Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 13, 2016
I imagine the beloved disciple, pen in hand, eyesight failing, joints aching, and bones tired. He’s hunched, wizened, wrinkled. How has he lived this long? Easterly winds send a breeze. His wild hair flows as he gazes at the ships that sail from the Aegean Sea into the Ephesus port.
The writer of the Gospel of John never says, “This was written by John.” Others have come to that conclusion. He does the Gospel was written by “the disciple Jesus loved.” He also clearly says he was an eyewitness. The Gospel of John comes from his memory.
He arranges the story, not chronologically, but in order to help the reader come to faith in Jesus. Everything in this account is meant to guide you and me to believe and have life in Jesus’ name. This includes what he tells us about Mary the sister of Lazarus and the disciple Judas Iscariot.
The Beloved Disciple remembers the high priest, Caiaphas, was persuasive when he convinced other priests and Pharisees that Jesus’ claims were so revolutionary, he had to be killed for the good of the nation.
The beloved disciple sets the scene. Caiaphas plots the undoing of Jesus at a council meeting, while in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, Jesus is another kind of meeting, a dinner meeting in the home of Lazarus. This is the same man who had been dead, 4 days in the tomb dead. Jesus brought him back to life.
Lazarus has a dinner party for Jesus and the 12 disciples. There are others around them including his sisters Martha and Mary. The beloved disciple remembers all of this.
Martha was serving. Those who reclined at the table eating were the men, Jesus, Lazarus the host, and the 12 disciples. Mary enters and dumps a pound of expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus. Social conventions dictated that she help Martha in the kitchen.
But we’ve read the gospels. We remember Luke 10 where Martha dutifully served, but Mary sat among the men because to her Jesus’ teaching was worth whatever scorn she would receive for sitting among the men. Jesus commended her decision. She has chosen “the better part,” he said, and it will not be taken from her.
In the previous section of the Gospel, John 11, Lazarus dies, and both Martha and Mary are upset with Jesus. When he finally comes, Martha confronts him with a theological argument. Jesus responds in kind. Mary says the same words as Martha, but where Martha spoke out of her head knowledge, Mary spoke the same words through tears. Jesus wept with her.
Now, the beloved disciple tells this story and once again Martha with apron on serves a meal fit for a king. Mary is off somewhere and when she comes in it is to dump a year’s worth of income spilled out onto the feet of Jesus. The Beloved disciples remembers this.
I don’t remember smells. However, when a powerful smell associated with an event from my past hits my nose, it takes me back there. I cannot imagine the smell from my grandmother’s house. But if I smelled it right now, I would feel great joy and sadness. The joy would come from the memory evoked by the smell, all the laughter and love in that house. The sadness would be because I can smell the smell, but cannot go there. I cannot see her, not now, not yet.
The beloved disciple remembers that the house was filled with the fragrance of that perfume Mary poured on Jesus. His memory associates her with absolute adoration of Jesus and with beautiful smells that fill the house.
He remembered Judas too, but it was a very different memory. When he writes Judas’ name, he includes a parenthetical note. Judas was about to betray Jesus. The beloved disciple didn’t know it at the time. Peter didn’t know it then. Neither did Mary or Martha. But looking back, they remember Judas as the betrayer. The beloved disciple tells us Judas was the group’s treasurer and used to steal from the common fund. We see in Luke 8 that a group of affluent women provided for Jesus and the disciples’ material needs. Judas pocketed some of the money those women gave and he was able to do so because he was given the responsibility of managing their funds.
On that breezy Ephesian shore as he writes his gospel, the beloved disciple remembers Judas and Mary. One, in his memory, is a betraying thief. The other worships so extravagantly the entire house is blessed by the aroma.
How are we remembered? Sixty years from now, someone from here will write the story of HillSong Church as a community that gave witness to the Kingdom of God in Chapel Hill in the opening decades of the 21st century. When that person remembers your part in the community, what will she remember? What words will she associate with your life as a disciple of Jesus?
Judas and Mary are complex people. All people are. Judas was far more than a thief and a betrayer. The other gospels record Jesus filling all 12 with the Holy Spirit so that they had the power to work miracles and defeat demons. He gave the power to Judas.
