? Would we be Mary, anxious to show our love for the Lord, intent on paying him the honor we feel he deserves. This same Mary would rush to the tomb early on the first morning to finish the job she began one evening after dinner? Would we be Martha, so busy preparing for the events surrounding a party that we might miss the event itself? Or would we be more like Judas, so caught up in the cares of the world that Jesus would become the means to an end for us? Or would we be one of those who simply checked out when things got awkward and uncomfortable? Surely we can find ourselves somewhere in this room, somewhere around this table.
This is a short story, a “minor” event in Jesus’ life in these last days, and yet, as so often happens, it is over dinner that we are the most vulnerable and our true natures and characters shine through. As we gather around the Lord’s Table this morning let us each come as we are, not worried of causing an awkward scene or saying the wrong thing. Jesus feeds us all, each and every one of us, Mary, Martha and Judas alike. It is in coming to receive this great grace, God’s provision for us, broken and poured out, that we do Jesus the greatest honor. Amen.