Thursday, March 10, 2016
March 13, Lent 5: Admit to Your Judas, Submit to Your Mary
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
"I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, that I may attain somehow the resurrection from the dead."
This story happens the night before Palm Sunday. The next day, Jesus will ride into Jerusalem, declare himself, and set the events in motion from which there was no turning back. In seven days he will be dead. So this is the next-to-Last Supper. This is the foot-washing before the foot-washing.
Jesus can feel what’s coming. He knows what he must do, and he can foresee the opposition. He is doing his Messiah-thing in an unexpected way—not taking up weapons, refusing to fight, hoping that he might somehow attain the resurrection from the dead. But to gain that resurrection he has to lose some lovely things, like nice dinner parties, like hanging out with friends, like being touched. He had a real life he was losing. He was gaining God’s goal, but he was losing the life he loved.
This is in the house of his best friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus sits next to him because they were so close. When Lazarus had died, Jesus cried. When Jesus raised his friend from the dead, that sealed his own death-warrant. So he’ll be losing Lazarus again, but this time by his own death. He’ll be losing Mary and Martha too.
This is their last meal for him. They had always been good to him. They supported him; he often took refuge in their house. He let down his hair with them. They, unlike the disciples, wanted nothing from him. So tonight, before his impending ordeal, he accepts the lavish love that Mary pours on him. It comforts him that she wants him in her hair.
Mary violates propriety by letting down her hair. This is reckless potential sexuality. It will have been electric, everybody watches. The room is filled with fragrant sensuality. Should Jesus allow this? She is a wealthy woman, she could have a servant wash his feet. And why not use a towel—why her hair? When she wipes the lotion off his feet, the dirt and his sweat come into her hair. Why does she want to wear the smell of him? Yes, it is love, even physical love, but this physical love isn’t sexual, it’s grief. She can feel she’s losing him, she wants to hang on to him, she wants a part of him.
The perfume was the same stuff she had recently used on her brother’s body when she washed him for burial. And now, as the two men sit together, she intuits the link between the living of her brother and the dying of her Lord. If she could have foreseen that getting Lazarus back would cost her Jesus, would she have stopped him from raising him? What a choice. And so her grief is great. She had just learned to know him as the resurrection and the life. She had heard his voice command the dead to come forth. If they kill him, if they silence that voice, then who will raise the dead?
Mary is reckless, but Judas is tight. Mary is open and indiscreet, and Judas is closed off and duplicitous. He is a disappointed man. He used to admire Jesus; here was the Messiah, who should restore the nation of Israel. But by now, Judas thinks that Jesus has lost it altogether. He’s angry at his leader, and he’s turning against him. He’s faking it, and he’s doing little acts of sabotage along the way. Even when what he says is true, like about the poor, it’s really an indirect attack. He’s really saying, “How can you let this happen to yourself? How can you throw this all away?”
Don’t think of Judas as a monster; he is a frustrated idealist. He represents a part of all of us, our frustration at the way that God does things. Especially at the losses in our lives in spite of our belief in God. Like when you thought that God was leading you but things did not turn out. Like when you had rejoiced in something as a gain, that turned out as a loss. The new job you got that turned out worse than the job you had left it for. Your vision that proved to be only a mirage. The dream that had inspired you has been deferred, and “dried up like a raisin in the sun.” What are you embittered at? How do you vent? How do you transfer it on to others? What do you hold against God? In this case repentance means this: Shall you nurture your frustration, or can you give it up to God?
Judas is like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. His anger will lead him to the destruction of both Jesus and himself. But not just yet. He still has a choice. He isn’t playing out a script. Jesus’ rebuke is also an invitation. Judas can still surrender to this Messiah, even if he’s not the kind of Messiah he was hoping for. He can stop being double, and own up to his anger and his unbelief.
He’ll have to make his confession. But of course that will feel like a loss. It will be a grief; there’s grief in every letting go, even in letting go what’s troubling you. There’s always grief in giving in to God, accepting the world the way God runs it; there’s grief in giving up the feeling of empowerment that anger gives. There’s grief in surrendering your frustrations, and giving up the justice that you deserve. There’s grief in just having been so wrong. Can Judas go down to grief along with Mary?
All of you have both Mary and Judas inside you. Lent is the season that reminds you to admit to your Judas, and submit to your Mary. And if the only perfume that your Judas has to put on Jesus’ feet is your anger or frustration or disappointment or your unbelief, God takes that as well. I give you permission to be mad at God. It’s better than faking it. God can take it, God works with it.
What God does not work with is our refusal to work it. We may not say it’s not that bad. We may not say he did not need to die for us. What we may not do with Jesus is keep him only as an inspired leader or teacher or example, disavowing the necessity of his death, and avoiding his hope in his resurrection. You can’t know Christ without the desperate side, without the sharing of his sufferings. You can’t know Christ without the perfume of his death and resurrection. But you can know Christ by letting your Judas die with him, and by clinging like Mary to the power of his resurrection.
I have three take-aways for you. First, the Christian faith has an impractical side, like Mary with the perfume. That has to be a part of your worship. You should not expect that all you do here in the liturgy is practical. Much of what you do, you do because it’s fitting for God, it’s the service of God, not yourselves. The worship service is an end in itself, and it’s hard to explain this to people who are not driven by a love of God or a desire for God. It looks like a “royal waste of time” (Marva Dawn). But it is worship. It’s perfume on Jesus’ feet. Let yourself be Mary.
It’s a fair question to ask how can we spend money on renovating our sanctuary and our pipe organ when we could give that money to the poor. But let me tell you—in all my work with the poor, I have never heard a poor person speak resentfully of a sacred sanctuary or beautiful music. Indeed, the opposite—it is poor people who appreciate these things more than prosperous people do. So if people ask you how we serve this community, you can answer that we offer worship! Not an answer they expect, or even accept, but you can rest in that answer for yourself.
Second is the importance of the poor for us as Christians. Not from a stance of philanthropy, like Judas, but a stance of solidarity and identity. Not only that we help them, but that we include them. The poor need justice and the poor need money. Where you begin is first to be with the poor. Eat with them. Sit with them. Wash their clothes. Wash their feet. Pray with them. Worship with them. Accept their love. What Jesus says to Judas is a parable: In order to know Christ, serve the poor. And knowing Christ is the key to loving God and loving your neighbor.
Third, if you struggle with this whole thing of the importance and meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, don’t do it logically but symbolically and emotionally. Let yourself be Judas and Mary. Let yourself be Judas, meditate on Judas, explore his feelings, what he represents about humanity and yourself. Go down with him and join him in being a “miserable offender.” And then also be Mary. Meditate on her, explore her feelings, what she represents for the hopes of humanity and yourself. Judas for death, Mary for life.
In our liturgy which follows today, be Judas in the prayer of confession. This is for grief and letting go. And then at communion be Mary—touch the body of Christ, put it in your mouth. I’m going to put some perfumed oil on the bread. Don’t worry, it’s completely edible. The bread is for life and the perfume is for love. Take the perfumed bread into your mouth, into your body, as the sign and seal of God’s great love for you.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.