12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
I never had the chance to see comedian Mitch Hedburg perform live. In fact, I never even wanted the chance. I’m something of an accidental fan of his. See, once, in college, my best friend Lila left a CD with 5 hours of Mitch Hedburg’s standup in my car CD player, and because I was lazy, it stayed in there for about 3 months straight. As a result, I have an absurdly in depth knowledge of Hedburg’s jokes and they always seem to pop into my head at rather strange times.
He has this one about waiting to be seated at a restaurant. He says:
When you go to a restaurant on the weekends and it’s busy so they start a waiting list, they say, “DuFresnes, party of two, table ready for DuFresnes, party of two.” And if no one answers they’ll say the name again: “DuFresnes, party of two.” But then if no one answers, they’ll move on to the next name. “Bush, party of three.” Yeah, but what happened to the DuFresnes!? No one seems to care! Who can eat at a time like this!? People are missing. You people are selfish. The DuFresnes are in someone’s trunk right now, with duct tape over their mouths. And they’re hungry. That’s a double whammy. We need help. “Bush, search party of three.” You can eat once you find the DuFresnes.”
Who can eat at a time like this?
Holy Week is a heavy time to be telling jokes from the pulpit. I know. But I have to admit that this is the joke that came to my mind and has stubbornly stayed there as I wrestled with this passage for today.
This story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with oil is a well-known one. Much has been said about the significance of her action. The dubious intentions behind Judas’ objections have been explored and examined and reexamined. And Jesus’ own powerful and foreboding words in this passage—“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”—have been debated about endlessly.
But when this story comes up in our Sunday lectionary, it is only the first 8 verses. It tells us that Jesus is attending a dinner thrown in his honor at the house of Lazarus—whom he so recently raised from the dead. But it stops short of telling us what’s going on outside of the house. The final three verses of our scripture today tell us that even while this party is debating about expensive perfume in the house of Lazarus, Jewish officials are plotting his death.
This changes things a bit for me, when it comes to reading this story. Generally, I get caught up on the often harmful way that Jesus’ words about the poor have been misconstrued. I roll my eyes at Judas even while I secretly question whether he may just have a point, after all. I chalk the whole thing up to another mysterious moment in the life of our strange Savior and I try to move on.
But this time around, as I read this story in its fuller context—my reaction changed. It all seems a little bit more ridiculous. Suddenly, arguing about oil and having some carefree meal seem so unimportant. I feel like I’m watching a scary movie and I’m screaming at the tv screen “don’t go in there!”
Don’t you know that people are plotting against all of you? Some of you are going to die! Forget the oil, forget the food! Who can eat at a time like this?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the longer version of this passage comes up every year on the Monday of Holy Week. The first few days of this week are a strange time. They occupy this liminal space between the subversive joy of Palm Sunday and all that is to come. It is hard for us to stay here, I think, in these inbetween days. They seem so unimportant in light of all that is going on around them. What message could they possibly have for us? Let’s get on with it already.
I think this story paints in sharp relief the ludicrousness of this whole week in the life of Christ. Because, yes, they do know that people are plotting to kill them—or at least Jesus does. It’s not a coincidence or dramatic irony that they have this party at Lazarus’ house even while his murder is being planned. It’s a choice.
The events of this passage technically occur before the entry into Jerusalem, but after the Jewish high priests have begun to plot against Jesus. In fact, Jesus retires to Ephraim for a moment, and this story—this stop off in Bethany for a party—is an interlude on his return to Jerusalem.
And just like that parade into town on a donkey was no coincidental act—but rather a profound statement. This meal too—with its petty disagreements turned life lessons—it also is act of subversive joy. There are forces bearing down on them, threatening to tear them apart and they choose to stay and celebrate their togetherness with a meal.
The sharing of table is a particular kind of fellowship—one that was a major component of Jesus’ ministry. There is a certain vulnerability in eating. No one looks pretty when they eat. Nobody looks proud or lordly. The act of eating is an expression of basic, vulnerable human need. To share in that vulnerability is an act of solidarity and genuine communion. And of course, this is particularly true for the one who takes on this human life with its human needs and human vulnerabilities just to be with us.
And here, I think, is the point.
I call this week ludicrous because at every moment the smarter thing may have been to lay low or to get out of town. But Jesus stays. Not in ignorance of what is coming, but in full recognition. And he stays profoundly. In full, shared vulnerability.
I mean this is it! This is what it’s all about for Jesus, isn’t it? Becoming human, all his teachings, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. It’s all about Christ choosing to stay with us. Come hell or highwater, come hunger, come death.
I think too, that it is about Jesus wanting us to choose to stay with each other as well. I think that is part of his conversation here with Mary and Judas. I think it’s why it matters that Lazarus too chooses to stay when his life is at risk. I think it’s why Jesus gets mad at the disciples in the garden. He wants us to stay with him, yes, but as long as he is with and for us, and certainly when he is no longer with us in body, staying with Christ must also mean staying with each other. In our hunger, in our thirst, in our arguments and in our vulnerabilities. He calls us to the table to be with him and with one another. It is, for him, a calling more important than any impending threat—even of death itself. It is not a story or a moment to be overlooked.
It is a powerful choice, a holy choice, to stay and eat together at a time like this.
This story—this party—is not the only meal, or even the most important meal, that Jesus will lead this week. But I think it matters that we stay here with it. I think it has important truth for us.
Because what this story reveals to us is that Jesus doesn’t just choose to stay with us on the cross or in the tomb. Jesus chooses to stay with us every second of this week. Every second of his life and of ours. Even the mundane moments that seem so unimportant. Even in the chaos of impending trouble. Over and over and over again, Jesus stays with us.
So let us stay here at this table. On this Monday in this big week. Let us stay with one another and with Christ and feel every moment. Let us look in the face of what’s coming and choose to stay and remember that Jesus chooses us, chooses to stay with us. Not just once. But all the time.
Thanks be to God.