Here we are on the last bit of Lent—how did it get to be Lent V already? Palm Sunday is next week. In fact our palms arrived this past Friday! From this perspective it seems like the season has gone by quickly though maybe that is because collectively we have done much to bring God’s love to the front of our minds. I hope it has been a productive Lent for you and if you don’t think so just yet, we do have one more week.
One of the community actions we have taken through the season has been to read passages from the Gospel of John each day. Following the pattern of the daily lectionary we are currently beginning the ninth chapter of John. Though we won’t finish the gospel before Easter it is a discipline that we can continue. When we began this Lenten journey Mother Beth talked about this particular gospel in comparison to the other three. From these comparisons I was reminded of something I learned a long time ago in counseling classes. That is, there is a difference in relating what has happened and how those actions affect us. The goal of a good counselor is to go deeper than the action. John’s gospel does this; it goes deeper.
The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are often like news reports, relating the facts of what occurred. Mark in particular loved to tell one thing after another. “This happened and then immediately this next thing happened.” Of course each of these gospel writers has a slant on Jesus’ story by when they wrote and the audience for whom they wrote. We get a lot of our familiar Bible stories from these three gospels. John, though, is different. From its beginning John is trying to connect the news of Jesus life to its meaning. John writes in a more personal way and asks a more personal response. Using my analogy you might say that John is the op-ed writer while the other three give a more front page straight forward story.
John does not just call us to know the story but also to where the story connects for us. What is our emotional reaction to the story? How does it fit into the entire story of Jesus as well as into our own experiences? John doesn’t expect us to just understand these scriptures in our head but also with our whole selves. John expects us to relate to what has happened, to the story he tells, as if we were there.
A fairly recent text on preaching, Tinsdale and Troeger’s, “A Sermon Workbook”, uses a method to help us see where we are in the scripture. These authors suggest that the preacher imagine how theological concepts are embodied in the sermon, asking the questions of where our senses are in the scripture. What do we smell? What do we hear? What do we feel? And so on. I would like to take a look at today’s passage from John to see how we can be drawn into it.
As the passage begins it is near the events of what we now call Holy Week a similar point in the time-line as it is for us now. Six days until Passover John tells us. We find Jesus and his disciples in Bethany at the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. Jesus has recently raised Lazarus from the dead, and the family has prepared a dinner in Jesus’ honor. We see Jesus at table with his closest friends and as in the past Martha is the one who serves the meal and the one most probably the one who has prepared it. Her sister Mary comes to the table and does a very unusual thing. She lavishly pours a very costly perfumed oil on Jesus’ feet. Perhaps she had it in the house with thoughts of using it to anoint her brother in the tomb but then it had not been necessary for that task. We see what is happening and I wonder, what might that scene have smelled like? A sweet smell from the oil, mingled with the odors of the food and several bodies in the room.
In the Old Testament kings were anointed with oil to show the beginning of their reign. So there is some symbolism to this act. But,…there are differences here. Mary anoints Jesus feet instead of his head as would have been done for those kings. Because of the dusty and hot climate in those days hosts frequently had a woman or servant of the house wash the guests’ feet at a dinner. But Mary doesn’t wash Jesus feet with water nor does she dry them with a towel. Instead, she uses her hair, which usually would have been covered. Certainly this was an unusual and even sensual act. I wonder what must it have felt like for Jesus to have Mary’s hair wiping his feet?
Hers was an act of love, as well as an act of preparation for Jesus’ death. She, alone of the disciples, seems to understand all that Jesus has been saying will happen. And even more she understands that Jesus is the Messiah, the king, of God’s kingdom. Mary gets it. Her unusual actions demonstrate that she knows the truth of Jesus and his impending passion. She is generous to a point of extravagance and gives from her heart, her entire self. She adores her king, Jesus, in a way that mimics God’s love for us.
Foreshadowing the actions of the week to come, Judas also plays his part. Wanting to seem the financial conscience of the group he complains that Mary should not have wasted the costly oil in this way.
What might Judas have sounded like? Loud, I imagine. Perhaps with a sarcastic tone in his voice indicating he is better than Mary. Though John tells us really Judas is not as he seems.
