John 12:1-8 (online here)
Last week we heard Jesus tell a story about a son who squandered everything to his own detriment and a father who also squandered everything in joyful reconciliation. This week we’ve switched Gospels from Luke to John, but we’ve still got a story about squandering on our hands. In both stories there’s something more than a little bit outrageous going on, but then there’s always something outrageous about the love of God. And that’s a good thing.
There’s even something a bit outrageous about the way John sets up this episode. It starts with Jesus having dinner with Lazarus, who, by the way, used to be a corpse. But now he’s having dinner with Jesus. Now suppose I started telling you a story like this: “Last week I went to a dinner party at this guy’s house. That, by the way, was after they got back from this convention on the planet Mars, but let me tell you what happened at that dinner party.” A convention on Mars is not something you just casually mention as you’re getting ready to tell a story about something else, but John does something like that with Lazarus. Of course, John did already tell us about that, didn’t he? But that doesn’t make it any less mind-boggling to hear it mentioned in passing.
Now just to get this out of the way, I hope you realize that in Churches like ours it’s perfectly OK for you to believe that this story about Lazarus reflects more imagination than memory at work in the telling of it, before John got around to putting it down on paper. It’s also OK for you to take it at face value. Our creeds don’t ask you to make up your mind about how this story got written, because they, and John too, want you to at least consider believing something even more startling than raising a very dead, smelly corpse to life again.
John, after all, wants us to believe that the Word, who was somehow God, “became flesh and lived among us” (1:14) in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s the part of the story John really cares about, and to me, at least, that makes raising the dead look pretty tame. No wonder John tosses it into the story so casually.
So now, back to the story, here’s Jesus, who just happens to be the Word-made-flesh, having dinner with Lazarus, who just happens to have been (until recently) dead as a doornail. And that’s just the set-up for this episode.
We’ve also met Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters. They’re not having dinner. They’re working. That was the usual arrangement back then. Martha does the serving. Mary does something strange.
Mary squanders a year’s wages worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet, and then she literally lets her hair down to wipe them off. Now in case you didn’t know, letting your hair down back then was about as acceptable as hiking your cocktail dress up above your waist at a formal reception today. So this is a bit bizarre. On top of that, when you anoint people with that expensive stuff, you’re supposed to anoint their heads, not their feet, with one exception, and that’s if you’re anointing a corpse before the funeral. But the only corpse here is Lazarus, and he’s an ex-corpse now. So not only does Mary seem totally unaware of finances or social propriety, she also can’t seem to tell the difference between the living and the dead, either. Her behavior isn’t just impractical or socially awkward, it’s utterly demented. Maybe somebody should check her into the stress center.
So now we’ve got a story about the Word-made-flesh, and ex-corpse, and his maybe-demented sister. The only ordinary people left are Martha and Judas. No, wait a minute, Judas turns out to be an embezzler. So that leaves Martha. But Martha’s already out of the picture. So I guess there aren’t any ordinary people left, just an embezzler, a lunatic, an ex-corpse and the Word-made-flesh. That just might be a clue that the rest of the story’s going to unfold just as oddly as it started.
Judas, the embezzler, comes across as the voice of sanity and social justice. If you’re going to throw money around like that, he says, wouldn’t it be better to give it to the poor? It’s actually the sort of thing you might expect Jesus to say himself. But this time it’s Judas who says it. We know that Judas is one of the villains in this whole drama—John says as much—so we don’t expect him to say something Jesus might have said. But he’s the one who said it. Put the money toward God’s coming reign. Give it to the poor. Don’t waste it. Sounds like good advice, doesn’t it? If Judas doesn’t really mean it, so what? It’s still a good idea. Who could object to that?
Well, this time, Jesus objects. Who would have expected that? This is the man who, we’re told, started out his ministry saying he had been anointed to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Has he forgotten? He tells Judas, “You always have the poor with you,” as if other people’s poverty were something we should just learn to live with. And in fact there have been Christian leaders all throughout the history of the Church who have used this particular verse to say just that.
So what’s going on here in Jesus’ reply to Judas? He’s actually reminding Judas of a passage in Deuteronomy (15:11): God says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” Sounds close. “You always have the poor with you.” “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” This is a call for generosity. It’s still good news to the poor.
Jesus is not saying, “Let’s just live with other people’s poverty.” He and the God whose life he embodies are still calling us, not just to give to the poor, but to keep challenging the structures that keep people poor. It’s an endless challenge, because we live in a world structured by greed.
But other life events call for generosity too. Mary has just given everybody a glimpse of what’s going to happen soon, and Judas, of all people, ought to have noticed. What’s going to happen soon is that the Word-made-flesh is about to go through what Lazarus went through, with more than a little help from Judas. He’s going to die, to give away his very life. In him, John believes, and we’re asked to believe, the very life of God is about to be poured out on all of us, poured out without stopping to count the cost. And the whole world will be filled with the fragrance of that outpouring, just as “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Mary is just eccentric enough to have figured that out before anybody else. And her outrageous act is a kind of sacrament of this outrageous outpouring of the love of God.
Judas can’t see that. And it’s not just because he’s an embezzler or about to turn traitor. It’s because he’s too busy planning things to let anything or anyone get in his way. What Mary did doesn’t fit any plan. It’s an outrageous response to the outrageous outpouring of God. And there’s no room for the outrageous in Judas’s life, whether it’s Mary’s or God’s. He’s really not so different from the rest of us. We spend most of our lives trying to make things more predictable, and by itself, that’s not wrong. We’d be dead if we didn’t do that. But if the predictable is all we’ve left room for in our lives, we’ve managed to shut out the love of God.
It’s the Fifth Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday begins Holy Week. Isn’t it more than a bit ironic that we’ve made all this into a predictable drama? We can go through all the motions without letting any of it touch us too deeply. Our liturgies may speak with impressive power, but we’ve learned how to play safe with them. We know how to shut God out of our lives, and every one of us is as skilled at that as Judas ever was.
But we’ve still got these reminders of the sheer outrageousness of God’s love. We still get confronted by stories like this one that go against the grain of the stories we spin out on our own. And what’s even more important than these reminders, we’ve got God right here among us. The very life of God is still being poured out on all of us, poured out without stopping to count the cost, poured out no matter how long it may take for each one of us to notice. It’s “Grace Unlimited,” “God’s love on God’s terms, unlimited by ours,” the power of sheer generosity set loose in our world, right here and right now. Thanks be to God.