I have been reflecting this week on how we show love: love for one another and for God. John’s gospel story of a meal with Jesus, Mary and Martha with Lazarus, Judas and the disciples on his way to Jerusalem and his death, provide us with an intimate moment with Jesus, when love was extravagantly displayed. (John 12:1-8) Here, we can consider and reflect on two different forms of discipleship, love and service.
Let me ask you, how do we show love for one another? It seems to me it is by being present with the loved one, and by doing things for them. In these last few weeks, we have experienced personally and collectively several family members who have died and we are grieving. In these days I have seen love expressed in so many different ways. It has been in the sharing of memories and precious conversations, being present during the suffering, holding hands, touching, fetching, carrying, helping, feeding, caring, weeping and laughing. I have thought about what this story with Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus means within this context.
Versions of this story are in all four gospels. In Mark, (14:3-9) Matthew (26:6-13) and Luke (7:36-50) we’re told of an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus as an act of love. The location, the host, the identity of the woman and the timing of the story are all different.
For John, his story focusses our attention on love and discipleship. Jesus has gone back to Bethany to be with the family whom he knows well, before heading to Jerusalem, in time for the Passover and preparing for his death. Perhaps it is so Jesus can say ‘goodbye’. For Martha, the sister who cooks, cleans and prepares, she would have outdone herself with the celebratory meal filled with thanks for Jesus, for saving her brother. Serving the meal would have had enormous emotional weight for everyone present as it would have been an extraordinary occasion. As we heard in the parable of the prodigal son last week, God’s desire for God’s son and all of creation was resounding:
…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate. Luke 15:23
Mary, however, appears to be the only one present who has understood Jesus clearly as he tells of his forthcoming betrayal, torture and death. She joins those at the meal, bearing expensive ointment, whose fragrance filled the house as she anoints Jesus’ feet. We are reminded of Martha’s matter of fact reality check at Lazarus’ tomb:
Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days. John 11:39
Mary’s love is overwhelming, the one whom she loves is going to die. She prepares him for his burial by anointing him with perfume made of expensive pure nard, wiping his feet with her hair.
Our extravagant gestures for those we love are the same. We do whatever we can to ease their suffering, accepting grief with our impending sense of loss. In this time, we pour out our love in whatever way we can, however foolish, wasteful or ridiculous it seems. It really doesn’t matter what others think. We don’t care about their opinion. Only the beloved matters. Love in these precious moments is exquisite and transformational for everyone who sees it, experiences it and shares it.
In this brief story of love and intimacy with Mary and Jesus, interjects Judas. John describes him harshly calling him a thief and a liar; but in rejecting Judas’ criticism of Mary’s foolishness, Jesus asks us to reflect on this other form of discipleship, familiar to all of us. A discipleship calling us to care for the poor and outcast, with compassion, practical assistance and love.
We hear Judas’ concern now highlighted as hypocrisy because of his self-interest. Like Mary, love’s foolish presence is frequently misunderstood as we focus on the easier opportunity to be task-focused, practical, dutiful, measured and obliging. This discipleship seeks social justice. Yet Judas’ intervention was not about caring or loving for the greater good. It was intended as a roadblock to manipulate and benefit himself. Judas had moved beyond seeing Jesus’ good news for the poor, instead embracing Jesus for the sake of other higher, nobler causes. However, privileging any cause above love for Jesus invites trouble.
Jesus shockingly commends Mary rather than Judas. We too can see our own Judas tendencies, focusing on our institutional and personal interests to the exclusion of God’s love for the whole of creation. We see it all around us as well as in ourselves.
Jesus’ response to those at the meal table to leave Mary alone and to respect the choice she has made is transforming. His statement, ‘You always have the poor with you’ (Luke 12:8) is not a promise, but rather an indictment of people and systems capitalising on those who are poor. Jesus’ words pour criticism on the Judas in our own hearts and communities, where our own self-interest keeps in place the systems of power disadvantaging the poor. Jesus’ words are a wake-up call to our desire to serve and to share. It’s also worth remembering Jesus’ explanation about Lazarus to Martha at his tomb:
Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God? (Luke 11:40)
Finally, as we join Jesus at his table, we remember Jesus is travelling to Jerusalem, consciously accepting the death he knows is waiting for him. For those among us facing into illness, tragedy, or personal failure it often seems Christ’s love is far removed. Yet how often does Jesus surprise us with his presence, precisely in the middle of our darkest times? His presence with us in such times is possible because he has chosen through the cross to enter into the darkness with us. In our darkest moments many of us look upward hoping to see a divine hand reaching down to help us. What catches us off guard is the loving hand reaching out to us from directly beside us, in the darkness. This is what it means to have a crucified Saviour who has chosen to embrace the depths of human darkness and suffering and still, always, to share God’s extravagant, all-embracing love.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds] 2015. Feasting on the Gospels John, Vol.2 Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.
Moloney, F.J., S.D.B. 1998. Harrington, D.J., S.J. Editor. Sacra Pagina Series Vol.4. The Gospel of John. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.