The Second to Last Supper
By Rev Caroline Dean
March 21, 2010
John 12: 1-8
(mp3, 6.2Mb) ]
is ironic to tell a story about a feast with friends and a gift of expensive oil in the middle of the season of Lent. I am Baptist, so I didn’t hear too much about lent growing up, but last time I checked I thought that lent was supposed to be about fasting not feasting. During lent you focus on self-denial and give up something. And Judas' point, in this story, about giving money to the poor, actually, seems like a pretty appropriate Lenten practice, it makes a lot of sense to me, and yet he gets chastised by Jesus!
this might seem like a bit of a funny Lenten reflection but hang in there with
me and let’s see how this story fits in with our season of lent. What does a story about feasting and
friendship have to say to us in the middle of a season of fasting and penance?
Greek Orthodox Church calls the season of preparation before Easter the
"Bright Sadness." Eastern Christian traditions stress that the
darkness of this season is not absolute. Father Schmemann in his book
entitled Great Lent writes about lent,
by little, we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed ‘bright,’ that a mysterious
transformation is about to take place in us. It is as if we were reaching a place to which the noises and
the fuss of life have no access
- a place where they have no power. All that which seemed so tremendously important to us, and
that state of anxiety which has virtually become
our second nature, disappear and we begin to feel free, light and happy. It is not the noisy and the superficial
happiness which comes and goes twenty times a
day and is so fragile and fugitive; it is a deep happiness which comes not from
a single and particular reason
but from our soul having touched ‘another world.’ And
that which it has touched is made up of light and peace and joy.”
So I would like to imagine
this scene in Jesus' life as a scene of "Bright Sadness." Let’s imagine that these friends share a time
together in which the fuss of life’s burdens melt away and despite the time of
struggle, Jesus and his friends experience a moment of transformation and
the gospel of John's account, this story follows directly after the story
when Pharisees and the Chief Priests plot to kill Jesus. They have
already given orders that anyone who knows where Jesus is, should alert
them. So, Jesus can no longer teach openly,
and for the most part he remains in hiding with his disciples and close
friends. After the dinner party at Bethany,
a crowd gathers to see Lazarus, the miraculous man who has been raised from the
dead. In response to this crowd the
chief priests also plan on killing
Lazarus since it was this miraculous display of life after death that attracts
the crowds to Jesus. These two accounts of plotting murder are the book
ends for our text today. There is an
ominous atmosphere of impending darkness and death surrounding our dinner party
scene. Word has gotten out about these orders and the threat of the Chief
Priests weighs heavy on Jesus and his disciples. And yet in the middle of this crisis they
have found a place of rest to gather strength together.
the dinner party, Jesus can be free of burden among old friends. Imagine
the scene. Mary and Martha prepare a spectacular meal. The comfort
level is high. The room is full of good laughs. It is a safe place
in a time of danger. In view of Lazarus’ recent death and resurrection,
they celebrate and they are grateful to be together again.
is removed from the pressure of the crowds. He is not "on the
spot" to teach the disciples or confront accusation from Pharisees. In
this space he is among friends, he is not a public figure. It is a day off for
him to rest and recover. In comparison with the last supper which follows
in a few chapters, he is not the protagonist; he does not prepare the meal or
set the agenda for the night. He can take a deep breath.
the theme of death floats around the story. Jesus' interprets Mary's gift in the context of his death, and Judas'
presence is a reminder of betrayal. However, this scene, though
surrounded by heaviness and burden, is a scene of "Bright Sadness."
The joy of friendship and laughter is paradoxically enriched by the
burdens that Jesus carries and the impending danger surrounding this story.
how does this text speak to us in the
season of Lent? What do these characters teach us about living in the
thick of the "Bright Sadness?"
we will explore the role of Mary. Mary
is the protagonist in John’s account. She is the main actor. She and
Martha prepare the dinner. Once the meal
is prepared, it is tradition for the servants to come and wash the feet of
guests who have been traveling before they eat a meal together. Instead, Mary is the one who takes on the
role of servant. She takes a pound of
pure nard, which is worth a year’s wages and she wipes Jesus’ feet as the
fragrance fills the room. You can
imagine that the room falls silent and it is a bit awkward. It is almost a scandalous scene as they watch this unashamed, intimate display of deep
devotion. She then takes down her hair
and she wipes Jesus’ feet with it. It is
taboo in this culture for a woman to let down her hair. Mary ignores cultural convention and she is
immune the opinions of the others in the room.
wonder what motivates her. Is she
anointing Jesus as King? In a few
chapters Jesus rides into Jerusalem
on a donkey. Paradoxically he enters the
city in the manner of a king but on the riding back of a donkey, symbolizing
that he is not like other Warlike kings who ride in on chariots or horses. Does Mary want to highlight that he is the
Messiah and the King of Jews?
she know for certain that he will be killed and so she is anointing his body
for death? Jesus interprets her gift in
this manner, announcing to the others that she has kept this oil until the day
of his burial. Or is she simply
displaying her devotion for him and caring for him in the midst of his
struggle? This is my favorite interpretation. Mary is not making some great
theological claim about Jesus’ role or his upcoming death. She simply wants to show her devotion for her
friend and to help him in his time of great need.
Kate Braestrup’s spiritual memoir, Here
if You Need Me she describes her journey after her husband’s death. She introduces her husband’s death with the
scene describing her unconventional commitment to dress and clean his body
after he has passed away. There is no
great philosophical reason for her to do this; she simply says that it makes
sense for her. When she ponders why her
commitment to do this is so unshakable so writes, “I wanted to do it not
because it would help me heal--healing was both indefinable and
unimaginable--but because it was the authoritative
command of authentic love.” They had
cared for each other in the ups and downs of life and now she would care for
him in the painful and yet intimate moments of his death.
