A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor of New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 21, 2010.
Life is always full of drama. Even when events in life seem routine, living by faith is never dull. No, there are always dimensions of drama stirring beneath the surface of what may appear to be smooth situations and commonplace occurrences. Powerful forces are always operating around us, as is illustrated by the gospel reading from John for today.
The scene occurred at a home dinner party in Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem, only a few days before the Passover festival was to occur. Jesus had become a popular religious figure among the common population. People had heard of his teaching and healing ministry. Several days before this dinner party, Jesus had raised Lazarus from death in Bethany (John 11). No doubt, the Bethany community had learned how Jesus had gone into Jerusalem and chased shady bankers from the Temple. So this looks like an ordinary dinner party taking place a few days before the great Passover festival. Jesus, the preacher rumored to be the Messiah now more than before Lazarus was raised from the dead, is the guest of honor. Lazarus is there too, and probably attracting quite a bit of attention.
According to Matthew 26:6, the dinner party that we read about at John 12:1-8 occurred at the house of Simon the Leper. The gospel accounts from Matthew and Mark do not identify the woman who anointed Jesus with the expensive perfume, and they state that the woman poured the ointment on his head. John’s gospel identifies her as Mary, one of the sisters of Lazarus, and reports that she poured the ointment on the feet of Jesus, then washed his feet with her own hair.
So where is the drama? Well, for starters, the ointment Mary used was expensive, costing almost a year’s worth of earnings. The fragrance filled the house. Mary poured it from an exquisite alabaster container. The act of washing feet demonstrated humility, servant-hood, and obedience. It was a tender, if not intimate, act in a semi-public setting. Some might have even considered the act sensual—imagine what people would say if a woman poured expensive perfume on a man’s feet (or head for that matter) and then washed the man’s feet (or head) with the perfume—in the middle of a dinner party! Probably more than a few heads would have turned, more than a few eyebrows would have moved upwards, and more than a few whispers would have begun.
Then Judas spoke, and added to the drama. Judas remarked that many people could have been helped if Mary had donated the ointment to the ministry where it could have been sold, thereby leveraging its value so that poor people could have been helped. This was a waste. The idea of condoning such waste offended Judas. Parenthetically, John adds that Judas was not as concerned about the misuse of the gift as he was its lost to his personal treasury.
All of these things were operating inside the house party. At the same time, however, more drama was swirling outside. From the time that Jesus raised Lazarus, his popularity among the masses took on even greater meaning and was viewed with greater hostility by the established religious leadership. People who had merely questioned his teachings and his methods in the past began to view his ministry as threatening. A plot to seize and arrange his death was unfolding. Because the Lazarus resurrection figured so largely in the way people were viewing Jesus, the plot included plans to kill Lazarus.
So the ordinary-looking dinner party featured various dimensions of drama. What can we learn?
Life always involves faith, and faith always involves drama. There is no dimension of living that does not somehow implicate morality, and morality always involves more than we observe or can measure in the natural world. Jesus, Simon the Leper, Lazarus, Mary, Judas, and the other people at that house party were engaged in what appeared to be routine behavior—socializing over a meal. But that behavior occurred in the context of relationships and experiences that were seared with moral implications. Simon had been healed of his leprosy. Lazarus had been raised from death. Jesus was the agent of the healing and the resurrection. Mary was sister of Lazarus, and was a woman sitting where men usually sat. Judas was a trusted follower who dared to openly criticize what he considered an extravagantly wasteful use of property that could have been better used in ministry. Jesus was the agent of healing, resurrection, teaching, correction, and the object of devotion.
Our relationships are always tinged with drama. Our acts of concern, our greetings, words, gestures, and even our acts of showing up are dramatic manifestations about what we think is important. We show up at a dinner party because we want to be part of the relationships celebrated at the party. We give to ministry because we somehow believe the object of the ministry worth what we give. We question things we do not understand or disagree with because we believe that being useful is important. Whether we are correct or not, we are always part of something dramatic.
And even if what we are doing doesn’t look religious, there are moral overtones and undercurrents at work in our behaviors and interactions. Whether to provide healing to someone when we have the means to do so is a moral issue (so healthcare is always a moral issue!). Whether to lift someone from a low point that looks like they may be lost forever is a moral issue (Lazarus). Whether to allow people considered social outcasts into our circles of education, influence, and power is a moral issue (Simon the Leper and Mary). Whether to show our affection openly is a moral issue—not so much in terms of being morally acceptable or not, but in terms of whether we are willing to demonstrate our affection openly rather than covertly.
It is tempting to see Judas in this account as being out of step with Jesus. Perhaps he was already becoming the treacherous person we have come to denounce. However, we should not be so quick to judge Judas. He was not the only disciple to turn on Jesus, you may recall. Simon Peter denied Jesus three times within hours after bragging that he loved Jesus more than the other disciples. And who among us has never raised questions about whether some expenditure ought to have been put to better use? Whether we admit it or not, there is more of Judas in us than meets the eye. We are often more interested in what being around Jesus will do for us than what following Jesus means for God or others. This truth, difficult as it may be to admit or accept, is also part of the great moral drama in life.
God teaches us in the drama. According to Jesus, Mary’s extravagant expression of tenderness was a statement of devotion in anticipation of his death. According to Jesus, Mary, more than the men who would later become famous for being his apostles, understood that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he predicted his impending death. According to Jesus, Mary was doing a righteous thing, however much Judas disagreed with it or failed to understand it. According to Jesus, it is possible for us to be close to God and not understand God’s purposes, busy for God and not really on the same page with God. According to Jesus, it is possible for us to be Judas in the same room with Jesus, Mary, Simon the Leper, and Lazarus.
Jesus did not chase Judas away. He only told him to leave Mary alone. Judas can stay at the dinner party with Mary. Mary and Judas are welcome at the feet of Jesus even if Judas has issues with Mary and even if John has issues with Judas (by suspecting him of being corrupt). God’s love includes people you and I don’t understand—as well as some people you and I may not accept.
We are living dramas—you and I—as we follow God. Our relationships, efforts, thoughts, and choices are part of the powerful work that God is doing in the world. Even if we are not understood, not accepted, and even when we are misguided, God loves us, wants to maintain fellowship with us, and desires to have us close to one another. We are living dramas of faith, my friends.
Sometimes the dramas are joyful. At other times the dramas are tearful. Sometimes the dramas make sense. At other times, it is hard to understand what is happening. We are living dramas of faith, however, at all times.
In Jesus, however, we are loved at all times. In Jesus, God has shown us we are welcome at the house party. In Jesus, God is part of our dramas, and we are part of the wonderful drama that is God’s redemptive purpose for us and the creation. Let us take comfort in our dramas, and be faithful. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.