And then Jesus, in his calm way affirms that yes, Mary has understood all he has been teaching, and that there will be plenty of time for the disciples to help those in need.
He rebukes Judas objection because right now Mary is preparing him for his death. And this is what is important for this particular moment.
Our senses tell us this story perhaps better than the words. We see Jesus and his friends at table; perhaps we can imagine the taste of the foods Martha serves; we see what the disciple Mary does; we smell the perfume she uses; we feel her hair next to the skin; we hear the argument Judas gives. This is today’s gospel story. This is what has happened. What are we to make of it?
Yes, this is a tale of foreshadowing the near future, foreshadowing Jesus passion and resurrection. It is also a contrast of two of Jesus closest followers, Mary and Judas. Mary, the faithful one and Judas the unfaithful one. Mary who understands that Jesus is God’s son, the Messiah, and Judas who does not understand at all.
Does the gospel imply that we are to choose who we are, Mary or Judas? No, I don’t think so. Yes, we have a model of what faithful discipleship looks like in Mary but we need to think a bit more about Judas too. I remind us that without Judas part in this story we, and countless other millions throughout time, would not have been saved. Jesus death is necessary for his resurrection to occur. While we don’t want to emulate Judas perhaps we might find a bit of compassion for him. Judas did not comprehend who Jesus was and he was not the only one in that position. He was lost in his own perspective and then the evil one took residence inside him.
So, no, to me the point of today’s gospel is not about who we choose to be like. That is more a side effect of this passage. In fact I think this gospel is not so much a story about Mary and Judas as it is a story about grace, God’s unearned love. And as in so many of the stories about Jesus it is a story of the inclusive nature of God’s grace.
Thinking about Judas I wonder are there those who Jesus is not able to love and save? This is not an easily answered question but one that can bear fruit if you think on it. Are there people whom Jesus does not love? Are there people to whom Grace does not apply?
We as a parish have just finished our week of grace, the focus of our Community discipline for Lent IV. I have had the privilege of hearing the stories of those who delivered food to the families in need. And as in all work with human beings there were some very rewarding stories as well as a few uncomfortable and irritating ones. Many of the deliveries were well received with excitement and hugs and thanks for the food brought. Some people even offered a Hallelujah on receiving the offerings. Others though, received the food with a chip on their shoulder, or even perhaps with a sense of entitlement. And in the case of a few others people were not home when they said they would be. This caused some aggravation to the donors to see that they made actual contact and also some wonder of why they were doing this at all. As I said, most deliveries were met with gratitude and yet some were difficult.
This is the case in all human contact, isn’t it? For some this week we had to remember that what we do on behalf of Jesus is not contingent on other’s reactions. While it is nice for our actions to be met with a grateful attitude it does not change the fact that when we give on behalf of Jesus we have done what we have been called to do. Jesus did not control how his disciples received his gifts. We have Mary and we have Judas. I wonder sometimes how does God do it—remain loving to us all in and through all circumstances. His grace is all encompassing.
This is what I think today’s gospel is about at its core, God’s unlimited grace. John embodies that Grace for us by relating Jesus’ experiences as he begins his last week on earth. When we enter into this story by hearing the words, and imagining the smell, the sound, the touch, we are able to connect with what we have learned and to be more present to the meaning of this grace. I believe that Jesus can and does love both the faithful and the unfaithful. Rather than today’s gospel being a story of how we model ourselves, this is a story whose point is God’s all- encompassing love. In reality, we each have moments of faithfulness as well as unfaithfulness to God and while we strive to be more Mary-like the truth is Jesus died to redeem us all.
We have one more week until we will walk the way that Jesus and his disciples walked. One more week of Lent to help us consciously put our relationship with God first in our priorities. Then it is my sincere hope that you are planning to join the church in the entire living out of Jesus last week day by day. Come to see, to hear, to smell, to taste and to feel these events. Our understanding of God’s grace deepens as we experience all these events. It is an opportunity that won’t come again for another year.
Thanks be to God for his glorious gospel and for the Grace he shows to all.