Mary, I don’t think that she was preparing Jesus’ body to be King or preparing
him for death, rather it simply made sense. It was for Mary “an authoritative command of love.” So in our season of Lent, Mary teaches us
that we should see all of our practices of fasting, alms-giving, and penance, as expressions even commands of love.
perhaps this beautiful, selfless act was exactly the preparation that Jesus
needed to face the road ahead of him. Perhaps
Jesus is so inspired by this scene, when Mary anoints him, that he uses her
example in the last supper. In the Gospel of John there is no account of a
communion meal, rather Jesus
initiates the ritual of foot-washing at the last supper. He takes on the
role of a servant, the role of Mary, and he teaches his disciples to serve one
another. He shows them how to care for each other when they are burdened,
when life seems dark and ominous, to be a spot of brightness for each other.
In the gospel of John, Jesus leaves a legacy of community, of Christian
hospitality and of service. He learns
from the selfless model of Mary to wash his disciples’ feet. He uses Mary’s example teach them to love
each other rightly. He says to them “I
give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you.”
I should add the caveat that it is a universal
call for Christians to serve each other. Jesus does not ask women to do
more submitting than men or poor people to do more of the dirty work or people
in oppression to serve the ones in power. Rather, Jesus empowers those who serve and calls all of his disciples to
empty themselves for one another.
what about Judas? To be honest, Judas
confuses me in this story, probably because I relate to him. It seems practical to give this extravagant
gift to the poor. I mean, isn’t that
what Jesus taught the disciples to do, to consider the poor, the lonely and the
outcast? I can relate to Judas’ point of
view that Mary’s gift is wasteful. I mean
come on, she could have anointed Jesus without using the whole bottle! That money could have been used for their
next 10 journeys, to secure food and water and a place to stay. And here she is pouring it out all over
Jesus, it is just unnecessary. So, to be
honest, I get Judas’ point of view. But
Jesus stands up and defends Mary chastising Judas. I wish that Jesus was a bit more sympathetic and that he didn’t say “that the
poor will always be around” because he seemingly prioritizes himself over the
poor and creates a dichotomy that doesn’t exist. And a lot of people simply misunderstand and
abuse Jesus’ statement to justify ongoing poverty.
what’s the deal with Judas? Why does his
statement upset Jesus? And why is he so
easy to relate to?
when I am preaching I wonder if I am I just saying words. You know, like am I just saying the right
thing or do I really “get it?” Does the text that I am preaching about inspire
me to say nice things about God or does this text help me understand God on a
deep level and hopefully inspire us all to live in a different way. Judas says the right thing, but he doesn’t
“get” what is going on. He doesn’t
understand that Mary is mirroring back to Jesus the servant-hood that Jesus has
taught her. And so of course, Jesus is excited about this
because Mary “gets it.” Mary makes no
great theological claim about Jesus’ nature or his work. But in this moment Mary understands who Jesus
is and the point of his life. Mary has
seen Jesus serve the burdened and empower the invisible. And she mirrors this practice back to him. And so when Judas says that we should feed
the poor, he is technically correct, but he is also off. In this moment, he doesn’t understand who
Jesus is. He doesn’t “get” that serving
the poor includes selfless, abundant devotion. It is important to take care of the poor but even that is secondary to
understanding who Jesus is because Jesus teaches us to be selfless, and to act
with abundant devotion.
you ever wondered on a Bridges run or working with Homefirst, “Am I just
feeding the poor so that I feel good or do I “get it?” “Do I get the larger picture that social
justice is about devotion, about relationship?” “Feeding the poor is about loving each other as Jesus loves us, not
about feeling good about ourselves for helping other people.” And so if we are honest, we all have moments
when we don’t we don’t get it. We look
like we are serving other people but we are really serving ourselves. And that is okay! We all have moments where
we do the right things for the wrong reasons.
in our season of Lent, Judas reminds us that we screw up. He reminds us that we fail. We betray each other and we betray God. In Lent we stop and we try to figure out some
of the places where we might be hurting others or failing God and that is a
practice called penance. Lent is not
about inducing guilt or wallowing in our failures, it is about being honest
about the reality that we screw up, and moving forward asking for forgiveness
from each other.
what does Jesus’ role in this story
teach us about lent? In this scene Jesus
is the one who receives care; he is anointed and empowered in the midst of his
struggle. Jesus needs help and
encouragement from his friends.
is a time when we ask for help and we recognize our need. When we give up something for lent we quickly
realize how weak we are and how much work it takes to give up that thing that
we are so used to. We often have moments
when we fail. Lent is about reminding
ourselves that we are broken and that we cannot go on this journey alone. Even Jesus after he fasts in the wilderness
and is tempted has the angels attending to him.
so I leave you with these questions to ponder. Is this a church community a place where we ask for help? Do we listen to one another in the moments
when someone does ask for help? Do we
have time to help each other? Is this a
place where intimate friends give and receive acts of devotion? Do we even notice when someone is carrying a
burden? Is this a place where we
recognize that we screw up and we forgive each other when we betray one another?
us imagine our church as an oasis from life’s burdens, as a place of “Bright
Sadness.” How can we cultivate a community
where we serve each other with the rich and deep devotion of Mary? How can we live in the reality that we like
Judas we fail, and still seek reconciliation? How can we create a safe space for others to reach out when they are in
need? And lastly how can we learn to
love one another as Jesus loves us? Amen.
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