Sunday, April 03, 2022

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

This is the lightly edited transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for this week, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent 2022

Reading: John 12:1-8

Today's Gospel reading reminds us of how much there is that we don't know when it comes to the details of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Our reading is a continuation of St John’s account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead and its aftermath (John 11:1-57). The raising of Lazarus proves to be the last straw for the Jerusalem authorities. Their concern now is that Jesus is becoming so popular that there is a real risk of rebellion, so much so that they fear the Romans may feel that they need to intervene. If the Romans do, there is the danger that they will destroy the Temple and take away what independence the Jerusalem authorities have (John 11:48). Consequently, the authorities decide they need to get rid of Jesus, and quick. St John writes:

‘So from that day on they planned to put him to death.’ (John 11:53)

Politically, as Caiaphas, the high priest, points out it is a good decision (John 11:49-50).

Jesus, aware of the threat to him, withdraws to Ephraim, a place near the wilderness, away from the crowds (John 11:54).

St John begins his account of the raising of Lazarus by referring to a certain man who was ill. The man is described as ‘Lazarus of Bethany’. Bethany was a village on the south-east slope of the Mount of Olives, some two miles from Jerusalem (John 11:18). Bethany itself is described as the ‘village of Mary and her sister Martha’ (John 11:1). St John expects his original readers to have heard of Mary, as he adds that she was the one anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair (John 11:2), even though he is yet to relate this event! When their brother becomes ill, the sisters send a message to Jesus that the person Jesus loves is ill (John 11:3). Jesus himself, speaking to his disciples, describes Lazarus as their friend (John 11:11).

Clearly then, Jesus and his disciples know Lazarus, Martha, and Mary very well, and Jesus, in particular, seems to be very close to them. This, however, is the first time St John mentions them. There is, in other words, a lot we do not know about Jesus’ life and relationships. We know enough, but not as much as we would like. There was a great deal going in Jesus’ life and work that we have to leave to the imagination. Speculating doesn’t get us very far, but it is important, at least, to see that the story of Jesus is far more multi-dimensional than sometimes we imagine it to be.

What we can be certain of is that this family at Bethany is a significant one in Jesus’ life despite our not knowing how or when it became so important. We know that Jesus will stay at Bethany in the days leading up to his crucifixion, and it is probably with this family that he stays. Furthermore, it is from Bethany that Jesus ascends to heaven to return to his Father (Luke 24:50). It seems reasonable, then, to suppose that, after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to Lazarus, Martha, and Mary and that they are included in the different resurrection appearances of our Lord that St Paul writes of (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).

St John writes that it is just six days before Passover and Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion that the event our Gospel reading describes takes place. Jesus has returned to Bethany from Ephraim for the Passover. Bethany is again described as where Lazarus lives. The NRSV description of it as the ‘home’ of Lazarus is misleading. St John does not actually say that Jesus stayed with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary nor that the dinner takes place in their home. St John writes simply that ‘there they gave a dinner for him’, which could be anywhere in Bethany. He also does not tell us who the ‘they’ are who give the dinner.

St Matthew and St Mark also describe this event, and they both write that it took place in the home of one, Simon the Leper, although they do not say that it was a dinner (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9). In St Matthew and St Mark’s accounts, however, no-one else apart from Simon and Jesus are named, and both St Matthew and St Mark describe the event after they have described Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday.

This has all led to much speculation about the relationships between the various people involved. Was Simon the father of Lazarus and his sisters, for example? We just don’t know. For all we know, Simon could be Martha or Mary’s husband, even if that does seem somewhat unlikely! Indeed, there may have been no relationship as such between Simon and the brother and sisters. The reason that commentators assume there was relationship is because, at the dinner, St John tells us that Martha served and Lazarus was at the table with Jesus. If Martha served at a dinner in Simon’s house, doesn’t that imply it was also in some way Martha’s house? ‘Not necessarily’, is the answer! At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, Jesus’ mother is the one who tells Jesus they have no wine and who then the servants what to do. There is no suggestion, however, that this was her house!

The way St Matthew and St Mark refer to Simon again suggests that the original readers would have known whom they meant. A reasonable guess is that Simon may have been a leper who Jesus had healed and who was active in the church. Simon would certainly not have been able to host the dinner if he was still a leper. Lepers had to separate themselves from the rest of society.