And Mary made her mistakes. The same qualities that allowed her to weep empathetically, to present her heart before the Lord, and to worship extravagantly also had a dark side. She left a lot of the hard, banal work to Martha. Yes, Jesus commended her for listening to his teaching and we should too. But Martha’s efforts in the kitchen were needed by the community. Sometimes dreamers like Mary need to take their turn washing the dishes.
Judas had his good qualities. Mary had her faults. When the beloved disciple remembered her, he remembered joy in Jesus and wonderful smells. When he remembered Judas, he remembered treachery.
He also remembered the way each of them elicited a response from Jesus. Judas saw Mary dump the perfume and he snapped at her. Something in him was missing. He couldn’t appreciate her beautiful generosity. And even though he was under the covering of Jesus’ grace, somehow, he couldn’t be in the sphere of grace. Somehow, even when he was in grace, he wasn’t in it.
While she worshipped big and bold, he did math. Was he truly concerned about money that could go to the poor or money that would go in his pocket? Maybe both. What the beloved disciple remembers is Jesus was quiet, until Judas snapped at Mary. Then, Jesus sharply chided him. “Leave her alone,” Jesus said. How embarrassed was Judas at that point? He tried to be logical but missed the outpouring of love and grace, and Jesus slapped him down.
The beloved disciple tells us what Jesus said next. “She is honoring me before my burial.” He remembers that Judas elicited a rebuke from Jesus. Jesus responded to Mary by commending her for what she did.
How will we be remembered, you and me? And how does the Lord receive what we give? There is a place for strategic thinking, like that of Judas. Economists, finance people, logical thinkers, and strategists all have something to offer to the church and to the Lord in the work of helping the poor.
But that offering does not take the place of fully committed worship. When she broke that jug of perfume and it began pouring, that was full commitment, but she did not hesitate a moment because she was driven by love for Jesus.
The phrase that has been most repeated out of this remembrance the beloved disciple shares is Jesus’ statement in verse 8. “You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Christians have used this as an excuse to not give money to help the poor. The ones using that excuse are not like Mary, using ridiculous amounts of money to worship God extravagantly. They use Jesus words, but then do what Judas. They keep their money in their own pockets. They do not practice the generosity Jesus commended.
Or, others quote John 12:8 to explain why they give a little to compassion ministries, but not a lot. Or others quote John 12:8 to explain why, even though they’ve given money and worked to eradicate debilitating poverty, the efforts have failed. No matter how hard we work, they’ll say, we’ll never end poverty because Jesus said … .
The beloved disciples wasn’t making a statement about what policies Christian should adopt in social justice ministries. He was remembering. He remembered beautiful smells and unrestrained worship from Mary, and he remembered that Jesus was grateful. He remembered dishonesty and betrayal and hypocrisy from Judas, and Jesus was angry.
We know followers of Jesus are called to help people and helping people includes fighting against injustice, disease, hunger, inadequate housing, unfair practices in business and the justice system, and poverty. We know that we are to fight these things because we follow Jesus. We’ve read Luke’s gospel. We know this. We’ve read James. And the prophet Amos. And Isaiah. And the book of Deuteronomy. And the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Well, all of Matthew’s Gospel. And Galatians 6. And … well, you get the picture. Followers of Jesus help people and give generously. That’s not in question.
In the memories of the beloved disciple, it is clear to me that what we do and how we do it is completely related to how we stand in relationship to Jesus. Do we worship with abandon or restraint? Are we driven by our love for him and what we can give to him, or by more self-serving desires?
How we answer these questions is irrelevant. People don’t remember what we say. They remember what we do. When we do give to the poor and help people are we acting out of our love for Jesus and in response to his call? What memories will people have of our actions, taken today? What do those actions say about how we feel about Jesus and about who we are in relation to Him?
Mary was a follower. She followed Jesus. She worshiped him. She loved him. She obeyed him. She didn’t do it all perfectly, no one does. But her heart was driven by passion for God and she knew Jesus was the one to bring her to God.
Are we free enough to pour ourselves out before God? Or is something preventing us from coming to the Lord in unrestrained, free, fully committed, ridiculously God-indulgent worship?
My guess is, most of us have something that blocks us from truly free expression of our love for God. Contemplate that. Are you able to pour yourself out before him?