Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, 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 of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
I suppose that it should come as no surprise that we find Jesus at a dinner party in the days leading up to his death. Even as, in the words of John’s Gospel, the powers that be conspire against him, Jesus takes time to gather with friends (and with enemies, too) for a meal, for fellowship, and, ultimately, for communion.
And as Jesus sits at table with his not-dead friend Lazarus, we are treated to a surprise (then again, it seems as though there was always a Monty-Python-worthy “something completely different” moment about dinners with the Messiah). Here, suddenly, is Mary. The same Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha labored in the kitchen now arrives with a jar of costly perfume, and pours it on her Master’s feet.
Let’s just take a moment and consider this moment: here you are, sitting with your friends and waiting for dinner, when along comes another friend, who proceeds to dump a bottle of Chanel No. 5 on your feet and wipe your feet with her hair.
What are we to make of this moment?
Judas, whom we were not aware of until this moment, interprets this action as a waste. He makes a mental calculation and concludes that Mary has wasted the perfume. He’s like the over-achieving kid in the front of the class (for the record, that was me as a kid) who knows what the answer is supposed to be and almost seems to delight in pointing out the mistaken logic of her classmate. “But Jesus,” he cries. “Shouldn’t we have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor?” Isn’t it always better to give than to receive? Haven’t you taught us that the poor are the center of your Kingdom, and therefore the most important concern?
And he isn’t wrong. Certainly, Jesus spends his brief and remarkable preaching career railing against injustice, particularly when it is directed at the poor. According to the Gospel of Mark, it is on this day that he enters the temple and overturns the tables, effectively shutting down the Temple’s activities as he rails against the collusion between the religious authorities and the political powers of Rome. His life is a constant witness to remember the orphan and the widow, to care for the sick, and to befriend the stranger. His ministry is a witness to the power and the challenge of God’s call to live in communion with all of God’s created people.
But in this moment, at this table, surrounded by friends, Jesus cuts Judas short. “Leave her alone,” he commands, and we can almost feel Judas recoil in surprise. And then Jesus reminds us that life, for him, is not an unending dinner party–he is headed somewhere. To Jerusalem. To judgement, condemnation, suffering and death. On a cross. Even at this table, in this moment, he will not let his disciples–his deepest and closest spiritual friends–forget that his journey leads to death, and that his days are numbered.
For what it is worth, I do not think that Jesus is discounting the poor at this moment in John–instead, he almost seems to be saying to Judas and Mary that they are both right. That the poor will always be there, and that we will always be called to serve and minister to the poor. But we must also take the time to worship the God who gave us hearts with the capacity for compassion for our vulnerable brothers and sisters. Worship becomes an opportunity, a portal through which we can walk and remember our call to serve the poor, the vulnerable, and the outcast. Worship opens our hearts and our eyes and our ears to hear and see and taste again the Good News we have discovered in Christ, so that we may be encouraged for our ministry with the poor, who are with us.
We need moments of worship. Because there will always be those whose forced are aligned against us. Those who tell us that the poor are lazy, that the hungry had it coming, that “it just isn’t our job” to help those who struggle. There will always be those who deny the Kingdom and everything that it represents, perhaps because they worship other Gods–money, power, fame–or perhaps because they are frightened by what Christ represents–justice, righteousness, freedom for all of God’s good creation.
So on this Monday of Holy Week, let us pause and reflect with Jesus. Let us kneel down and worship with Mary. And let us remember that our ministry of service in the world finds its heart and its soul and its sustenance when we bow our heads at the foot of the cross.
Prayer for the day:
Holy God, Friend, Teacher, and Savior- we praise you. For like Lazarus you have drawn us out of the snare of death, and have set our feet on the rock. You have sat with us at table, have gathered us into community, and have called us your friends. You have taught us that it is good and righteous and pleasing to God to serve the hungry and the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick, tend to those in prison. And you have sustained us by the presence of your Holy Spirit as we gather in prayer and praise. During this Holy Week, sustain our worship. Strengthen our hearts, that we might draw near to you, falling down before you like Mary and offering the gift of our very selves. Help us to bow our heads and bend our knees, so that we may have the strength to stand and walk the way of the cross with you, confident of of the hope of Resurrection. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.