Also worth mentioning is St Luke’s account of a meeting between Jesus and the two sisters (Luke 10:38-42). Most commentators assume that this event took place earlier in Jesus’ ministry. St Luke describes how Jesus and his disciples enter a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomes him. St Luke writes that Martha has a sister named Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching. Martha, who is busy making all the necessary preparations for Jesus’ visit, asks Jesus to tell her sister to help her. Jesus replies that Martha is anxious and troubled about many things, but Mary has got her priorities right.

Returning, then, to our Gospel reading, and putting the three Gospel accounts together, what we get is that at Bethany, in the days leading up to the Passover, ‘they’ gave a meal for Jesus at the home of Simon the Leper at which Martha served and Lazarus was a guest.

St John describes how Mary takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. The house, St John writes, was filled with the perfume. It would be. This was a very extravagant act on Mary’s part. Judas values the perfume as 300 denarii, the equivalent to about a year’s pay for the average worker. A ‘pound’ here is a Roman pound, which was about three quarters of our pound, that is, 327 grams for those who use metric! ‘Nard’ is spikenard, a fragrant oil from the root of the nard plant from the mountains of northern India.

St Matthew and St Mark write that Jesus was anointed on his head. Given the amount of perfume Mary uses, there would be more than enough for head and feet! There is, however, an appropriateness in Mary anointing Jesus’ feet given how she sat at Jesus’ feet and was commended for it by Jesus (Luke 10:39) and how she falls at Jesus’ feet when Jesus comes to Bethany after Lazarus’ death (John 11:32).

It may be appropriate, but it is also scandalous and shocking. A woman wiping a man’s feet with her hair in public would attract comment in any age, but, in the context of the time, it would be seen as something outrageous and indecent. Apart from this, there is the cost of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, who is to betray Jesus, complains that the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. St John writes that this was not because he cared for the poor, but because he kept the common purse and used to steal from it. This piece of information is, again, another reminder of how much of the detail of Jesus’ ministry we don’t know. I wonder if it is because the disciples shared a common purse during Jesus’ ministry that they decided to share everything after Jesus’ ascension when the church began in Jerusalem.

St Matthew and St Mark don’t single Judas out for mention, but write that some of those in the house at the time joined in condemning Mary’s action and what they see as a waste of something valuable that could have been used to raise money for the poor.

Jesus, however, as he does in the story told by St Luke, immediately comes to Mary’s defence, and again says that Mary has got her priorities right. It is as if, Jesus says, Mary has anointed him for his burial. Jesus reminds them that they always have the poor with them, the implication being that they have plenty of opportunities to help the poor, if they really do care for the poor, but they do not always have him with them. Jesus’ death is now very near.

I want to look what this passage says to us today under three headings:

the Hypocrisy of Judas
the Praise of Jesus
the Extravagance of Mary

1. The Hypocrisy of Judas

When Jesus said ‘you will always have the poor with you’, he wasn’t justifying poverty or suggesting that we should, as his followers, be unconcerned by it or do nothing about it. He was, however, responding to the ‘hypocrisy of Judas’, and of others, in condemning Mary. To discuss what our attitude towards poverty should be as believers and what action we should take in the light of it is not something that can be adequately tackled in a short sermon such as this. I hope, then, that you won’t think that what I am about to say is all that I have to say or all that I think needs saying when it comes to thinking about poverty and what the Church’s response to it should be. I do want to address a few comments, however, to what I see as the persistence of the ‘hypocrisy of Judas’ in the Church.

The statement that the money could, or should, be spent on the poor is one that I have heard made many times throughout my ministry and made frequently, it has to be said, by those who, like Judas, show no obvious sign of caring themselves for the poor. It is something that is most often said when a church is discussing its finance or is planning a project that would incur significant cost. I have heard it used both as a criticism of the building of the great Cathedrals, in the past, and of spending money on church buildings, in the present. The argument that the money could be spent on the poor is meant to end all further discussion.

