Lazarus, Judas, and a Vessel of Nard

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Today’s Eucharistic reading is about a dinner party. And a gift. And a betrayal. First, let’s go back. Recent readings have been on the raising of Lazarus, and the reaction of the Temple authorities to this act. Raising the dead, or presumed dead, is not only confined to the raising of Lazarus of Bethany, beloved of Jesus and brother to Mary and Martha. Elijah had raised the son of Zarephath’s widow (1 Kings 17:17-24), and Elisha, his student and next prophet, did the same for Shunammite woman’s son (1 Kings 4:18-37). Jesus intervened in the funeral of the widow of Nain for her only son (Luke 7:11–17) and for Jarius’ daughter (Luke 8:49–56). After the Resurrection, Peter brought Tabitha/Dorcas back from the dead (Acts 9:36-42), after which she went on the have a life of service as a deacon of the church.  

The most significant narrative is Jesus raising Lazarus after four days in the grave. The story is dramatically told in the Gospel of John, where Jesus refrains from rushing to save his friend so that his Father’s glory may be seen. We are guided to witness the appeal by Martha, and then the tears of Mary and Jesus, the events at the tomb, and finally the appearance of Lazarus. Then there is the rest of the story. The Temple authorities wanted to kill this unnatural man, this dead person who disrupted the normal order of things, thanks to that dangerous and probably demon possessed Jesus, who was now calling himself God. And if we follow the logic of John’s narrative, Jesus knew this. And it opened the way for his trial and execution. And the path to salvation as willed by the Father, and carried out by the Son of God. This was the last straw as far as the Temple priesthood was concerned.

Let’s face it. Jesus’ trial and execution is a horrible story, one that hits us in the gut. To carry our Cross means just that: a life of doing what is righteous, and not necessarily nice. Often painful. Sometimes fatal. And it means treachery, betrayal, excruciating pain, humiliation, death, and persecution of those left. We try to balance that with the love of God for us, and whose Son is such a willing sacrifice, giving of himself to change the world, to save us. And we hear and embrace all of this in the faith that the words we received in Scripture are not fables, nor analogies, nor metaphors, nor symbols, but the accurate if mystical Truth of God and the way of the universe. Being a disciple of Christ isn’t easy. And Lent is a time when we test that. Holy Week is a time when we live it.

Today’s Eucharistic reading, John 12:1-11, takes place in the home of the family in Bethany. It seems to have been a thanksgiving dinner for Lazarus’ return from the dead. Jesus is in a place of rest, of love, of comfort. It isn’t clear who else is there except for Judas, who is the treasurer for Jesus’ ministry. It is sweet, peaceful, heartbreaking when Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfumed nard, and he supports her choice of profligate luxury, reminding us that the poor will, indeed, always be with us, but he would not, and the gesture was one of love. Judas had objected to the expense on the basis that, as Jesus taught, such money should be used for the poor. One thing jumps out at me from this reading, the parenthetical statement that Judas was a thief, stealing from the treasury. I can’t think of another place in the Gospels where that kind of stark, direct accusation is made. Yes, hypocrite, complaints in general about the rich and powerful. But, you are a thief? No.

It made me think about living in community. It isn’t easy. How about living with Jesus’ community? There were the in, and the very in. Who gets to sit at his right hand? Who gets to go with him up the mountain? Not even all the twelve. That must hurt. And Judas’ job was to feed this sometimes unruly community. And on what? Not much. And being preached at constantly about not owning a second tunic. And now a public reprimand for pointing out a year’s wage for nard was outrageous. Who did this woman think she was? Stung pride, feeling betrayed, furious, Judas said how he felt. Jesus answered, opaquely as usual, about not being with them and funerals and all. But Judas was angry, and hearing is the first to go in anger. And in his anger and pain and resentment, Satan entered him and ate. And now Lazarus was alive in Christ, and Judas was dead in sin. And then we are told that the authorities are still trying to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus, for making Jesus famous, and for being a threat, perhaps a blasphemous threat. And Judas, hurt, and now feeling righteous, steps right into that plan. We can argue that Judas’ betrayal was in God’s overall plan, as was the decision by Caiaphas that one should die rather than the many (Jn 11:50). That it was all part of a pattern which only Jesus could see, and maybe not even he. But as the story unfolds, it is painful. Holy Week is painful.

Mary did a beautiful thing, a kind thing, a loving thing. There are times to not count the cost. And Judas was hurt. And accused of theft. Did he steal? We don’t have two witnesses to bear that out. Did he take a little to give to the more radical groups who wanted to overthrow Herod and the Romans? Moved a little around to make ends meet? Maybe. We don’t know. And even the innermost of the in group, starting with Peter, didn’t have the mind of Christ most of the time. The servant’s ear in the garden. The denial before the cock crow. And how many times are we told that the disciples argued amongst themselves over who is the greatest? Even at a dinner party, celebrating the return of a beloved brother, and saying farewell to a best friend, there is something that jars the harmony of that body, separates one who is hurt, angry, human, from the rest. How much do we live in Christ? Succumb to our demons and turn away from Christ?

We all live in communities, and our communities, even with the best of intentions, aren’t peaceful and equal for all. There are the favored, the cliques, the skilled and the jealous of the skilled, the outspoken, the shy. And we rub on each other. When we confess that we haven’t loved our neighbor as ourselves that is pretty much true. Even if we try, pray, hold in our hearts compassion for each other, we stumble.

When we confess on Good Friday, or any time, remember that all of us are Mary and all of us are Lazarus, as all of us are Judas, and Peter, and the rest of the inner circle, and those denied any place in that circle at all. And our path to salvation is only in Jesus the Christ, who does love us, even if sometimes we wonder how much. Being in community is hard. Being called, being Christ’s own forever and taking in his mind for love, abundant life, and salvation, is not for the faint hearted. Blessed Holy Week.

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

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