Reading: John 12:1-8
Stark contrasts and interesting characters seem to be the order of the day for the readings this morning. Sandwiched between passages about life and death, we have a seemingly simple vignette of a dinner party. The hosts and guests of the party are intrinsically related to what has come before and what will yet be.
Bethany – the home of Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus. There are a few scriptural references about Jesus, Mary and Martha – and most of them include closeness – an intimacy of friendship. Bethany, it seems, was a frequent stop for Jesus and, from what we are told, it seems like this is where Jesus may have come to regenerate – to relax a while – a place to be Jesus the person as opposed to Jesus the Messiah. Jesus still taught – people still listened, but there appears to be a kind of intimacy in this house that draws Jesus.
The story before the reading:
Mary, Martha and Lazarus – sisters and brother – beloved by Jesus, we are told. Lazarus had fallen ill. Despite an urgent plea from Mary and Martha, Jesus delayed returning to Bethany for two more days, during which time Lazarus died. It is said that Jesus delayed returning until after Lazarus died so that the Disciples (with a capital D – you know the twelve) – anyway, so that the disciples might “believe.” There is no ambiguity in the text of John that Jesus waited for Lazarus to die, so that in raising Lazarus from the dead, the disciples would come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
At this point, the twelve do not fully comprehend.
When Jesus returns, Martha rushes out to Jesus. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” When Jesus asks her if she believes in him, Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
The Disciples – the twelve – were still not sure about Jesus’ true identity, but Martha does. Martha believes. Martha then fetches her sister Mary, who is seemingly inconsolable in her sorrow. Jesus is so moved by Mary’s sorrow that he weeps. Three times we are told that Jesus was deeply disturbed by her grief.
Jesus, just before raising Lazarus from the dead, thanks God and states, “I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” Among the crowd are the twelve being shown the true identity of Jesus – the identity already known and acknowledged by Martha, and trusted by Mary.
Let that sink in a moment – the twelve disciples were yet to believe. Mary and Martha believed without doubt, however. This reading paints a picture of true discipleship – of true believers in contrast to those who were yet to believe. Mary and Martha are the ideals being held up as true disciples – being held up as examples even to the twelve.
Meanwhile, back at the dinner:
We find Judas Iscariot – one of the twelve. Now we know his part in the story that unfolds later, don’t we? He collaborates with Ciaphas, the leader of the Pharisees, who plotted to kill Jesus. Before the reading today, Judas is one of the not-quite-believing disciples.Did Jesus’ display of Godly power convince him?
After the reading, it becomes obvious he is the turncoat – selling Jesus for profit. And he also has an interesting role in today’s reading. We’re not old who else might be in attendance. Is Judas the only member of the Twelve to eat with them? We don’t know, but it would be hard to imagine why Judas would have such a privilege. We do know that Martha served – the word used being “diekoney” which means “serves as a deacon.” She didn’t just set the table, prepare dinner and clean up. John chooses words to show the depth and importance of Martha’s serving. First she is described as the true believing disciple, then as a deacon.
And, then, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfumed oil. Yes, that’s the word used – anointed. There are a lot of ways to say that Mary simply put perfume on Jesus’ feet, but John’s choice of this word is critical. Mary did not serve Jesus as a servant – she blessed Jesus as someone with religious authority.
There was a religious rite going on in this story, something that was profound enough to warrant the use of a very special word – anoint. Anointing with perfumed oils, among other things, was done in preparation for burial. While the twelve still had no grasp of Jesus’ pending persecution and crucifixion, the real disciples in this story did. Martha testifies to Jesus’ divinity, and serves as deacon in this celebration. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet in a ritual of religious significance.
And the reaction of Judas, the only one of the twelve who speaks if in fact others were at the dinner, was hostile. Ostensibly because the year’s wages it took could be used to serve the poor, Judas decries the waste.
Now John gives some editorial sidebars to describe to the readers that Judas is not what he seems. First, when he introduces Judas before he speaks, he reminds us that Judas will be the betrayer. Next, after Judas complains that the money would have better spent on the poor, John tells us that Judas wasn’t the least bit concerned about that. He was a thief, says John, and wanted the money for himself. The only words spoken by one of the twelve were words of deceit and aggression. And the aggression was towards Mary – towards a person Jesus dearly loved. No surprise then in Jesus’ response – except that in the English bibles it seems a little mild.
“Leave her alone” is not just a statement – it is an exclamation. Jesus may not have yelled it, but it was delivered with emotional force, none the less. “LEAVE HER ALONE!”, Jesus says, “she bought it for my funeral.” And then the famous, and often misused line, “You will always have the poor with you, you will not always have me.”
This line has often been used to say that Jesus justifies leaving the poor “poor”. Some even say that Jesus is saying that some deserve to be poor, as if this is a prescription that this should be normal. When read in light, however, of everything else Jesus said about the poor, this is a wanton misuse of scripture.
Jesus is not being dismissive of poor people here – he is simply saying that Mary has chosen this moment to lavish some attention on him. It is acknowledging the cost of the purchase, but also the incredible beauty of the gift Mary is giving. It is more correctly understood as, “You will always have the poor with you. Learn something. Do for them what she is doing for me.”
The twelve, up to this point, have given lip service to living out the teachings of Jesus – Mary and Martha have put feet and hands on it. And for that they are described in John as an example of being true disciples. Mary models what Jesus will do later when he washes the feet of the disciples at the last supper. Mary reveals God’s love in her compassion and reverence for serving. Martha’s serving is a deliberate reminder of the serving at the table – the significance of sharing in communion.
This sharing and living our the love of God does not stop at the church doors. Discipleship is being the hands and feet of God in the world – taking love and service to the streets and beyond. There are a great many ways to do this but, as the story reveals, talking about it while having no real intention to participate is not discipleship.
Discipleship is lived out in sharing resources like food pantries. It is lived out in lavishing love when we serve funeral dinners. It is lived out when we put feet on God’s love by doing things like the Crop Walk. It is lived out when we lavish God’s love on the poor, sick, rejected and despised.
It may seem wasteful to some, but they may have their eyes on the material worth of what is being given – on wanting those resources for themselves. It is certainly not viewed as waste by Jesus.