Texts: Isaiah 43:16-21 + Psalm 126 + Philippians 3:4b-14 + John 12:1-8
File it under “weirdest dinner party ever.”
The story begins, “six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him.” We’ve all had friends over for dinner, and we’ve likely all had dinner parties. This is more of the latter than the former. They’ve thrown a dinner for Jesus and his disciples and the reason for their celebration would seem quite clear. Their brother Lazarus, who once was dead, is now alive through the power of God at work in Jesus.
The story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead appears only in John’s gospel, and it is presented there as the cause for the Pharisees’ plot against Jesus. In the context of worship we generally read the story of Lazarus’ resurrection right up to the point where Jesus calls him forth from the grave, wrapped in grave cloths, and Jesus demands that the crowd of witnesses “unbind him, and let him go.”
After that climactic moment however, John’s gospel goes on to say that
many … therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death. (John 11:45-53)
In response, Jesus withdraws for a while from the public eye and goes to stay in a town called Ephraim near the wilderness until the Passover. As the festival of the Passover drew near, John’s gospel says,
They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him. (John 11:56-57)
And it is at this point that the story of this odd dinner party is told in the fourth gospel.
So, a miracle-worker on the run from the authorities and a man who used to be dead are sitting at the same table. This is already a strange, electrically charged event. Then Mary, sister to Lazarus and Martha, bends down to anoint Jesus feet with costly perfume made of nard which Judas says could have fetched 300 denarii at the market. A denarii was a day’s wage. Let’s work this out with rough numbers. The minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25, so an eight hour day paid at minimum wage will earn you $66. Multiply that by 300, and you get $19,800. The terms don’t translate quite this neatly, but for the sake of comparison, let’s go with it.
So, a miracle worker on the run from the authorities, a man who used to be dead, and his sister — who has just emptied almost $20,000 in perfume on the guest of honor’s feet and mopped up with her hair — are at a dinner party. What we have is a really weird joke, waiting for a punchline, which Judas provides.
Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrays Jesus to the authorities, who acted as treasurer of the group, is indignant at this waste of money. He asks, “why was this perfume not sold for [the $20,000 it’s worth] and the money given to the poor.” As readers we’re given to understand that he didn’t actually care about the poor, but that he wanted to get his hands on a portion of this wealth. Publicly though, he is appealing to Jesus’ core values, mercy for the poor. Why would Jesus condone such a waste of resources?
This is where the party goes from weird to awkward and uncomfortable. Answering Judas’ question, Jesus says, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
At a dinner party thrown in his honor, seated near a man he’d restored to life, Jesus cuts through the religious pretense of his friends and followers, who want to quibble over how to spend their budget, to talk about the real cost of discipleship. It will cost everything. It will cost them their lives.
In John’s gospel, the logic of power is this: to confront the death-dealing forces of this world is to make yourself their target. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, knowing that the cost of a life is another life. To say this in church, as we now pivot from the season of Lent and into Holy Week, is to begin to speak plainly about the mystery at the center of Christian faith. What does it mean for the church to confess that Jesus Christ died for our sins? What does it mean to say that he gave his life for ours?
There isn’t only one way to answer that question, and we don’t all have to use the same words or agree to the same set of beliefs to be included in the conversation. In fact, sometimes there are simply no words to say in response to this grace. Sometimes we simply find ourselves overwhelmed, like Mary, who saw the forest while Judas focused on the trees. Jesus wasn’t just organizing charity work, redistributing wealth from the kind-hearted rich to the hungry poor. Jesus was confronting the death-dealing powers of the world, challenging their dominion over God’s creation, in ways that would cost him his life.
In response Mary, wordlessly, pours herself out over the body of her Lord. She sees what the others are too scared or confused to understand at this point. She knows the price Jesus has paid to restore her brother to life, and she is overwhelmed with gratitude. She acknowledges his impending death and, together, they prepare for what is to come.
The rule of etiquette for dinner parties, or so I’m told, is that you don’t talk religion or politics. You don’t comment directly on the wealth of the host. You keep your conversation to the sorts of topics acceptable in polite company. If the subject of illness or death comes up, you acknowledge it briefly to offer your sympathies, but you don’t linger on the topic.
Jesus and Mary need something deeper that that, and — whether they know it or not — so do the disciples, so do we. There are dinner parties, and there’s having friends over for dinner. This was supposed to be the former, but it ended up the latter, thank God.
The same is true for us, who gather here at this table each week for a meal that is intended to be a meal among friends. How often have we sat next to one another, nursing our private grief? How often have we passed the peace, while harboring our unspoken anger? How often have we shared a meal at the Lord’s Table, while hiding our multitude of hungers — for forgiveness, for acceptance, for love?
Dear friends, the community of the church is not a dinner party, it is friends over for dinner. It is people who can speak openly of the death that surrounds us in the world. It is Mary wordlessly pouring herself out at great cost, offered gratefully, willingly.
We are open about this, from the very beginning. If you’ll open your hymnals one last time to the Rite of Baptism, and turn to page 231, I want to draw your attention to something. After a person is baptized we offer up prayers of thanksgiving that, like Lazarus, we have been raised, given new life. Then, like Mary, we wipe that person with oil. We acknowledge that, in baptism, we have been joined to Christ. In baptism, we have been grafted into the body through which God is at work, confronting the death dealing powers of this world.
I’ll say it: so often even the rite of baptism looks and sounds like a dinner party. Everyone in their Sunday best, and enjoying the company of friends and family. But see what we actually say? “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
This Lent we have heard the story of God’s love and mercy, God’s justice and grace, as preparation for the sacrament of baptism, and as a call to repent, or turn from, all the ways we have departed from the fullness of baptismal living. Now we remember that in our baptism, we were anointed too. We have been wiped with the costliest oil in preparation for a death of our own. A dying to priorities and purposes of this death-dealing world, and a rising with Christ to the new life of solidarity with all the world’s suffering that calls us again and again to enter Jerusalem and to face the cross.