The contrast could’t be starker: Mary anoints; Judas antagonizes. Mary prays with her whole body while Judas preys on her lavish offering. Mary fills the room with the aroma of pure nard while Judas fills the room with the stench of self-interest. Mary sees Jesus as the subject of her devotion while Judas sees Jesus as an object to serve his greed. These contrasts elevate the social, political, and interpersonal tension of this moment.
Today’s Gospel text is sandwiched between Jesus’ controversial raising of Lazarus and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we will commemorate next Sunday in the festive Liturgy of the Palms. On some level the scent of revolution is in the air and it is intoxicating. Jesus’ fame is gaining traction as word about his raising of Lazarus. This causes a frenzy in Jerusalem, forcing the Temple Establishment to convene, asking what could be done to stop Jesus’ growing momentum. And the buzz is highlighted at the end of the preceding chapter : “‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (John 11:56-57).
In this context, amid the foment of public anxiety and private angst, Jesus arrives in Bethany. Bethany where Lazarus was raised, Martha was crazed, and Mary was praised. Bethany, where the so-called Jesus Movement became a threat to the powers that be. Bethany, where Jesus could find refuge from a demanding populace thirsty for liberation. A part of this refuge is the ritual of the ordinary: reclining at a table and having dinner. Instead of posturing or campaigning, Jesus shares a meal with close with friends. It is during this tender, intimate scene that Mary takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair, filling the house with the fragrance of the perfume. Mary responds to social unrest with adoration.
But Judas Iscariot objects: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor? Why was this money wasted on fragrant beauty when it could have gone to a more noble cause? Why wasn’t she more prudent with her budget?” This question leads the narrator of this Gospel to insert: “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief.” If Mary is preoccupied with adoration, Judas is preoccupied with domination.
In the chaos of the final days before Jesus’ brutal crucifixion, Judas is swept away by greed. But this doesn’t happen overnight. Judas’ ball of betrayal begins rolling long before Bethany. It begins as he realizes the trajectory of Jesus’ life won’t lead to a throne, but a cross; not to centers of power, but to the margins. This brings texture to his eventual betrayal, causing us to believe that Judas probably betrays Jesus for much more than thirty pieces of silver; Judas betrays Jesus because Judas feels betrayed by Jesus’ solidarity with the impoverished. And if one fundamentally despises the impoverished - blaming them for their plight instead of critiquing the system that impoverishes them - there is little hope of one finding anything compelling about the arc of Jesus’ prophetic life and agenda.
The scene in today’s text is a clash of visions: Mary’s love for a person who loved her first and Judas’ self-interested pursuit of power and prestige. These are two distinct visions of what it means to live in the baptized community of Jesus: to be loved and claimed by him, to be transformed by an encounter with the Incarnate God; visions that war within us even today; visions that pill us in various directions: chaos or community; domination or deliverance. And much like the Eucharist we will share today, it all happens at a table. Amen.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Grace-St. Luke’s Church