Monday, April 1, 2019

Reading for Tone


I spent the first part of last week focusing on some parish newsletter articles, and the latter half of the week I was on vacation, so this blog was neglected. Although I enjoyed a few days away, I did regret not writing on the parable commonly identified as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It only comes up in the lectionary once every three years, and it deserves more attention than that. This week, I'm focused on some other writing projects, so, again, this space might be neglected. Unlike last week, however, I'm preaching on Sunday, and, if I don't spend at least a little time digging into the texts, a number of us will regret it.

Yesterday, Lora Walsh asked us to hear the parable as Jesus' original audience would have heard it--to strip away the centuries of Christian filtering and discover again a story of an impartial father who, like so many "heroes" of the Hebrew scriptures, lavishes affection on one son to the exclusion of the other. If we can do that, we then encounter an elder son who brings us to our own critical theological choice: will we accept an image of God who plays favorites and rewards some to the exclusion of others or will we recognize in God a limitless love that invites both the one who is culturally identified as preferred and the one who is seen as not-so-preferred to the banquet? It was a great sermon, and the invitation it gave me/us required an alternative reading/hearing of the text.

This Sunday's gospel lesson (John 12:1-8) invites us to do the same. Jesus and his disciples are visiting with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. In a lavish gesture of love and adoration, Mary anoints Jesus' feet with a costly ointment, wiping them with her hair. It was a sign of unreserved love. Judas Iscariot interrupts the moment, asking, "Why wasn't this perfume sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?" And that brings us to the difficult interpretive moment: how will we hear Judas' question?

We are all preconditioned to hear things in particular ways. When a person in disheveled clothing approaches us in the grocery story parking lot, we expect him to ask us for money instead of pointing out that our tire looks flat. When a needy parent calls us on the phone, we expect her to tell us that we need to drop what we are doing to come solve a minor problem rather than tell us that she is going on vacation with her new boyfriend. When a child who relentlessly tattles on his sibling comes to us with eyes full of tears, we expect him to blame his sister rather than acknowledge that he created a situation that led to his own hurt. When Judas shows up, we expect him to have a sinister motive no matter what he says, but must that be the case?

John the gospel writer adds some editorial comments that interpret the scene for us: "But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 'Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?' (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.)" The words in parentheses are put there by the editors of the NRSV and other translations. These are John's comments. No one (except, perhaps. the Holy Spirit) said them. Originally, this scene unfolded without subtitles. But John himself can't get past Judas' identity as the one who betrayed Jesus. It's like being preconditioned to add an expletive every time you mention your ex-spouse. But I wonder how this scene would look and sound to us if we didn't have the editorial interpretation--if Judas wasn't always depicted in black with a malicious glint in his eyes and a hook-nose.

I'm not suggesting that we dismiss John's interpretation altogether. It is, after all, biblical text. And, yes, Judas is the one who betrays Jesus. But might there be some hermeneutical value in hearing Judas' question in a different tone? Instead of the ulterior-motive-laden question that John wants us to hear, what happens if Judas question comes from an inquisitive, genuinely curious disciple who is searching for an explanation of faithfulness? "Why wasn't this perfume sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor? Rabbi, why? Help me understand. Help me see the good in this gesture." If we can hear that--even for a second--we return to the real focus of this gospel lesson.

This story isn't about Judas. It's about Mary and her gesture of love. Because of John's editorial remarks and our precondition to think the worst of Judas, the disciple's' question and Jesus' answer lead us down a rabbit hole of unanswerable ponderings. Instead, we should start by watching the extreme gesture of love and asking along with Judas, "Why wasn't the perfume sold?" so that we can hear Jesus answer more clearly: she has been saving it for my burial--to demonstrate to me and to God and to all the world her love. The question for us, therefore, isn't what could be done with the money but what does it mean to love like that. I may not have much time to write about it here, but, this week, I'm looking for the depths of that love--a love that makes no sense unless you can see the love that is contained in the death that awaits Jesus.

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