The focus of Monday in Holy Week is a quiet story of Jesus spending time in Bethany with his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha before he enters Jerusalem (John 12.1-11). It’s a story with a surprisingly large cast of characters, all with different motivations for showing up and for responding as they do. It’s worth asking ourselves who we are in the story — better still, the ways we sometimes embody all of them.
The first character we meet, albeit briefly, is Martha. We are told only one thing about her, that “Martha served.” From Luke 10 we know that this was just what she did: She was the practical one, doing what needed to be done in the background. There are two sides to this, though. Yes, those with servant hearts are rightly to be praised for making things happen. And yet, in the Luke story, Jesus points out that there’s a time and place for everything and admonishes her for shrinking into the background instead of being present with him: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary [who is listening to Jesus] has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Sometimes ‘doing what needs to be done’ is not the “one thing needful.” Sometimes it’s an excuse not to be present, not to pay attention, to justify remaining apart from the group or unchallenged by the teaching before us. And so I wonder, How am I like Martha? Do I jump into help others, or do I leave the work for others to do? But, if I am a helper, do I sometimes default to serving in unhealthy ways? Am I attached to my feelings of self-righteousness? Is my service a way of hiding from something I need? Do I think my only value comes from what I can do for others?
Then we see Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. He is described as “one of those at the table” with Jesus. He’s just had a shocking, unprecedented experience. One can only guess at how he would be feeling after not just a near-death experience, but a full death experience. (I recently read Richard Zimler’s stunning and profound novelization of the aftermath of Lazarus’ raising, The Lost Gospel of Lazarus, and it does a great job of showing just how mind-breaking such an experience would be.) And, as word of what happened spreads, he also finds himself the object of gawking and gossip. So he’s sitting with his friend, his teacher, and the one who restored his life, but probably unsure what to do with himself or what to say or think. And his neighbours, well-meaning and otherwise, won’t leave him alone to process any of it. And so, I wonder, How am I like Lazarus? Am I feeling dazed and confused by the course my life has taken? Do I find myself the object of other people’s unhelpful curiosity? If so, how do I respond? Do I seek out the presence of Jesus, or do I just want to retreat?
Then we have Mary, who takes a costly jar of perfume and pours it out on Jesus’ feet. She is extravagant in her love and devotion to her friend and teacher, just as in the previous visit she sat listening at his feet. And so, I wonder, how am I like Mary? Do I love extravagantly? Do I stop to listen? Have I chosen the better part?
But then there’s Judas, who sees this act of love and rejects it. He accuses her of wasting money. Ostensibly, he’s motivated by a concern from the poor, but the text tells us he was secretly stealing money from the communal purse. And so, I wonder, how am I like Judas? Do other people’s acts of love put me on the defensive? Do I hide behind smokescreens and projections, pointing out others’ supposed faults to hide my guilt about my own? And how far am I willing to go to protect my own self-image?
There is also the crowd that gathers to gossip and stare at the wonderworker and the freak whom he raised from the dead. How do I fit among their number? How do I go along with the crowd in order to fit in? How far am I willing to go along with them? If the crowd turns to violence, will I pick up a stone to join them or will I risk my safety and push back against it? And when something happens to a neighbour, do I offer to help them, or do I spread rumours, laugh, or point and stare? Am I a spiritual rubber-necker, or do I keep my eyes on my own plate?
And there’s the chief priests, the leaders of the crowd, who want both Jesus and Lazarus dead. Am I like them? Do I respond with anger to things that don’t readily fit into my conceptual boxes, preferring to destroy them instead of broaden my categories? Do I act to protect my own power and prestige? When I see a crowd forming, do I use my platform to rile it up, or to calm it down?
Finally, there is the man at the centre of it all, Jesus. How am I like him? Are there times when I just want a quiet meal with my friends but the world won’t stop harrying me? Do I ever feel that even my best-intended acts come back to bite me? Do people find fault with me for reasons that have nothing to do with me?
For good and for bad, there are likely things we can recognize about ourselves in most, if not all of the characters in this story. And that stands to reason, since as extraordinary as it is, Jesus’ last week is actually very ordinary. It’s filled with normal human people, conflicted in their motivations and actions, reacting out of instinct more than responding out of their identity in God. If the story of Holy Week is to have any real meaning or impact for us, we need to be able to see ourselves, at least in part, in all of the characters. The cross is not something that bad people did to Jesus, it’s something we all do in small ways every day when we fail to show up fully in any and all of our relationships.
But in the midst of it all, there is still Jesus, who embraces us all with love, within our brokenness and spiritual blindness, and the sin that stems from them. And that is the good news of Holy Week and every week.