With Holy Week only a week away, today’s Gospel lesson throws us into preparation for that significant week. Six days before the Passover – six days before Jesus will sit down with his disciples for their last meal together – Jesus sits down for another significant meal. Jesus returns to Bethany, to the home of the family he loves – the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. The foreshadowing is all there. Lazarus, and the lingering smell of his once-dead body, is at the table as a vivid reminder of the death that awaits Jesus. The two of them sharing table fellowship together both brings to mind the resurrection of Lazarus, and foreshadows a more important resurrection that is soon to come. Even Mary is preparing us and Jesus for his death, as she uses costly perfume, nard that she has saved for the day of Jesus’ burial, to anoint Jesus now. Death is heavy in the room. What sounds like a simple reunion of friends is actually the foretaste of what is to come in a mere week.
So in the midst of this sacred, significant moment, what does Judas do? Judas totally misses what is happening in the moment. On one level, Judas is right. That bottle of nard – a whole pound of fragrance – would have cost about $20,000 in today’s terms[i]. Judas has spent years with Jesus hearing nothing but Jesus’ preference for the poor. We cannot fault Judas for seeing the potential good that the same bottle could have done for the poor. But like any good church member, Judas gets stuck in the ways he has learned. Judas takes a really good practice – Jesus’ passion for the poor – and makes that practice rigid and lifeless. This valued practice blinds him to the other realities that are unfolding right before him.
We behave like Judas all of the time. We too have ideas about what we should do and how that should be done. Our reasoning might be very informed and, under normal circumstances, deeply rooted in our faith and tradition. But sometimes we too are off base. We miss the big picture. When I went on my mission trip to Honduras, we spent an entire winter and spring preparing for the trip. One of the many books we read was a book by a woman named Elvia Alvarado. Elvia was a poor Honduran woman who saw much strife in her country and who slowly became an organizer and advocate for change. But along the way she tells of many atrocities that happened in Honduras to the poor. As I read the book, I became more and more outraged and incensed about what was happening to the Honduran poor – so outraged that I wanted to go and do something, to make a difference for the people who could not speak for themselves. But in her concluding remarks, Elvia says something quite shocking. Elvia asks every gringo reader (gringos being white people from the United States) not to come to Honduras to solve their problems. In fact she tells the gringos to stay where we are. She says that this work is the Hondurans’ work to do. But what she does charge the gringos with is working on our own stuff. She asks us to look at the systems in our own country that encourage oppression – governmental trade policies, manufacturing and farming practices, and our own purchasing patterns. Elvia’s words to me were like a slap in the face. Elvia basically said to me, “Don’t bring your savior mentality down here and think that you will save us all. Instead, stay at home and work on the ways that you and your country are a part of the problem.”
Elvia’s words to me and all of us are not unlike Jesus words to Judas that night. What Elvia taught me is that we do not always have the whole picture. We may have learned a lot, we may have spent a great deal of time studying our faith or developing our relationship with Christ, and we may feel like we have a pretty good idea about what God calls us to do and be. But what we forget in our confidence is that God is always on the move, always breaking into the world in new ways, and always opening up new paths for us. The moment that we think we have God figured out – and particularly the moment that we start telling others what they should and should not do – is the moment that Jesus slaps us in the face with another reality.
So if we are not to be imitating Judas in this story from scripture, what do we glean from Mary’s actions? I once heard a story about an experience at a stewardship conference whose theme was generosity. When one of the presenters spoke about offering a gift directly to God, the clergy began to yawn. The presenter then pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.” The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, whispering about the legality of burning currency, and murmuring about how they would happily take any more money he felt like burning. In that nervous room, the speaker asked, “Do you not understand? I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.”[ii]
In many ways, Mary “wastes” her perfume on Jesus much like this presenter wasted that $100. But Jesus does not see Mary’s gift as wasteful. He declares the gift to be appropriate in that moment, and is gracious enough to receive the gift with gratitude. He understands that the extravagant gift is rooted in Mary’s confidence in the boundless capacity of God’s love. “Mary pours out her whole bottle of perfume without regret because she knows it is only a trifle compared to the magnitude of God’s love that she sees in the Messiah before her. Mary knows that Lazarus will die again, and she knows that Jesus will die, but she believes with even greater passion that Jesus can bring victory over death.”[iii]
This tense interaction between Jesus, Mary, and Judas invites us into another kind of tension. The story invites us to live into the tension of what we know about God and what is still unfolding. We need to learn the “rules” or the “law” of this crazy life of faith. But we also need to learn the “way of being.” We need to learn when to focus on the details and when to see the big picture. We need to learn when the time has come to “waste” an extravagance on another. When Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you,” Jesus is not giving us an out for caring for the poor. Instead Jesus invites us into a “both-and” tension. Yes, we are to care for the poor. That is living into the law of our life together. And, we also need to have the presence of mind to see when something so significant is happening, such as losing our Savior to the cross, that we pause our other work. This is the way of being in our life together.
Ultimately, we need both Judas and Mary for our faith journey today. We need that person in our community who will always remind us of the laws that we live by and who will always remind us of the ways things should be done. But we also need that person in our community who is the crazy one who will open up for us the lavish ways of God and who will remind us to let go of the law enough to see God’s bigger picture. Without each person in our community, including those individuals who have not yet come to St. Margaret’s, we only have a portion of the community we need to fully embody the community of faith. Without the “both” and the “and” we are incomplete. Sometimes that means we will not agree. The “boths” and the “ands” of our community will experience a tension so strong that we may hear Jesus shouting, “Leave her alone.” But both the “boths” and the “ands” need each other. Jesus gives us all value today, but Jesus also requires us to value one another. Amen.
[i] George W. Stroup, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 142.
[ii] William G. Carter, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 142.
[iii] Beth Sanders, “Heaven Scent,” Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 5, March 6, 2007, 19.