I am a firm believer that the Bible has a sense of humor. Sometimes you have to think about it. Sometimes you have to do a little theological double-take. Sometimes people even try to hide it or pretend that religion is all serious all the time. But if you take a moment to soak it all in, you will certainly find it.
Today’s Gospel is a bit like that. When I sat down at first to write today’s sermon I genuinely laughed out loud the first few times I read it.
Look at the end of the reading – the Pharisees get angry with Lazarus after Jesus raises him from the dead, because now more people are starting to believe in Jesus. So what genius plan do the Pharisees come up with?
“Let’s kill him!”
uhh…. Anybody see the flaw in that plan? J That’s the one guy you can’t kill!
“wait… let’s try this again”
Needless to say, their plan doesn’t seem to have worked out.
It’s a good thing that the Scriptures give us a bit of humor, perhaps, because this passage also gives us one of the more troubling and difficult passages of Jesus’ ministry, at least in John’s Gospel.
The scene is set – Just after Jesus raises Lazarus to life again, the enormous buzz circulating around town (imagine the publicity if someone was literally raised from the dead in your neighborhood!) had alerted Jesus’ pursuers who were now hot on his trail trying to catch him. So he takes a break from the public gatherings and miracle working amongst the crowds to instead have dinner with some of the people he knows best – some of his closest friends. Mary, Martha and Lazarus were there, as was Judas, so perhaps some or all of the other eleven disciples were present too. Up to this point, Jesus has been virtually relentlessly professing his own imminent death at almost every possible opportunity. With the authorities in hot pursuit, perhaps it is not surprising that a sense of fear would have gripped everyone in the house – all of their lives could be in danger just for associating with Jesus.
And yet, instead of overwhelming trepidation, the dinner is marked by the extraordinarily profound act of affection that Mary displays for Jesus. Pouring an astounding 327 grams (as we are told in Luke’s Gospel) of costly and very strong perfume all over his feet, she famously washes them with her hair.
Imagine the intimacy of such an act. Imagine the smell – the power – the humility of it all.
Now put yourself in the body of an onlooker – a fellow guest at the dinner. What would you have thought, standing there watching such a display? Would you be captivated? Or amused? Or maybe even shocked or revolted?
Ten days from now, on Maundy Thursday, we will remember this event and the separate washing of Jesus’ disciples feet (although of course we will do it with towels and water rather than hair and perfume!), and I hope you will be here to join us.
This marvelously compelling occasion gives voice not only to the shockingly bold move on Mary’s part, but especially to Jesus’ remark when Judas slyly condemns her. The particularly clever Judas Iscariot cannily uses a question that actually makes a lot of sense.
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Yes, Judas is a thief, but had the question come from say, Peter or another disciple, we probably would give him the benefit of the doubt, and in fact a lot of us might have asked the same if were in that position – I for one certainly might have. After all, Jesus has been preaching constantly about the need to serve the poor, and he’s told people in the past to sell their possessions to give the money to those most in need. So why should this case be any different?
I continually wrestle with Jesus’ response here, in words that hit me every time like a heavy punch in the chest. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”.
Both parts of that statement – every word of it – make me want to leap out of my seat and argue right back at Jesus. After all – isn’t this the same Jesus who calls us to work for justice and equality, and against the divisions of rich and poor that permeate our world? Isn’t this the same Jesus who upends the systems of segregation that divide the haves from the have-nots, and demands that we do the same? And for that matter, isn’t this the Jesus – the same Son of God and member of the eternal Trinity who promised to be with us until the end of time? Isn’t this the Jesus about whom we profess in our creeds every single Sunday that he is “co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit” and “whose kingdom will have no end”?
So how then should we accept that poverty will be with us forever and Jesus would not. In fact, my instincts would’ve argued, it should be the other way around!!
So what IS it that Jesus is saying here? What is a believer to do? Just give up on our work of fighting against the crushing poverty that causes boundless death and destruction in our world every single day? Are we to just throw up our hands and say ‘there’s nothing we can do’? Should we truly believe that without – or even with – the mystical presence of Jesus Christ, the son of God walking in our midst that we are powerless to keep people from starving for lack of food or freezing from lack of clothing and shelter on our very own streets?
These are some very hard questions, and I would be a liar if I told you I had all – or even some of the answers. The best I can do is to continue to struggle with you every day that God puts breath in this body.
As I was preparing this sermon, it occurred to me for the very first time that perhaps this passage isn’t mostly about poverty at all. Poverty, after all, was just the herring that Judas throws up for his own benefit, for the purpose of stealing money from the poor in the first place. Maybe instead this passage is actually about mortality. What if really, Jesus is sitting there, with burial perfume on his feet, just talking one more time about death and new life.
This past week, I received word that Wes and Tiffane, two dear friends of mine and of my family who have not known each other in this life were in the very last days of their respective earthly journeys. Both reaching the ends of their longtime battles with cancer and other medical struggles, I was – and am – profoundly moved by the courage and grace with which both have faced the death of this mortal body and their final moments with family and friends on this earth.
“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The more I read it, the more I realize that Jesus is really preaching his own eulogy just a few days before taking his last breath on Calvary’s hill. It’s not just a swan-song, but the beginning of the mourning and moving forward to a new reality when he would no longer walk among us in this flesh-and-bones body anymore.
In her final social media message, Tiffane wrote just a few days ago “I saw the handwriting on the wall. It is confirmed today and all is well with my soul”. Wes, a longtime Episcopal priest, penned a powerful final sermon for all those he would soon leave behind. “It is now that I must pass the cross!” he said “Just as Jesus needed help to carry the cross in his final test, I too need your help. I need your LOVE & HOPE!”.
Not all of us will have the fortune, or the wisdom, to know in advance when our time is coming, or to anticipate our impending mortality. And not all of us will get to write our final farewells to our dearest loved ones in this world.
Friends, while we may not be looking consciously toward the impending end of our fleshly walk, we live in a world of constant changes and transitions. For some, that means going home to the place that stirs your heart, but leaving dear friends along the way. For some it means being stirred, perhaps abruptly or even violently out of old thought processes or ways of life. For others, it’s adjusting to new rhythms, new situations, and leaving behind the old all-too-comfortable but unhealthy well-trodden paths.
Whatever those transitions may be – whatever deaths we must die so that new lives can be gained – we are called to love and look after those in our midst. We are compelled by Christ’s Gospel to continue to serve the poor and the needy around us, even though our eternal sinfulness means that inequality will persist as long as humanity persists.
Yet like Jesus and like Lazarus – like Tiffane and like Wes – we must die our deaths, mourn our mourning, and sometimes give our own eulogies if we want to be raised to new life and new creation. The Chief Priests of our ugliest vices cannot kill what God continues to raise up.