Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”6 (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.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:1-11)
For those of us who follow the lectionary, the second day of Holy Week is rather disappointing. We are in Year C, so Luke is the controlling gospel. And we just had Luke’s version of the anointing two weeks ago. So it feels kinda strange, being asked to grapple with the text once again. “Haven’t we already milked this one for all its worth?” I want to ask the lectionary editors. “Couldn’t we have done a bit better for first steps into the most holy of Christian weeks?”
Perhaps. But the text is here, albeit John’s version, and as a dogged supporter of lectionary preaching and lectionary congregational consciousness, I submit myself–and you, my faithful readers–to the tale once again. We’re in Lazarus’ house and once again we are reminded that Jesus has raised him from the dead. Now that’s gotta be an awkward dinner party, doesn’t it? I mean, how do you talk to a dead man who is no longer dead? And it’s not like Lazarus is a Walker; Daryl Dixon is not a disciple. We are faced with the living specter of death. We wonder is that spilled perfume is more intentional than Mary is letting on. Lazarus was in that tomb for four days. There was no embalming fluid then, and the Jews did not mummify. The elements would have taken their toll on Lazarus’ body. Yet, Jesus is there, eating and talking as always. Jesus does not let small things like body odor get in the way of a meaningful relationship.
And, of course, we have to tackle the Mary/Martha dichotomy again. That tired trope that too oft was repeated to women of past generations: you are either a Mary or a Martha, a nun or a housewife. You tend to the men or to the Body of Christ. But I want something more. Something deeper. Something more significant. I want the chutzpah of Mary. A Mary who, without any forewarning, takes an obscene amount of nard and pours it extravagantly at Jesus’ feet. Without permission, without deferring, without thinking of the possible waster, she pours and pours and pours. She pours so much that it becomes and affront. A sign of irresponsibility. It is an action of a woman living on the brink, so overtaken with love and compassion that she shuns the prohibitions regarding her hair, loosening it upon Jesus’ bared feet in front of man and God. A sensual act. A bold act. An act that Jesus does not shun but accepts and defends when detractors speak up.
There he is. Judas. Our old friend. (Click the link for the genius that is Yvonne Elman, Carl Anderson, and Ted Neely.) A man remembered as a traitor, although the Greek text never calls him that; described as a thief by Luke and John, but not Matthew and Mark; a man who yells at Mary, although the scene is described as being between an unnamed woman and all of the disciples in Mark. Judas who becomes the whipping boy and the incarnation of evil in the later gospels, but is depicted as a concerned disciple in the first, and even given his own gospel by the Gnostic traditions. Judas, who will create so many problems for us on Thursday–notice that we never mourn his death? in fact we celebrate it, a detail discussed by me in a 2008 documentary–stands now as one who seeks to control the extension of grace. He uses the plight of the poor as justification for his own desire to control the distribution of goods. Sadly, Judas stands as a stark reminder of how our own charity can sometimes be acts of appropriation and control. No, poor people. We’ll tell you what you’ll eat, where you’ll sleep, and what you are allowed to do. Our money gives us power, and out power allows us to control money. Judas is here with us on our second day of Holy Week. He’s not going anywhere yet.
Our beloved Jesus reminds us that the poor will always be around, a line that far too often is mistaken to be a tacit assent to a stratification of classes. I do not read it that way (to be sure, my reading is informed by so many other sources that I can’t even begin to link them all, so just know that I am not claiming a unique reading). Jesus is reminding us of Deuteronomy 15, in which God’s covenant people are charged to not allow poverty in their midst. If there are those who go hungry, or have no homes, or lack clothing, that is not God’s failure. That is ours. God has given us all we need to care and provide for one another. The discrepancies between the rich and the poor or not the result of God’s will, but rather an ignoring of God’s commandments. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.
But all of this was covered a few weeks ago, God! What is it you want us to see?
Ah. There it is. That passage that was left out last time. That little detail that comes to mean so much to us as we get deeper into the week. Poor Lazarus has a death mark on his head. He should be getting into the Falcon and heading to another galaxy. A death mark is not an easy thing to live with. (Yeah, I’m a really, really big dork.) Lazarus is a walking example of what radical grace can do. A grace that is like the perfume that Mary cascades over Jesus’ feet. A grace that fills the room with a sweet smell and attaches onto clothes and hair and skin; a smell that won’t wash off, and that carries with you for days. Weeks. Months. A grace that begins to rub off on others and impacts them as well. That kinda grace, that can make you a target. People often don’t know what to do with a person who was dead but now is alive. We’re almost more comfortable with living zombies. We’re more used to slowly dying rather than fully living. Lazarus is an indictment upon the choices of others. His chutzpah is almost as great as Mary’s. Just who does he think he is, this Lazarus. Walking around all resurrected and filled with grace.
There is a cost. In order to be resurrected you must first die. Death is not easy. Death is not comfortable. But a meaningful death can lead to a significant life. Amen.