Monday, March 30, 2015

Spiritual Profiling


It’s Monday in Holy Week, and I’m already getting my first dose of gospel-account-inconsistency. Today’s gospel lesson (John 12:1-11) is the beautiful story of Jesus coming to his friends’ home in Bethany. John identifies Lazarus as the one “whom he had raised from the dead.” The dinner, therefore, takes on an intimate, celebratory, appreciative quality. That’s the motive behind Mary’s lavish gift of costly perfume, which she uses to anoint Jesus’ feet as she wipes them with her hair. The entire gesture is normally a huge social taboo—unmarried woman rubbing another man’s feet—but the relationship that existed between this woman and this man seems to transcend. No one faults the thankfulness of the woman whose brother had been delivered from death—no one except Judas.

Judas asks, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” It was a reasonable question. Three hundred denarii (almost a year’s wages for a skilled laborer) was a lot of money—enough to make a big difference in the life of a poor person or family. But John, as he recalls this gospel story, shapes (distorts?) the event to leave us hating Judas for his treachery instead of wondering along with him why such an expensive gesture was appropriate.

Before he even tells us of Judas’ question, John inserts an editorial comment that sets the stage for our rejection of it: “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said…” And now how are we supposed to hear what comes out of his mouth? That’s profiling of a spiritual kind if you ask me. Then, after Judas asks his question, just in case we misinterpret it, John lets us know the motive of Judas: “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.” But how does he know? Can’t a bad guy ask a good question every now and then?

Perhaps your theology is that nothing good can come from the one who betrays Jesus, but that’s not how I see it. He was still one of the twelve, and I don’t believe he was chosen merely for his betrayal. He had something to contribute to Jesus’ ministry, and this is the kind of question disciples are supposed to ask of their master—why? Why wasn’t the perfume sold? Why wasn’t the money given to the poor? Why should we prioritize the thankfulness of Mary and the anointing of Jesus over the hunger and homelessness of others?

In case you’re on John’s side—ready to throw Judas and his question under the bus—consider how Mark tells this same story. Some of us read Mark’s passion story, which, according to the RCL includes all of Mark 14 & 15. (Yes, the BCP still needs to be changed at an upcoming General Convention in order to match the lectionary with the text within the Holy Week services, and, yes, I like Scott Gunn’s argument here, but, no, I didn’t notice until it was too late and the service leaflet inserts were already finished, so, yes, Title IV police, come and get me.) In Mark 14, when he was at Simon’s house in Bethany (contradiction #1), a nameless woman (contradiction #2) anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair, and “some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way?’” (contradiction #3). There is no mention of Judas at all. In fact, in the dramatic reading of the Passion, those “some” are described as “disciples.” I heard the Passion reading three times yesterday (long day), and I kept waiting for Judas to complain about the ointment, but he never did. As far as Mark was concerned, that objection belonged to everyone—not just a traitor.

As I make my way into Holy Week, I am wondering about my own treachery. As I asked in the sermon yesterday, “Which side am I on?” Of course I’m willing to cheer on the Jesus who rides into town to a great celebration, but where am I when he is arrested, tried, and crucified? Two thousand years of hindsight have made it easy to point fingers at the traitors or the deniers or the run-and-scared-friends. But where would I be? What does it mean to be faithful even to the one who was crucified?

Late addition: it occurs to me that one is always permitted to lengthen readings, so I should be immune from a Title IV violation.

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