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Mary and Lazarus, Martha and Judas: The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Sunday, April 3, 2022:
Isaiah 43:16-21
John 12:1-8

There are some stories that we naturally gravitate to and hold dearly. Thinking of ones that align with our sense of justice. Ones where baddies get their comeuppance. Ones where the outcast is brought to the centre. A really good parable (like last week). Or where Jesus does something miraculous.

But then you’ve got today’s story. About disagreement among Jesus’s group, and about Jesus’s relationship with his friend Mary of Bethany. No miracles, no parables, or large crowds. And yet this story might deserve to sit alongside those top-level Jesus stories. One clue is that it appears in all four Gospels. What we heard in the Fourth Gospel; Matthew and Mark with an almost identical rendering; and Luke with a version that is the most different, but still bearing some similarities. Maybe one story narrated in different ways, or maybe Jesus was anointed now and again. In the Matthew-Mark version, Jesus ends by saying that what the (in that version, unnamed woman) has done for him will be spoken of whenever the gospel is preached, in her honour. Jesus holds up this episode himself as crucial. (It’s the first station on the way to the cross. And yet, it doesn’t appear in many of our eucharistic prayers.)

There’s another story that appears in all four Gospels: the miraculous feeding of the crowds. It has ‘eucharistic overtones,’ and so, like this one, points toward Jesus’s death. And one feature of that episode is that Jesus multiplies the loaves in spite of the incredulity of the disciples: they point out how they need some proper planning and funding in order to minister to the hungry crowds. They’d need a lot of money to help them out. Echoing what comes out of Judas’s mouth in today’s gospel: a wiser use of that ointment would have been to sell it, and help a lot of people. But in both cases — with the feeding and with the anointing — Jesus challenges his followers to realize that they don’t need to be so efficient, so practical, so pragmatic. Not all the time. There will be ample opportunities for that. This is a good gospel story for around April Fools Day: sometimes we’re called to be fools for Christ. To do things that at one level don’t make complete sense. It’s probably important that our faith not be too sensical (if it’s to be relevant to our existence that doesn’t always seem to make complete sense).

One interesting thing about this story is how Matthew and Mark lay out that Jesus is dining, in Bethany (like here), though at the house of “Simon the Leper.” This differs from what we heard, about Jesus being in Bethany at the home of Lazarus (and Mary and Martha). Though some translations [like the New Jerusalem Bible] are less specific, and say Jesus was in Bethany “where Lazarus was.” So maybe Jesus was in Lazarus’s town, at someone else’s house. (And if Lazarus were host, he may have been too busy to sit at table with Jesus, where the reading eventually places him.) Some scholars have pointed out that Judas’s name, “Iscariot,” might refer to his family’s origin in the town of “Kerioth,” which is in the south, like Bethany and Jerusalem (whereas most of the other disciples were probably from the north country, from Galilee, where Jesus mostly operated). So Judas may have been from around Bethany. There’s another clue: John narrates earlier in the Gospel that he was “Judas son of Simon.” So we hold that alongside the other Gospels’ identifying of the house as belonging to Simon, and some conclude that Simon’s house and Lazarus’s house is the same thing: because Simon is the father to Judas, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. That is a speculation (informed by research), but rest assured that our salvation does not hang on it. However, it’s not just a fun bit of (possibly wrong) detective work. If there is something to it, the evangelist may be painting a nicely balanced picture of a divided family (as happens): with Lazarus and Mary speaking the love languages of affection and quality time. And the other half of the household, Martha and Judas speaking the language of service, and as I said earlier, seemingly wise, practical pragmatism. Remember, elsewhere, Martha is the one who tires herself out serving Jesus when he visited. And Judas is here (perhaps with bad motives) talking about making a wise financial transaction to improve the effectiveness of their outreach. One scholar has described Judas as a “masculine Martha gone wrong.”*

These questions, and the divisiveness that can result, is not limited to the Bible. Think of the plight of many artists, or concert halls, throughout the pandemic. In a situation of risk when people gather, it seems sensical to find a way to continue education, and nutrition, but musicals and one-act plays we can live without. In Ontario we churches got off relatively easy, probably because of the strong evangelical lobby. Though that’s led to some bitterness amongst the wider populace that see the churches as serving a function no more critical than the poets and dancers.

And this isn’t something that originated with the pandemic; we, as Church and as society, are always balancing and holding in tension our different motivations and priorities. Healthy communities find a way to achieve that balance between the music program and the feeding program. Or subsidizing the film industry and subsidizing rents. It is probably a naive assumption to think that we can only do one of those things, as Judas seems to frame it. I’m not going to point the finger for our rising housing and food costs at the Stratford Festival. There is probably a deeper disorder at work within society and within the human heart, and it’s bigger than just the dividing up of funds.

So this strange and yet important story, reflected in some way in all of our Gospel snapshots of Jesus’s life, challenges us look up to Mary as a model of faith. She has done something that seems strange, and to some, wasteful. But she demonstrates that she recognizes who Jesus is, and what is about to happen to him. She’s anointing his body, ahead of time, for burial. So many other followers of Jesus, we’ll see, will not have this same insight and foresight. Mary gives her time, and attention, and her love: things that are hard to quantify. And Jesus, and the evangelist, and all those that have passed down this story in all its forms, and have held this anointing up as an important part of the whole gospel story, say something to each of us, about how any hope for lasting change will come not just from charity (as important as that is), but in the dying and rising to self that we see in the person of Jesus. In a roundabout way, perhaps this gave Mary, and can give us, the eyes of faith to recognize Jesus in the people in deep need that, Jesus told her, will be always before us. And in recognizing him, we develop the potential to respond with love, and with the gift of our time, transcending the cut-and-dry transactionalism, and ultimately, hardness of heart, of the likes of Judas.

So as we look to the example of Mary of Bethany, we pray to have eyes to see Jesus, and to expect what we heard from God through the prophet Isaiah: “I am about to do a new thing.” But that new life only comes after the reality of death, that only Mary recognized. May we have that sort of wisdom, and that love. Amen.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* J. N. Sanders, “Those Whom Jesus Loved,” New Testament Studies (1954-1955).