That the Church should care for the poor and exercise wisdom in its use of money and resources should not be in any doubt, but simply saying that the money could, instead, be spent on the poor is something that could be said of any expenditure, and that applies as much to our own individual expenditure as it does to that of the Church. There is a hypocrisy in condemning a church for spending money on various projects rather on the poor, and then buying ourselves the latest smartphone, model of car, or designer handbag. If it is wrong to spend money on church projects rather than on the poor, it is wrong to spend money on ourselves rather than on the poor. Both as a church and as individuals, we are equally under an obligation to do what Christ wants us to do.

What we can call the ‘Judas syndrome’, however, goes deeper than the somewhat trivial hypocrisy of some church members. It has, more seriously, to do with the Church’s identity and mission. There is, at the moment in the Church, an argument between, on the one hand, those who see the Church’s mission primarily in terms of preaching the Gospel, in the sense of seeking to bring people to faith, and, on the other, those who see it more broadly as working for social justice in our world.

Those who see the Church’s mission as being primarily to work for social justice, believe that the Church’s response to poverty should be about more than seeking to help the poor or to feed the hungry. It should also, they argue, be about tackling those things that make people poor and keep them hungry.

That showing people the love of God and loving our neighbours as ourselves should mean caring for both people’s material and spiritual needs should, I think, be obvious. It is a mark of the saints historically that it never occurred to them to think otherwise. The saints sought to bring people into a closer relationship with God, while reaching out to them with the love of God, caring for their needs, and providing food to satisfy their hunger.

That showing people the love of God and loving our neighbours as ourselves should, however, also mean that the Church should engage in political activism and embrace a particular ideology of social justice is, I believe, not so obvious. The problem is that those who espouse certain ideologies of social justice also want to make adopting their beliefs and programmes a necessary consequence of wanting to care for the poor.

We have also, as followers of Christ, to be careful that by advocating certain responses to poverty, we are not at the same time be undermining our message more generally. We cannot, for example, argue in Lent that ‘man shall not live by bread alone’ and then, when it comes to poverty, talk as if it is bread alone that matters and that campaigning for an equitable distribution of bread is what it means to bring good news to the poor. When Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, it was the same message for the prostitute as it was for the tax-collector. Jesus said:

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:15)

Repenting may have taken a different form for the rich tax-collector (Luke 19:1-10) to what it took for the ‘sinful woman’ (Luke 7:36-50), but both had to repent, and unless they did, they would, Jesus warned, both likewise perish (Luke 13:5). The poor are not poor necessarily because they are sinners, but they are necessarily sinners, just as the rich are, and just as we all are. Outside of Christ, human sin is the most inclusive force there is, and it makes all people equal.

The Church should, as St Paul writes to St Timothy, warn the rich not to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches (1 Timothy 6:13), but it should also be careful not to suggest that it is in the same riches that the hope of the poor is to be found. Riches are an uncertain hope for rich and poor alike.

2. The Praise of Jesus

As I have mentioned, in chapter 11, St John is able to assume that his readers have already heard about the woman who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair (John 11:2), even though it is only later, in chapter 12, that St John describes what actually happened. St Matthew and St Mark write that Jesus says of the woman, who is not named in their Gospels:

‘Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ (Mark 14:9; see also: Matthew 26:13)

St John makes sure we know the woman’s name, Mary. There are many Marys in the Gospel. The Blessed Virgin Mary, of course, and Mary Magdalene, as well as Mary of Bethany. It was ironically a Pope in the sixth century, Pope Gregory I, who mistakenly conflated Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2) and Mary of Bethany with the ‘sinful woman’, who washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), to make one composite character.

The two Marys, however, are different people and neither of them is the ‘sinful woman’ in Luke chapter 7. Both these Marys play an important part in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ body ahead of his death and Mary of Magdalene is the first witness of his resurrection. They both loved and were committed to Jesus, and they would have known one another. It is yet another aspect of Jesus’ life we know all too little about.

Politicians always talk about their legacy and endeavour to do something that they will be remembered for. At funerals, the person giving the eulogy will try to identify one or two things that the person who has died has done that they will be remembered for, and will, in the eulogy, praise the dead person for them. Jesus says that Mary of Bethany will be remembered for what she has done for him. Mary now, wherever the Gospel is preached, is remembered for her act of love and her devotion to Jesus.

