Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Adam McCoy, OHC
RCL - Lent 5 C - Sunday 21 March 2010
John 12: 1-8
I want to begin with an apology to the scripture scholars. Today’s Gospel reading is deeply complex when read alongside the other three Gospels. It occurs at structurally the same place - at the beginning of the Passion narrative, immediately after the authorities determine to have Jesus killed - in Mark, Matthew and John, but, strangely, it does not occur in Luke. In all three it is in Bethany, but in Mark and Matthew this event happens at the house of Simon the leper, while in John it seems to be at the house of Mary and Martha.
In Mark and Matthew the woman pours the ointment on Jesus’ head and is unnamed, while in John it is Mary, and she anoints his feet with her hair. Not only that, but this story in John is explicitly and a little awkwardly, linked to the story of the raising of Lazarus, which itself references this story. And to top it off, here are Martha and Mary acting precisely as Luke tells the story of their characters in another visit of Jesus to their house, one which does not occur in John. Many articles, even books, have doubtless emerged from these interconnections.
In the golden age of Anglican preaching, in the sixteenth and in the seventeenth and in the eighteenth and in the nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries, we would have had time to explore these mysteries in depth, because the congregation would have been disappointed if the sermon ran less than an hour, and would have been back at Sunday afternoon service for a second, possibly longer, dose.
We could have strolled hand in hand together down the pleasant lanes of biblical textual investigation for hours. But I learned in seminary that eyes would begin to glaze at ten minutes and rustling and coughing at twelve, with outright rebellion at fifteen. I am sure those times have not lengthened since then. So let us confine our attentions to the story in John as it meets us, without further complications.
As we hear John’s version of the dinner at Bethany, we are probably trained by past experience to notice the extravagant woman, and to wonder if this is Mary Magdalene, traditionally associated with the other two versions of the story. But it is Mary of Bethany, at Jesus’ feet while her sister Martha serves dinner. For two millenia the Contemplative and the Active, an argument about the fruits of the gospel, are prefigured in these two women. And we will also notice the little dialogue about the use of money: Could it not have been used for the poor? Is not this a waste?
Visions of contrast rise up before us, of St. Francis of Assisi on the one hand and Medici popes on the other, or perhaps Dorothy Day and the gold-plated faucet handles in the televangelist’s dog house. Jesus seems to give the go-ahead to expensive church projects of all kinds here, warning the do-gooder community to examine its motives, to remember self-interest buried in the rhetoric of helpfulness. Or so the art and music and vestment and stained glass window and beautiful building people might think, as they eye the poor box when it starts to fill up a little.
There is actually a lot boiling under the surface of this little story. I want to suggest that there is even more than there might at first seem to be. And the key is in the setting of this dinner.
Remember whose dinner it is. Mary, Martha and Lazarus have invited Jesus to a big dinner party. Right after Lazarus has been brought back to life. By Jesus. Think about this for a moment. This is not your usual first century cozy family seder, opened up a little to include our dear friend, the young unmarried rabbi. This is a Resurrection banquet. John’s Gospel is framed by eight signs or miracles, the eighth being the Resurrection of Jesus.
The raising of Lazarus is the seventh, the final and greatest miracle performed by Jesus himself. It is the sign and seal of Jesus’ earthly ministry and of his identity as the Son of God, the Logos incarnate. John tells us that Jesus was sent into a world which he as the Logos, the Word of God, had made, but his own world does not recognize him. But here, in this little village outside Jerusalem, he is known for who he is.
Death has been put to flight, new life has been given to Lazarus, and through him, to his sisters and to the whole community around them. Jesus now is celebrated by this little trinity, this family of three apparently also unmarried siblings. Of all those he has touched and healed, they are the ones who not only turned back to thank him, but have invited him into their home.
Doubtless all of Bethany is there as well. Martha has probably spared no expense, but instead of getting help, she serves the meal herself. Lazarus, the first of redeemed humanity to be raised to life, is seated alongside Jesus, who brought him back from the dead, who is in the place of honor. His sister Martha is the manager of this great moment. In the way of practical women everywhere she is giving thanks in the best way she can, and it is the best way any of us can imagine: A perfect family meal, grander than usual, all the best dishes in use, a time of comfort and joy, to which, if it were our meal, we would pray that the Lord would come and be with us.
This is the foretaste of the heavenly banquet. This is the Resurrection Eucharist. This is the reason why Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. This is the reason he will endure the week to come. Someone finally got the message. Humanity is ready for redemption.
But of course, this is not just any meal, even a very special meal. Mary kneels down at Jesus’ feet, and anoints them with a pound of pure ointment. God knows what it cost. It disappears onto his feet, filling the whole house with its scent. And she does it with her hair.
Is there anywhere a more extravagant symbol of pure gratitude, pure love? Mary and Martha have received their brother Lazarus back to life. How can anyone possibly pay God back for giving back life? It is not possible. But this meal, this extravagance, tries to do so.
The greatness of Martha and Mary is that even if they cannot possibly repay the gift they have been given, they try. They do what they can do, and they do it the best way they know how. Nothing is stinted. No corners are cut. Not even dignity is left unoffered, as one sister does the serving and the other anoints the feet with her hair. There is not a shred of self-regard. All is given, all is shared.
But there is another, even stranger, aspect to this story. There is Lazarus, back from the dead, seated and eating and talking with Jesus, letting his sisters embody what for their culture is the epitome of feminine virtue. The raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel is the occasion for the famous remark of Caiaphas, that it is fitting that one man should die for the people, which is spoken in the paragraph immediately preceding this story. The authorities are looking for Jesus, because they want to kill him.
So this event is, as anthropologists would say, liminal. It is on the threshold of the living and the dead. This dinner is dangerous. It is a risky business, this Resurrection banquet. Lazarus was dead and is alive. Jesus is alive and will soon die. They all know both of these things. News of the authorities’ determination has surely spread. The ointment is for funerals, and Jesus tells them so.
This time at table is for all of them a time in-between, a time when life can become death and death can become life. It is the symbol of the new life of Lazarus in this world, already begun, with his escape from death, a symbol of the new life of believers whose lives will be given new, undreamed possibilities in the resurrection of Christ. And it is the symbol of the impending death of Jesus, shortly and violently to happen, but with his death to this world the beginning of new, undreamed possibilities in his Resurrection. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”, says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah.
And this dinner in Bethany is also a symbol of a community which is already gathering around Lazarus, the first of us to find the new life in this life, and around Jesus, the one who brings that life, and through the loss of his own life, gives life to all. This community is born of the gracious generosity of Martha and the selfless sacrifice of Mary, of their recognition in the face of danger that something new is being born and must be celebrated. There is risk in this resurrection community. The world, which Christ came to redeem does not recognize him and wants to kill him. Peter will deny Christ three times. But Martha, Mary and Lazarus at some risk to themselves, host a public feast with the most extravagant honor for Jesus.
And so here we are today at another resurrection banquet. Is Lazarus with us this morning? Has anyone here found new life? Are we willing to set a table in the face of our enemies and feast publicly? Are we ready to be that small part of the world the Word has made that does recognize him when he comes? Are we willing to give the most precious gift we can think of? Are we ready get down on our knees, let down our hair, and wash the feet of Jesus?