One of the geeky things I enjoy about the lectionary for Holy Week is that after all of the drama of Palm Sunday, on Monday we flash back a day or two, to a moment of peace between Jesus and his friends before he makes the final leg of his journey into Jerusalem. But in this quiet scene, we see the whole drama of Holy Week unfold in miniature.
Jesus is at the home of his good friends, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Each of them responds to Jesus’ presence with them with a reverent gift: Martha serves, offering her effort and energy; Lazarus sits with Jesus, offering his time (something of whose value he had become abundantly aware!); and Mary pours out an expensive bottle of perfume on Jesus’ feet. It’s a beautiful scene of intimacy and genuine communion among friends. What could go wrong? Who could possibly object to such an evening?
As it turns out, however, this is the event that pushes Judas over the edge, from perhaps questioning-and-concerned-but-still-faithful disciple to conspirator against his teacher. Feigning a justifiable concern for the poor, he accuses Mary of waste: the perfume should have been sold and the money distributed to worthier causes. Jesus rebukes him: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” This isn’t about the poor — Jesus knows this as well as Judas does — but about love. And love is one thing a hard, self-centred heart cannot stand.
The scene then ends with a further break of its earlier peace: the people hear that Jesus is staying there and gather to gawk at both the wonder-worker and the man he raised from the dead. And seeing all this commotion, the religious authorities move to get rid of both Lazarus and Jesus, setting the scene for everything that will happen next.
As I read this story today, the expression “This is why we can’t have nice things” kept coming to mind. Jesus can’t enjoy a quiet night with friends without being interrupted first by a petulant disciple, then by a crowd of admirers, and then by a crowd of detractors. Mary can’t offer a beautiful, expensive gift to a friend without being criticized for how she could have better used the money. Why can’t we have ‘nice things’? Because of jealousy and envy, because of projection and self-justifying rationalizing, because of greed and hard-heartedness. In a word, because of sin. We don’t need to wait until Jerusalem to see the scapegoat mechanism do its thing — we see it here in Bethany already.
Jesus of course, offers us another way, an opportunity for a life that is not driven by such pettiness. It is a way that was already pointed to in the Servant Songs from the book of Isaiah, which are the Old Testament readings that accompany us on our Holy Week walk with Jesus towards the cross. These oracles describe Israel, God’s people, as having a special vocation in the world — a vocation which Christians have always seen as being particularly expressed in the life of Jesus. Today’s reading is the first of these Songs, from Isaiah 42:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
As we continue our journey this Holy Week, may we all keep this way before us. May we repent of “the former things” and hold on to the new, working with Jesus to “bring forth justice to the nations,” handling the “bruised reeds” gently lest they break in our care. And may we continue to walk in faithfulness until this way of justice is established upon the earth and then we can all have ‘nice things’.