People at the dinner, however, thought that what Mary did was inappropriate and wrong. She was criticized and condemned. Jesus, however, told them to leave her alone. Mary herself was focused not on what people thought of her, but on Jesus. She had been consistent in her attitude. She had refused to fulfil the role that even her sister expected of her, taking instead the role of a student sitting at Jesus’ feet, and here, at the dinner, she wants only to express her devotion to him. On both occasions, she receives praise from Jesus.

Students at school speech days and college graduations are often urged by the guest speaker to make the most of the education they have received. They are encouraged to do something that people will remember them by and to try to make a difference in the world. The result of this sort of thinking is that we live in an age that is self-obsessed; an age in which everyone is desperate for their moment of fame, whether it’s on TikTok, a TV ‘talent’ show, or some other platform. We now have the category famous for being famous. And these are our role models!

Mary of Bethany didn’t care about being famous. She cared about Jesus. She embodied Jesus’ words:

‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 14:11)

Mary wasn’t special, but she knew someone who was, and loving him made her special. We need the same willingness as Mary to forget ourselves and to focus on Jesus. If, at our funeral, it can be said of us that we loved Jesus, then no other praise is needed.

3. The Extravagance of Mary

Jesus said that wherever the Gospel is proclaimed that what Mary did will told in remembrance of her. Jesus made her action at the dinner an integral part of the Gospel story. Was Jesus simply saying that we would remember Mary? Certainly, he was saying that, but, more than that, in Mary’s extravagant action in anointing Jesus and lovingly wiping his feet with her hair, she was demonstrating how we too should respond to Jesus and to the Gospel.

One of my sadnesses as a priest is that so much of church life is no different to belonging to any other organisation. At its best, the church is like a religious NGO or charity that believes in promoting faith in God and doing good in the world. Very often, however, the focus is on building management, fundraising, social activities, and welfare programmes, and all that goes with being such an organisation. The question we need to ask ourselves is, ‘What’s God got to do with it?’ If you were to take God out of the Church much of what we do as a Church could continue anyway.

In the book of Revelation, the Risen Christ sends seven letters to the seven churches of Asia through his servant John. In the first letter, to the Church at Ephesus, Christ praises the believers for how they have kept the faith and resisted false teaching. There is, however, a problem. Jesus says:

‘But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.’ (Revelation 2:4)

St Paul compares the relationship of Christ and the Church to that of a bride and her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33). The Church should not be about organisation but relationship. A couple in love who decide to marry and live together have to find somewhere to live, they have to plan their finances and arrange their domestic affairs; there are many practical concerns, but these are all geared to making it possible for them to be together. Sadly, all too often, in many relationships, the love grows cold and the relationship becomes stale or even breaks down altogether. That’s what was in danger of happening with the Church at Ephesus. They had lost their first love.

What can happen with a Church can happen with us as individuals. Have we lost our first love? Of course, you can only abandon love if you actually had it to begin with. Mary of Bethany invites us today to fall in love with Jesus. Or if we, like those at Ephesus, have lost the love we had, then Mary would invite us to rediscover it and fall in love again with Jesus.

As believers and as a Church, what we believe, what we do, the way we organize ourselves, and how we worship are all important, but most important is whom we love. Those in love care most about the one they love. They want to be with them, and nothing is too much trouble. If we are in love, we want to give ourselves to the one we love and hold nothing back. It didn’t occur to Mary that pouring the perfume over Jesus was a waste. How could it be? She loved him and love is extravagant, or it is not love.

On one occasion, St Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380) had a vision in which she gave her heart to Jesus. Her confessor was sceptical and reproved her for it as they reproved Mary for her extravagance, but as Christ responded in love to Mary, so Christ later appeared to St Catherine and, in a vision, gave her a new heart. Mary of Bethany would have understood St Catherine’s experience. Mary too wanted to give all she had to Jesus whatever the cost and in remembering her today we see how we too should respond to Christ.

In our second reading this week, St Paul writes of how he regards everything he had as worth losing. He continues with these words:

‘More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him …’ (Philippians 3:8)

May we like Mary give ourselves completely to Jesus no matter what the cost.


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