The air in the house in Bethany is thick with drama. Recently Jesus had raised from the dead the man sitting next to him, Lazarus, and now the authorities had issued a warrant for Jesus’ arrest. So he’s returned in secret just a week before Passover, preferring to rest on the edges of Jerusalem, in view of the Temple, as the time of his triumphal entry draws near. He knows what’s coming -- John’s Gospel makes clear that Jesus the Word incarnate is always in command. And Mary, in many ways the ideal disciple, shows us that she too sees the crucifixion ahead by anointing Jesus’ feet -- a prophetic act of burial preparation. Her perfume’s scent quickly fills the small home, overwhelming the senses. Yet our Gospel writer has other plans for this tender and heart wrenching moment: he sticks Judas Iscariot (of all people!) at the table, who sharply rebukes Mary even as her now-matted hair hangs limply at her side. He has missed the lovely conversation without words Mary has shared with her Savior, thanking him for restoring her brother Lazarus to life and thanking him for the even costlier and more extravagant act he would soon take by way of the cross. But Judas’ fear for his life, fear for the life of his beloved teacher, fear for the life of the movement to restore Israel to its former glory -- to which he has devoted these many years -- this fear overtakes him so that he cannot even smell the room’s sweet perfume of loving sacrifice. Instead he lashes out in thinly disguised greed.
Why does Judas even appear here, why let his words distract us from Mary’s precious gift? Intriguingly, in the Gospel of Mark the story of Jesus’ anointing in Bethany relates only that others present objected to Mary’s extravagance, while in Matthew’s Gospel this concern is placed in the mouths of all the disciples. Perhaps Judas’ unique presence in John’s Gospel has something to teach us.
Now it is natural to wonder how Judas, one of Jesus’ hand-picked disciples, who had walked the dusty paths and rugged hills of Galilee and Judea for years, could have come to betray Jesus. He had the best seats for all of Jesus’ most moving teachings. And after the villagers had gone home each night, he remained in the privileged inner circle that heard Jesus’ interpretations of parables too difficult for the rest of us to crack. He witnessed Jesus walking on water, turning water into wine, and raising Lazarus from the dead. How could he be so impervious to Jesus’ cool and refreshing and life-giving message?
Honestly, I’m relieved that Judas in particular is present in today’s home in Bethany, because that means he in particular is invited to continue in the passion story to follow. It means that Jesus -- who in John clearly knows he is the Son of God, clearly knows what happens next -- wants Judas to witness his triumphal entry, wants to wash Judas’ feet in the upper room, wants Judas to continue serving as a disciple until he no longer can. Judas’ presence tells me that though I may strive to be like Mary on my better days, I am still included in the Christian story when I find myself with the sorts of doubts and frustrations and fears that plagued Judas.
Last Sunday night I slept on the floor of the Great Hall. I shared this floor with parishioners Kris Summit and Lynne Fish and also with Randy, Ron, Lee, Christian, Chris, Victor, and Joel, seven neighbors we’ve gotten to know over the last year through our Showers of Blessings ministry. They sleep most nights in Balboa Park, but last Sunday night they slept inside away from the forecasted rain.
When our guest Ron first arrived he was slow to stow his bags, sit down, and relax. A parishioner came over to see if everything was alright. Ron responded by calmly saying that it had been so long since he’d been inside that he just needed some time to take it all in. Another parishioner had brought lasagne for dinner, and folks chatted some with each other. The general sound of the evening was comfortable, even relieved, silence. The pace was slow. I’m not sure when last I was in the same room with nine other people for that long and enjoyed so much peaceful quiet. Love for neighbor perfumed the air of that great space.
Now I wish that I could report to you that I broke open a bottle of Clive Christian No. 1 perfume and anointed our guests’ feet with my hair that night. Or at least gave them some hot water to soak their feet in. But instead, I mostly talked with my fellow parishioners and then worked on my laptop to clean out my email inbox as I’m in the habit of doing on Sunday nights. By the time I was done, our guests had already laid down.
I got ready for bed myself, inflated my sleeping mat, crawled into my sleeping bag, and wondered: was I going to be safe tonight? True, we had collectively befriended our guests over the past several months, but we didn’t really know them that well. What if one of them had a knife in his bag? (I know I would carry one around with me if I lived outside!) I was scared, and I didn’t sleep that well. I was especially sensitive to the sound of boots striking the tile as Lee walked past my sleeping bag on his way to the door throughout the night to smoke.
But I made it through the night. In fact, we all did. And as rain was forecasted for Monday night too, we invited these seven guests to return for another twelve hours of dry safety. That day it occurred to me that our guests were probably as worried as I was about their safety the night before. They probably didn’t know each other that well, either. And they weren’t used to sleeping in such close quarters with so many others.
I returned to the Great Hall that night paying attention more carefully to God at work. I noticed that all seven guests had returned, that they had been enlivened by parishioner Bob Reese’s made-to-order breakfast that morning, that this space now felt a bit more secure and comforting for all of us. I heard the gracious surprise in parishioners’ voices as they recounted their own experiences serving our guests, saw the gratitude in their eyes for this chance to take care of others in need in a real, down-to-earth way. I slept a whole lot better on Monday.
We’re hoping to try this experiment in hospitality a few more times (if it ever bothers to rain) this El Niño season. It was a humbling experience for me that surfaced some hidden prejudices against homeless persons, especially those with whom I was planning to share a night’s sleep. And it gives me more appreciation for Judas, the disciple who tried his best to follow Jesus until he no longer could.
Even when we can’t manage to walk in the at-times daunting footsteps of our Savior, John’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus believes we still belong to his group of friends, his group of disciples. Jesus wants us there to witness even when we’re not sure we can follow. I imagine that’s because Jesus knows that not only his actions but the faith of his disciples will encourage us when we are foundering in fear, as the inspiring servant leadership of parishioners Lynne, Bill, Kris, Bob, Debbie, Claudia, Calvin, Vicki, and Elaine strengthened me in the Great Hall.
As hard as John’s Gospel is on Judas, warning us several times to beware of his imminent betrayal, there is something else that is notable about John’s treatment of our Lord’s betrayer. John follows the Gospel of Mark in not mentioning how and when Judas died. I think we’ve been influenced so heavily by Matthew and Luke’s immediate and graphic depictions of Judas’ demise that there hasn’t been much room to imagine any other possibility.
We have our doubts and our fears and yet we continue in this walk anyway, looking for new strength and clarity of faith in the lives of those around us and in prayerful conversation with God. That is part of what it means to be human and what it means to be Christian, and we doubters and saints are always welcome here. Each of us belongs to that great Christian story of costly, extravagant love.
With thanks to George W. Stroup, “Theological Perspective, Fifth Sunday in Lent,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).