HolyCross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC
Lent 5 C – Sunday, March 17, 2013
|Mary washing Jesus' feet|
Picture found on the Handmaidens of the Lord blog - Credit unknown
Today's reading from the Gospel according to John presents an interesting tableau. Jesus' time in the flesh is growing short. He is, as they say, turning his face toward Jerusalem. The last supper is yet to come, but John gives us something like the last dinner party – which is not the subject of any particularly well known paintings...
Here we are at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. In Luke's gospel, Mary and Martha get into a bit of a tiff at a dinner party... Martha gets upset because Mary is not helping. John tells us that once again Martha is doing all the cooking while Mary is once again at Jesus' feet. But this time there appears to be no complaint from Martha.
And John reminds us that Lazarus is the one Jesus has raised from the dead. It is pretty heavy handed foreshadowing. John is setting the stage for Jesus being raised from the dead.
John leaves the impression that there are a fair number of people at this dinner – but he doesn't give many names. Really all we know are Jesus, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Judas.
Two notable events take place – and its interesting that neither of them have much to do with dinner. We have to wonder if any food ever served at this dinner party.
The first dramatic event is Mary anointing Jesus' feet with expensive perfume made with pure nard. In Mark's gospel Jesus' head is anointed with pure nard, but John applies it to Jesus' feet – perhaps even more extravagant... Nard is an exotic spice oil from the far east, the foothills of the Himalayas, so it is precious. And Mary doesn't use it sparingly – she empties the container.
This drives Judas crazy. And so we come to the second dramatic event. Judas has a tempter tantrum. How could such extravagance be justified. The perfume could have been sold and the money used for the poor. Judas even knows how much money – 300 denarii.
Now money is an interesting thing. Its natural to want to know how much money we're talking about, since most of us don't deal in denarii. But it is a very imprecise question because money works differently in our economy than in the economy of Jesus time.
300 denarii, according to Google, which after all knows everything, is equivalent perhaps to about $30 dollars – a few trips to Starbucks if you like. And at the same time 300 denarii is equivalent to about 1 years wages. So while 300 denarii is not an unfathomable about of money, it is an amount not lightly spent. It is worth nothing that Mary had such a jar of nard in the first place – it tells us that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were not poor.
But John is not so much interested in telling us about Mary as about Judas. Judas makes this big protest about what might have been done for the poor, but John tells us he is the worst sort of hypocrite. He doesn't care about the poor. He is in the habit of stealing from the common purse. He wanted the money to be contributed to the poor by way of that common purse... Hypocrisy and greed. This is not at all a pretty picture.
But lets let Judas simmer on a back burner for a few moments while we go back and take a closer look at Mary of the nard...
We encounter a number of women named Mary in scripture – sometimes its hard to keep track of just which Mary we're talking about. There is Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Mary the Mother of James, and even a rather generic reference to “the other Mary.” Perhaps we're not really meant to keep them all separate – maybe they are supposed to blur together. For all the Maries of the Gospels are teaching us profound lessons in discipleship.
Throughout the history of the Christian Church we have struggled with the place of women in the church. But throughout the gospels, Mary, with her various faces, keeps teaching us what it means to follow Jesus in a way that has no male equal.
Here is Mary – in the Bethany edition – showing us true humble service to Jesus. And its certainly no coincidence that she is washing and anointing feet – an act that Jesus will soon perform with the disciples and we will commemorate on Maundy Thursday. Mary is ahead of the curve.
This context makes Judas all the more a scoundrel. Mary is faithfully serving Jesus while Judas is betraying. Mary is teaching us what it is to be a Christian and Judas is teaching us what it is not... The two are as far apart as can be. Judas is telling us lies while Mary is living the truth.
So back to Judas... what is that act of betrayal. Well we surely know that Judas will sell out Jesus to the authorities – that is part of the betrayal. But then we have this whole business about Judas being a thief, not really being very concerned for the poor... and this is also betrayal. We know that Jesus has a special concern for the poor – along with orphans and widows, prisoners, the sick and suffering, the outcast, just to mention a few. Judas' betrayal is not in the future – it is already happening.
Judas betrays Jesus by betraying the poor.
There is a sobering thought. I must admit there are times I have been more concerned with my own comfort than the care of the poor – and this, after all, is what John accuses Judas of. He stole from the common purse, from the poor, for his own purposes. This particular reading calls me, calls all of us, to look at our own betrayal of Jesus.
Add to this the reality that “the poor” is a sort of short hand for that whole long list of people about whom we must be concerned... that whole list of brothers and sisters for whom we must be “keeper” and we multiply the betrayal.
John, in this Gospel, is telling the faithful how they will live without Jesus in the flesh. That is our reality. So we have the humble, faithful servant image of Mary before us and the lying cheat of Judas.
I'd like to say its a simple and easy choice... except experience tells me its not. With relative frequency and ease, I have chosen Judas instead of Mary for my model. But more dramatic is the betrayal that we as a people, as a society, as a nation have committed.
I may not steal from the poor and the powerless, but look at what is done in my name, in all our names... We subsidize wealthy corporate farms and oil companies, we provide tax shelters for the extremely rich, we allow the concentration of wealth in a very few hands and the cost of doing that is that many of our brothers and sisters go without health care, live in appalling housing, face abuse and violence. Many of our aged brothers and sisters live in squalor, forced to choose between medication and nutrition. And we won't even talk about what kind of treatment prisoners receive in our jails.
Our common purse is stolen from all the time and redirected to the benefit of the rich at the expense of the suffering. Jesus is betrayed.
Yet here is another thing I know. Jesus loves Judas as much as Jesus loves Mary. And that is also how much Jesus loves each of us. Its not my failings and frailties that constitute my relationship with God. It is God's boundless love and forgiveness.
Jesus' final statement in this reading has always sounded strange in my ear. The poor will be with you always. It sounds like Jesus is saying its OK to deprive the poor of the value of the perfume in order that he be pampered because we can never resolve the issue of the poor anyway.
But that misses the point. Judas wasn't sincere in his interest in the poor. Mary was sincere in her discipleship. We know that to follow Jesus, to be sincere disciples, is to care for the poor, for the orphans, and so on. And the poor, the powerless, the oppressed will be with us always. In other words we will always have opportunities to be faithful disciples. If I blow it today... If today I choose Judas as my model, then there will be tomorrow when I pray I will choose Mary, in any of her incarnations, as my model...
Jesus is not telling us there is no hope for the poor, Jesus is telling us there is always hope for the poor, the downtrodden, the suffering, because there is always hope for us.