Who here stands with Judas? Who among you is thinking: Well, Judas is Judas… and we know the part he’s going to play in Jesus’ arrest and execution… but maybe he has a point in this case. As he so often did, Jesus had just turned his followers’ ideas about righteousness upside down. While at supper in the house of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, whom he had just raised from the dead, Jesus allowed Mary to do something “over the top” for him: to spend an incredible sum of money on feet that would be dirty and dusty and dried out again after a couple of hours on the road. Jesus’ earthly ministry had regularly focused on caring for the poor and needy in body, mind and spirit and I suppose Judas could be forgiven for experiencing a profound “disconnect” between what Jesus had always said and what Jesus seemed to be endorsing in this case: “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” (vv.7-8).
All of the Gospel accounts tell the story of the “Anointing at Bethany” in one way or another. The details vary: Matthew and Mark assert that the supper was taking place at the house of Simon the Leper and that “a woman” poured the ointment over Jesus’ head (Matt. 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9). Luke tells us that Jesus and his disciples had been invited to dinner at the house of a Pharisee, and that “a woman who was a sinner” (oooh… I wonder what that means) anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). All of the accounts record extreme indignation expressed by those who were at table with Jesus. But only the Fourth Gospel has the story play out in the home of Lazarus, with Lazarus’ sister Mary performing the ministrations. And only the Fourth Gospel mentions Judas as the one criticizing Jesus’ acquiescence. You’ll notice that I refer to John’s Gospel as the Fourth Gospel. That’s because it is the fourth gospel in our Canon of Scripture, and because scholars aren’t 100% sure who wrote it. There was only one “John” among Jesus’ disciples and that was John the brother of our patron James, son of Zebedee. He was a fisherman and likely only barely literate, if at all. He probably didn’t write it, though some Biblical scholars believe he may have dictated portions of it in his latter years. Nor does the author seem to have been John of Patmos, whom scholars believe penned the Book of Revelation. Without going down too much of a “rabbit hole” here, let me simply say that scholarly consensus seems to indicate that the Fourth Gospel was written in as many as five stages during the period between the First and Second Jewish Revolts in Palestine… from ~66 to ~135 AD. So, the narrative was crafted and honed over a span of around seventy years… by multiple redactors, one… or some… or none of whom may have been named John. Confused yet? Don’t worry; there won’t be a test. But here’s another thing scholars tend to agree upon: the writers of the Fourth Gospel, whoever they were, were very concerned about the deepening rift between the Jewish religious hierarchy and Jewish Christians (i.e., Jews who believed that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah). For many years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Jerusalem Church under Peter and the remaining Apostles had continued to worship in the Temple and in synagogues… sort of “under the radar.” As long as they didn’t create a fuss, it was “no harm, no foul.” And Christians were no more or less fractious than any other Jewish sect—they were just part of the broader Jewish “ethnos,” which often looked and behaved like a big, complicated family. Maybe you know what I’m talking about.
But then, as things began to heat up between the Jews and the Romans, the relationship between Jewish religious leaders and Christians became more strained. Relations continued to deteriorate after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. Judaism itself seemed under threat of eradication and the surviving leadership began taking steps to cull non-conformist sects from its worshiping communities by standardizing and enforcing various aspects or “codes” of Jewish religious life… by applying a litmus test, if you will. The underlying message was, “if you’re really Jewish, you’ll have to prove it!” And the consequences were devastating for Jewish Christians. There is evidence to suggest that Christ-followers were expelled en masse from synagogues throughout the region of Palestine around the beginning of the second century. Their Temple destroyed… the city of Jerusalem closed to them… Christian Jews now found themselves excommunicated—by their own people. This was the context within which the Fourth Gospel was written… by Jewish Christians who felt abandoned and betrayed by brothers and sisters, and the rabbis and teachers who had always led them. Perhaps that’s why the writers of the Fourth Gospel were so hard on Judas. They probably never knew Judas, but they knew of Judas, and Judas seemed a perfect stand-in for the perpetrator(s) of their present misery: the betrayers, the trust-breakers, the ones who had left them “in the lurch.” Don’t get me wrong… I believe the writers of the Fourth Gospel proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ as it was handed down by the Holy Spirit. But I also believe that God speaks to different people in different ways and that the language of John’s Gospel seems to have had a particular resonance with second century Jewish Christians who found themselves cut off from home and faith, and who were in great need of hope. Isn’t God amazing?
But enough history. I’ll ask again: who among you stands with Judas? Still no takers? You know what I think? I think that we are all sometimes tempted to respond like Judas when confronted with the “disconnect” between our own priorities and those of Jesus. And I’m not simply talking about our own tendency to seek worldly wealth and security for ourselves, sometimes at the expense of others. I’m talking about those occasions when we think we’re doing good stuff: you know, when we think we have at all figured out… when we’ve adopted a platform of priorities and causes that, if successful, will go a long way towards curing all of the world’s ills. And they’re usually good causes. Who’s going to argue against eradicating poverty, feeding the hungry and ending homelessness? These are all worthy endeavors, but they’re not the sum total of the reason we’re here. All of the good works we could ever accomplish on our own are just “band-aid solutions” to problems vexing our world if they’re not the result of an ever-deepening relationship with God. Being a member of the Body of Christ and a bringer of God’s Kingdom is about so much more than simply catering to people’s physical needs. It’s about becoming “the salt of the earth” and “a city on the hill” to people who will see you transfigured and transformed by the light of Christ and say: “I’ll have what she’s having.” That’s evangelism! That’s the best way to love our neighbors. That’s why we’re here!
Judas’ big error in our Gospel story today was in thinking that he had it all figured out… based on an incomplete understanding of what Jesus was trying to get through his thick skull. He had stopped listening to Jesus when he heard what he wanted to hear. I’ll say that again: Judas had stopped listening to Jesus when he heard what he wanted to hear. Do we ever do that? Are we sometimes overeager to forge ahead on a project or cause hoping for self-validation or instant gratification in the form of a pat on the back from friends and neighbors for our good works? Some of these “good works” might make us feel good, but if the real purpose in our undertaking them—which is deepening our relationship with God—has become an afterthought, then all of our good works are for naught.
So now we return to Mary. Mary of Bethany was the one who had sat at Jesus’ feet, listening raptly to his discourse one day when he and his disciples were visiting her home… while her sister Martha hustled and bustled around the house tending to all of the guests. When Martha had complained to Jesus, he had told her that Mary was doing OK… and to cut her some slack (Luke 10:38-42). You remember the story, right? And immediately preceding today’s Gospel story, Mary had seen, with her own eyes, her brother Lazarus walk out of his tomb, his hands and feet still bound with strips of (burial) cloth, resurrected by the power of God manifested in Jesus Messiah (John 11:17-44). So, Mary had kind of a special relationship with Jesus, one born out of love and admiration… but also tragedy and renewed hope. We have no reason to believe she was insensitive to the needs of the poor… she just had her priorities straight. Mary had figured out that true righteousness comes not through works, but through faith in Christ, [which is] righteousness from God . . ..” (Philippians 3:9). Her relationship with God in Christ would inform all of her actions and priorities… and, right now, accompanying Jesus on the way of his Passion… on the way of the Cross… was more important than anything else she could ever say or do. Sadly, that was something Judas never figured out. So, the question becomes: will we?