Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Honoring Jesus

Scripture for the 5th Sunday in Lent includes Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; and John 12:1-8.

A lot is said in that first sentence of our Gospel today: “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” John the Gospel-writer sets the context for all that will happen in Holy Week: Jesus has withdrawn to a safe house, and from there he sets his course to coincide with the arrival of all those pilgrims from around the Mediterranean Basin for whom Jerusalem is the destination. Destiny is more what is on our Lord’s mind. And his destiny is prefigured in what happens in that safe house.

To call it safe is a stretch. At table with him is Lazarus, for it is his home. And it is because of the raising of Lazarus from his grave that the death warrant for Jesus has been issued by the powers-that-be in Jerusalem. Jesus healed many lepers, madmen, and blind beggars; and with each healing, his reputation grew, and his following. But a tipping point was reached when he summoned his friend Lazarus out of the sepulcher. From that moment, our Lord’s street cred peaked. Listen to the next verses that follow our portion today: “When the great crowd learned that Jesus was at Lazarus’s house, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many were deserting the old religion and were believing in Jesus.”

How to understand that plotting by chief priests whose calling was to serve and celebrate the glory of God? They didn’t recognize the divine glory when it appeared before them. They expected it to reside in the box of the temple in Jerusalem. Instead, the divine presence erupts all across the Judean countryside, especially the villages, especially among the poor, especially among the outcasts and riffraff of society, where God was pleased to dwell. You might say that God’s glory was perfectly camouflaged from the eyes of the chief priests. Like many upright ordained professional leaders of institutional religion, their time was not spent socializing with outcasts. Living inside the box, they thought inside the box.

And very soon, their nemesis will come knocking on the walls of that box, reaching its gates in militant humility, laying siege to the walls of Jerusalem not with an army but with the shekinah, the divine presence and glory, burning within him.

What Rome expected of the chief priests was that they excel at crowd control. Pilgrimage crowds, for example, which offered good cover to radical zealots, as they do to this day. In the first century, as close as one might come to a suicide bombing might be a self-appointed messiah setting up his soap box in the city precincts, calling on Israel to rise up and overthrow the infidel Caesar. That speech would not last long. But that it might happen in the temple precincts, that the speaker might have unusual command of the law and the prophets, that this radical demonstration might command a big restive audience—all that could come home to roost on the chief priests and elders and scribes, all of whom might lose their power and their influence at the discretion of Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea. And so they plot to protect themselves, while simultaneously our Lord’s destiny is being reached by his becoming vulnerable to that very plotting, even by one of his nearest and dearest.

It’s not primarily his own destiny that concerns him. Passover celebrates the action of God calling-forth and gathering-up his people, freeing them from bondage to tyrants, setting them on the world stage as a nation capable of blessing all nations. Jesus knows that the divine glory is breaking down all barriers to the in-gathering of all God’s children, and to that inclusiveness he gives his passion. As if on cue, some Greeks approach the disciples during this festival and announce that they wish to see Jesus. Pharisees are heard slapping their foreheads muttering, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

But I’m getting ahead of our story. Today, this is still a safe house, where Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha live. Martha has prepared one of her signature meals, prefiguring the Last Supper that will soon take place. And Mary has spent an entire year’s wages on a pound of perfume.

Was it she who worried, back on that gracious fateful day, that there was already a stench coming from her brother’s tomb? Now the room fills with the sweet sting of pure nard, the lavish extravagance of this prodigal daughter. She is at the center of this little Gospel story.

What she does prefigures yet more of Holy Week. That she anoints Jesus looks ahead to how he will be anointed for burial. That she anoints his feet calls us to see Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on the night of that future supper, the night in which he was betrayed.

In art across the centuries, men usually occupy all the spots at that upper room table. Notice here it is a woman who shows us what discipleship looks like. New Testament scholar Gail O’Day says it so well: “In Mary, then, the reader is given a picture of the fullness of the life of discipleship. Her act shows forth the love that will be the hallmark of discipleship in John and the recognition of Jesus’ identity that is the decisive mark of Christian life. The power of the witness of Mary’s discipleship in this story is that she knows how to respond to Jesus without being told. She fulfills Jesus’ love commandment before he even teaches it; she embraces Jesus’ departure at his hour before he has taught his followers about its true meaning… She gives boldly of herself in love to Jesus at his hour, just as Jesus will give boldly of himself in love at his hour.”

She expresses in action what St. Paul expresses in words: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

And then there’s Judas Iscariot. John has us inhale the sweet fragrance of all this devotion, then says, “But…” But Judas, one of the twelve, said by some to be among the closest to Jesus, Judas raises an objection. Why hasn’t someone grabbed that pound of perfume out of Mary’s wasteful hands and sold it to feed the poor?

Which gives the evangelist John his gratifying moment to tell us that Judas was all about Judas, not about the poor.

Reacting sharply to Judas’s blaming Mary, Jesus rebukes him: “Leave her alone. This is her choice, and she has provided for me so generously that it will be enough for the day of my burial. You do understand that this is where we’re heading, don’t you, Judas? A genuine concern for the poor will always be a hallmark of the people of God, and it will be to honor them as God honors them. Mary is honoring me. Are you?”

We must allow ourselves to hear that question asked of us. We are practical souls who plan to spend our time carefully. When Holy Week comes, seven days from today, how generously, like Mary, will we honor our Lord Jesus Christ by our presence at his table Maundy Thursday, in the hours of his passion on Good Friday, and as his church gathers at his empty tomb on Easter Eve?

Will these be expendable moments that just can’t hold a candle to the more pressing things we’ll have to do that week, or will we recognize that it is time to allow ourselves to be anointed yet again by this sweet and precious knowledge that Christ Jesus has made us his own?

(Gail O’Day’s commentary on the Gospel of John is found in Volume IX of “The New Interpeter’s Bible.”)