April 3, 2022| 5th Sunday in Lent
Each week, for the past five weeks, the appointed lessons were screaming at me the word “trust,” and so I preached about trust, especially about trusting God. It may be not a coincidence that our Gospel reading for today is again focused on trust, or rather on the betrayal of trust. Judas Iscariot, the great betrayer, figures prominently in this passage, which is one of only two stories in the four Gospels in which he gets a voice.
This story of the anointing of Jesus in Bethany before his arrest, passion, and death is told also by Mark and Matthew. John, however, seems to know more than the other Evangelists. He fills in the story with several details that are absent in the other versions. But the central question remains in all versions: “Why didn't we sell this jar of ointment for a large sum, and then give it to the poor?” But only in the Gospel of John is the disciple who speaks it identified as Judas, the betrayer. Also, in the other versions the woman performing the anointing remains anonymous, while John identifies her as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. The scene is set as a contrast between the two groups to which Jesus is deeply connected: his disciples and his friends. The disciples represent the more public aspect of his life: they receive formal instructions from him as a rabbi, and they function as intermediaries between Jesus and the crowd. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are presented instead as his most intimate friends, a kind of adopted family. The moment is fraught with tension. It has become clear that Jesus is going to be arrested soon, and it is unlikely that he will escape death. The two groups are both present at the same supper. Who breaks the silence at the end of the supper? Is it Judas, the only one who speaks in the scene besides Jesus? Actually, no. It is Mary who, without saying one word, takes a pound of costly ointment and starts pouring it on the feet of Jesus. This is quite a statement in itself. In all versions of the story, Jesus explains that the woman's act is connected to his imminent death. In this version by John, Jesus specifically says that she bought the ointment needed to bury him. She has foresight, and her symbolic act speaks volumes. She dares to state what everybody is thinking in the room: she breaks the silence silently. Her tender gesture is both an announcement of the inevitable and an act of resistance against it. The aroma that pervades the whole house tells that a burial is going to happen, but also that life and compassion will triumph in the end. It is only at this point that Judas speaks up to object and the fragile harmony between the two groups is broken. The betrayal surfaces here, before the kiss in the Garden. What can be more awful for Jesus than having his disciples quarreling with his friends while sitting at the same table, waiting for his arrest? Where is the love? Where is that atmosphere of trust that is so needed, and more so when tragedy strikes? Perhaps John became convinced that the unnamed disciple was indeed Judas--or he leaned toward trusting his sources on this point--because he felt that those words, apparently so politically correct, so in line with the preaching of Jesus, were in fact the words of a betrayal. “Why didn't we sell this jar of ointment for a large sum, and then give it to the poor?” “Because Jesus is going to die, your moron!” Mary did not say that, nor did Martha or Lazarus, but they could have. It is especially painful to hear that Jesus has to explain, with infinite patience: “Because it is the poor you always have with you and you don't always have me.” Meaning: “I am dying soon.”
John also adds a comment about why Judas says what he says: Judas wants to profit from the selling of the ointment. In other Gospels, Judas is connected with money as well, more precisely with the money he gets paid to betray Jesus. But, in all cases, these are merely explanations. They are attempts to get at the motives of an act that must have shaken the early church to its core. Imagine this conversation: “Who betrayed Jesus to the authorities?” “One of his own disciples!” “Why?!?!” “Maybe for money?” But we do not really need this motive, or any motive, to be grasped in our throats, to feel choked by the betrayal of trust that this story presents before our eyes. In a moment of such a great intimacy and intensity, Judas tries to shame Mary and everybody who feels like her; Judas claims the higher moral ground, and by quoting a teaching of his rabbi—Jesus--he attempts to put down the whole group of Jesus's friends while managing to confuse everybody else. “Why didn't we sell this jar of ointment for a large sum, and then give it to the poor?” is a line that is perfectly aligned with the teachings of Jesus, or so it seems. But it is said with bad intentions and at the wrong time. This is not just stupidity or lack of understanding on the part of the disciples, as the Gospels of Mark and Matthew suggest. John tells us that this is evil, this is how the devil works! Sowing separation and mistrust, throwing around shame and fear.
