Fifth Sunday in Lent
One of the things that we quickly learn when we study the Gospels, and when we focus on the lives of Jesus’ disciples, is that far too often, Jesus’ disciples do not understand what he is trying to teach them. Sometimes it just seems like they don’t get it. In spite of all of the time that they have spent with Jesus, traveling around with him, listening to him preach, watching him heal people and seeing him casting demons out of others, it appears that there’s some critical connections that they’re just not making. Sometimes they do get it, but not all of the time. And this, in spite of the fact that in addition to all of the time that they have spent with Jesus during his public ministry, they have also spent considerable time with him in private. For three years now, they have lived with him, they have followed him everywhere. Jesus has taught them things in private that were meant only for their ears and their ears alone, and yet, they still don’t get it. In pondering this over, I guess I would have expected a little more from them; I guess I would have expected a better response from them, and especially a deeper understanding of what Jesus was all about. After all, their lives had been fully immersed in Jesus’ life for three solid years. Their time spent with Jesus was an intensive internship. They could have done better, they could have been better students.
I suppose though, that I ought to cut them some slack, and not be so harsh with them, because sometimes we don’t get it either. For all of the ineptness and lack of understanding that Jesus’ disciples exhibited while Jesus was on this earth, after his resurrection, they jumped in with both feet and got right down to the mission. They practically went wild in their proclamation of the gospel. The day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit into their lives absolutely transformed these guys into evangelistic dynamos, and they spent the rest of their lives carrying on the ministry of Jesus with fervor and with solid determination.
That is, of course, with one rather striking exception, and that would be Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Judas never got it, he never understood Jesus, or even attempted to understand Jesus, and I don’t think he ever intended to try to understand Jesus. I am convinced that he was a traitor from the very beginning; from the very moment that Jesus called him to become one of his disciples.
In our passage this morning we get a very clear picture of the character of Judas. Judas was a man of the world who had no intention of becoming a participant in the kingdom of God. One wonders why he even bothered to hang out with Jesus. Why would he waste three years of his life with a man whom he would never hear, never learn from, and most importantly, never love?
For Judas, this life was all that there is. For Judas, the grave was the end, and so therefore he greedily snatched everything out of this life that he could. Even his act of betrayal was a selfish, self-serving act of greed. Judas was a control freak, as most greedy people are. Judas’ act of betrayal was one final attempt to exercise authority and control over Jesus.
Depending upon how we count the days, the setting for our passage this morning is one day before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem; the day that we call Palm Sunday. Jesus and his disciples have come to the town of Bethany, which is about an hour’s leisurely walk from Jerusalem. During the week that Jesus will spend in Jerusalem, before he dies, he and his disciples will spend their evenings in Bethany, most likely as guests at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus.
And on this evening, Mary and Martha and Lazarus are hosting a dinner in honor of Jesus, most likely to show their appreciation to Jesus for raising Lazarus from the dead. At some point in the evening, perhaps after dinner, Mary took a pound of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard, and anointed Jesus’ feet with it. And then, she let down her long hair and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair.
Much has been said about the sensuality and the profound intimacy of this act, and it is; there is no question about that. It is very clearly an offering of love and devotion and gratitude. But it is primarily an act of worship and adoration and surrender of self. Mary gets it. She understands. She is giving her life, her very self, her being, to Jesus. Perhaps she understood it as an ultimate act of foot washing, of identifying herself clearly and determinedly as a fully committed servant of her Lord. And it is gloriously sensual and wonderfully intimate, because that is what worship is when it is true and genuine.
True and genuine worship and adoration engages our whole beings, our hearts, all five of our senses, and our voices, because it draws our whole selves into deep and profound and personal intimacy with our Lord. And it draws in others too. As Mary offered herself to Jesus, the aroma of her offering filled the whole house and surrounded everyone who was there with the essence of her love for Jesus. As the aroma reached their nostrils they were drawn in, they were engaged, they worshiped with her. It was a Holy Spirit filled and inspired moment of holiness. As the fragrance filled the house, that house became the temple of the Lord and it was filled with the glory of the Lord. And all were moved to worship and to adore.
That is, all but one. Judas will not worship. He will not let go of himself, he will not be moved by the glory of the Lord that fills that place. To him, the pleasant aroma of Mary’s offering is a stench in his nostrils. It is a waste. Instead of love and adoration Judas sees dollars slipping needlessly through his hands. Judas sees not a gift of love, he sees only loss. Judas has never given a gift, he has never experienced the joy of giving, so he can only understand Mary’s gift and offering of herself as a needless, pointless, wasteful loss. Judas has no sense of the sacred and the holy in his life. He is sitting in a room that is filled with the glory of God, and yet he has fully and completely insulated himself from it. He stands alone in what can only be described as pure and defiant hatred. Even God cannot move his soul.
And so, to protect himself from that overwhelming glory, he will disrupt the worship and the adoration. He will stand in the face of the holiness and the sacredness of that moment, and he will lash out. He will try to drive the glory of the Lord away. He will not inhale the beauty of the worship. He will, instead, cough it out.
In the presence of true righteousness, he will feign righteousness. But his righteousness is dripping with hypocrisy. He announces that this foolish act of Mary’s should have been prevented in advance, and that the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor.
Oh, selfish, greedy, controlling man! Not only have you hijacked the worship, but now you will demean the wisdom of the one who has made the offering. You will disdain her for her love and for her self surrender. You will belittle her for her devotion. And all of this, not because you give one whit for the poor, but because you see an opportunity for yourself slipping through your hands. Yes, Judas, you could have sold this perfume if you could have gotten your hands on it, you are the business manager, after all; but you would have kept back a portion of it for your greedy self. You have been doing this all along; you have been stealing from God. You are a thief.
I don’t know where Jesus and his disciples got their money. The Scriptures don’t explicitly tell us. I suspect that what little they may have had, had been donated to them by well meaning people who were in sympathy with their mission and who felt called to support them in it.
But I’m pretty sure I know why Judas was the business manager. It was just one more way for him to exercise control, and a way to benefit himself along the way. I don’t believe that he was ever in support of Jesus’ mission; I think he only thought of himself.
But the real reason that Judas was the business manager goes way beyond that, and deep into our own lives. Jesus gives each one of us the opportunity to learn trustworthiness and the opportunity to exercise stewardship over all that we have been given, and Jesus gave that same opportunity to Judas, by assigning him the role of the business manager. But Judas, being a man of the world, never figured that out. He never let Jesus into his heart and life. He kept himself safe and free of Jesus’ influence.
I’m absolutely convinced that Jesus knew that Judas was an embezzler, but I’m also convinced that Jesus continually showed him mercy. Jesus’ intent was to have Judas as one of his disciples. But in spite of the love, and in spite of the compassion and the mercy Jesus extended, Judas never arrived at that happy place. He never became a disciple. His final act of betrayal was merely the logical conclusion to the miserable life that he persisted in living. And when he finally realized that his attempts at control had gone tragically wrong, and terribly awry, and had been hopelessly futile, he exercised one final act of control and he took his own life. He didn’t get it. He wouldn’t understand that real life only comes in giving up control and in submitting oneself to the Lord of love and life. Had he done that, he would have been alive today, worshiping and praising in that heavenly temple that is always filled with the pleasant aroma of the presence of God.
Mary, on the other hand got it. She gave her life to Jesus. She offered herself to his service. Today, she is alive eternally.