Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.
John 13:21-32 (12:1-11)
Lazarus had been dead, but was alive and eating dinner once again in Bethany where his sisters were giving a party in honor of Jesus. Martha served, as she always seems to do. And Mary was at Jesus’ feet—again—where she always seemed to be. This time, though, she was not his student but his embalmer.
Jesus was alive, still, of course, but not for much longer, if only he and maybe Mary seemed to know or sense it. Or perhaps it was with her gift that night the way it sometimes is with ours: we give what we give and we think it means one thing, but when the gift is received it signifies something else again. It is hard to know, sometimes, about things.
It is hard to know about people, too, and Judas, not least. He was the treasurer, John says, and also a thief. Maybe it was all just as simple as that: that Judas cared only about money, was as cold and heartless as we have been catechized. But here and there are hints, whispers, that maybe there was another side to him.
The Last Supper, for instance: the disciples wondered if, in honor of the feast, Jesus has told him to go and give something to poor. Which is to say, maybe even the disciples knew of his sympathy for the less-fortunate, knew that Jesus would trust him with such a task, that this was not the first time Judas had done such a thing or made such provision.
There is also this moment in Bethany, when with Lazarus eating and Martha serving, Mary embarrassed herself for love of the man who had raised her brother from the dead. Judas was scandalized, of course. But is that a sign of his hypocrisy, or of devotion?
No one spoke when Mary took her place at his feet, in company. But no self- or tradition-respecting woman would do such a thing. In front of her sister, maybe. Maybe. But in full view of the neighbors? Never.
Taking her hair down in public? No one speaks again, though the air is getting thick. A woman took her hair down only in private, and then only as a sign of deep intimacy—a sign that she “found her man.” Which is to say, for Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet in this way was as scandalous an act as Jesus’ washing his disciples feet a couple of nights later—and perhaps she gave him the idea.
The perfume? Pure nard. Expensive. Used for embalming. In a costly jar which Mary broke as regretlessly as she offered the rest of her scandalous devotion, her heart full to breaking with love and thanks and, also, I suspect, fear—the sense, if not the knowledge exactly, of what was coming.
And Judas could no longer hold his tongue. “This perfume should have been sold,” he said, “and the proceeds given to the poor.” The Evangelist cries foul, of course, and maybe Judas’ statement is simply disingenuous. But what if he had overheard, and taken to heart, the word of Jesus to the rich young man? What if Judas considered those words to be the Rabbi’s plain command: that if you have a treasure, you sell it and give it to the poor (Luke 18:22). That is the way to be perfect, Jesus had said.
And so Judas may indeed have seen Mary’s act not only as waste, but also as disobedient disrespect of their honored guest’s teaching.
More patiently than he might have, he told Judas to hold his peace, to be still. “There is a time for devotion,” he said, just as there is a time for sacrifice. There is a time for scandalous devotion, even, which is a different kind of selfless gift.
If anything, Jesus’ heart was fuller than Mary’s. His heart, too, would soon be broken for love of his friends, as Mary had broken the alabaster jar for love of him, his grace pouring out onto those he loved. The sweet aroma of his sacrifice still fills the world.
A broken jar; a broken heart; a broken body—each in their own ways scandalous acts of unaccountable love and devotion.
But what of Judas? There is the disquieting comfort in the story from a couple of nights later, at another supper, just Jesus and his closest followers. When he says, “One of you will betray me,” none of them seem to know who he means, at least not at first. They do not immediately think of Judas but rather ask in turn, “Lord, am I the one?”
It is easy to blame Judas, of course. And maybe he was just as cold and heartless as we have been taught to believe. What is harder is to ask whether we, each of us, might be the one. Hard to make that confession.
Have you ever demonstrated “scandalous devotion”? Have you ever prayed, “Lord, am I the one?” How have such experiences changed your spiritual journey?