I did’t preach today, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.
Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year C)
- Isaiah 43:16–21
- Psalm 126
- Philippians 3:4b–14
- John 12:1–8
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1–8 ESV)
Jesus talks like a dead man in today’s Gospel reading.
Which makes sense. Because he is basically a dead man walking. The chief priests and the pharisees have just contrived the plot to kill Jesus, because to the way Caiaphas the high priest thinks, it is better “that one man should die for the people” then that “the whole nation” should perish. Because Jesus has gotten popular, everyone believes in him, and maybe — just maybe his popularity will change Israel’s fortunes, compelling the Romans to come “and take away both our placed our nation.”
Caiaphas never explains what he means by this, or how it would work. We know … because we know what is coming next. Not just in the week or so that follows, but in the generation to come.
Jesus dies. And not just for Israel, as John writes in his gospel, but “also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” But the nation dies too, a generation later, when Roman legions show up, lay siege to Jerusalem, and destroy the place.
If Jesus is a sacrifice to prevent this, then the sacrifice fails. The Judeans lose their even highly circumscribed sovereignty, and the house of God so carefully and loving restored. Their place and their nation … gone. And scattered.
And all of this concern — all this fear — because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. In fact, the situation had gotten such that John tells us, “Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews,” staying with his disciples in a small town in the middle of nowhere and leaving all Jerusalem wondering whether or not Jesus was going to show up in the temple for the passover.
And what might happen if he did.
Instead, we find Jesus today sitting at table with the not-so-dead Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. In an act of deep appreciation, and tremendous gratitude, Mary takes nard — a costly and very precious oil used in temple sacrifices — and anoints his feet. With her hair. And the whole room is filled with the pungent aroma of this spice.
The disciples are probably stunned. John tells us Judas is outraged. Cynically so. That cost a lot of money … Think of all the good we could have done with it! Think of the poor, who would have benefitted so!
It doesn’t say how the other disciples acted. Assuming they were with Jesus, and they may not have been. Perhaps they were are stunned, and maybe as scandalized, as Judas.
Jesus defends Mary. Defends her extravagance. And he quotes the words of God to Moses, after a fashion, when in Deuteronomy 15 Moses tells Israel
For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’
There will always be poor, and so let that become a reason not to ignore them, or forget them, or dismiss their poverty but to show concern for them, to share with them, to care for them, to provide for them.
Don’t argue with me about that. Argue with Moses. Argue with God.
More importantly here, I think, is the fact that Jesus understands something the rest of us don’t quite yet get — that he’s already dead, a dead man walking.
Jesus is going to his death, and there is nothing he nor anyone else can do to stop it. He has told us earlier in John’s gospel that he lays down his life of his own free will, that he has been given the authority to lay down his life, and he does knowing he will take it up again.
In fact, he lays down his life in order to take it up again.
And we follow him. This is what Lent is all about, a journey with Jesus into death. It may be a raucous show along the way, good fun had by all, as we watch the master raise the dead and feed thousands, as we help and even do a little bit of it ourselves. But we are headed with him to cross, to that terrible way of death the Romans reserved for rebels and traitors.
We too are dead men walking. We just don’t know it.
But Jesus does. The poor will always be with us, he reminds us, and thus we will always have an opportunity to give, to share, to provide for them. But Jesus is doomed. He knows it. In John’s gospel, he heads toward the place of the skull with eyes wide open.
He knows he is going to die. And he knows he is going to rise.
We walk not knowing. We walk still thinking it might end with Jesus as our king, Rome and its armies shattered and broken, and the promise of God to “Make Judea Great Again!”
But we too are dead men walking. We too walk with Jesus. And i’m glad he lays down his life and picks it up again because I can’t do that. I don’t want to lay down my life at all. I’d rather not lose it, because everything I know about the world tells me once I lay it down, my life is gone and it is never coming back again.
But Jesus … he picks his up again. He rises from that tomb and visits the disciples and challenges them to touch his wounds.
And so, I walk with Jesus, afraid as I am that I will, someday, sooner or later, have my life taken from me. Forced to lay it down. But I know he lays it down for me. For us. And picks it back up again. And in doing that, picks our lives up as well.
We are all dead people walking. We are all risen ones walking too.