I think we have a lot to learn from this story. I have expounded on it quite a bit because I think that its details and its dynamic are still unfortunately present in the church today. We do shame each other, sometimes in subtle ways, and this is a generic trait of sinful humanity. More specifically, some of us, in some circumstances, play Judas by taking the higher moral ground while in fact being completely mistaken about the situation. I have been the victim of such behavior, and I hope I have never done it to someone else because it is really an awful sin. The mystery of evil that emerges from this story is not that Judas loved money. The mystery of evil is that, in a scene of love and deep suffering, he feels the need to speak up and to speak about morality, about correct behavior. In so doing, he throws a big stone in the circle of love, because he can't stand it. A psychological analysis of the character of Judas is impossible because there is very scanty evidence on which to base it. But we know that many people who act in such a way have been deeply hurt and have not been able to cope with their trauma. This is not to justify Judas or anybody else, but to acknowledge that to withstand suffering and trials, or even just to weather a storm in the life of an organization, there is a need for people who can feel their emotions deeply and name them, who can make and accept painful decisions, who can admit their mistakes, who have trained themselves not to shame others. That is not always the case in the church today, at all levels. Of course, by criticizing the church I am subject to the same temptation of taking the high moral ground. My response is this: to maintain that shaming and power struggles happen simply because we are human is not enough. Of course it is true. But it's not enough to say so. Our responsibility as the Body of Christ is to correct each other--as gently as possible and as firmly as necessary--so that we push away from us the behavior of Judas and let ourselves be formed in the image of Christ. We need to recognize that Judas is part of us, that we too can do those things. But we should not on that account try to justify ourselves and rationalize our behavior.
In all of this, trusting God yet again is the key. I have been part of organizations, including church organizations, where the focus was on the emotional entanglement of the group itself: “It's all about how we love each other.” And I have been part of church groups in which the emotional connection is nonexistent or fake: “We have growth objectives to reach in this amount of time.” Neither position is faithful to the gospel. The key, the “narrow path” if you wish, is to trust others truly and create real emotional connections with them, yet without trusting them as one should trust only God. Better still, trusting God should be the horizon, the milieu, the breathing atmosphere in which all church business is conducted. It is our trust in God that enlarges our hearts enough, that makes us breathe deeply enough, that allows us to engage with our brothers and sisters in the faith without getting discouraged. We can, of course, get annoyed, tired, and frustrated. I do, for one. But if I get discouraged, I know that it is a signal: I have stopped trusting God. I am trying not to say this in a moralistic way, as in: “You must trust God!” The point is that trusting God is like breathing; it is even connected to physical deep breathing. Yes, when we trust God we breathe better and our muscles are more relaxed. We trust God not because we should, but because we need it. Because our whole life is transformed by such a trust.
Paul, as we have just heard in a confession written at the end of his life, had every reason to take the high moral ground. He was better positioned than most, well trained in biblical observances, belonged to the right family, and so on and so forth. But he learned, through painful experience, that if he took the high moral ground--or rather, if he did not step down from that high ground and stop persecuting the church--he would lose his life, his inner life, his reason to be alive. Instead, he was grabbed by God through Christ, and never became discouraged afterwards. Frustrated, angry, sad, to be sure, but never discouraged. He wanted God to find him with a righteousness based in trust. Not in beliefs, but in trust. I don't know where I will be at the end of my life, but I would like to be found living in trust.
This year we will finally be able to celebrate the Easter Vigil, in which the theme of trust will be intertwined with the theme of liberation. We will celebrate that trusting God brings us freedom. This past week I was getting too close to discouragement. But then I re-read the words of the prophet Isaiah, which I now repeat to you. God says: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” For us Christians, the great “new thing” that God is always doing is our liberation through the suffering and the resurrection of Christ. It is the great mystery that we keep celebrating because it keeps showing different facets to us, and always gives forth new meaning. Let us live the Holy Week that is upon us in this spirit of trust and expectation. God is doing a new thing among us. Amen.