An Unusual Dinner Party

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John 12:1-8

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. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 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.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

What an odd group of people to have for a dinner party! A parishioner of mine at a former church made this observation to me years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. Because, you know what? They are right; this is a bizarre dinner party!

First, we have Martha, the ever dutiful, punctual, and detail-oriented host and sister of Lazarus and Mary. She was not the kind of person who could sit down easily, always seeming to need to do something or oversee some detail. Then we have Lazarus, a most unusual person. A close friend of Jesus, and more remarkably, Lazarus was formerly dead—the author of John is careful to note that this encounter happened after Jesus had resurrected Lazarus. What do you say to someone who was once dead but now lives, what would that conversation be like? Perhaps the others felt the same way, as Lazarus the Resurrected doesn’t say much in this story, nor does anyone say anything to him.

Next we have Judas, the disciple who will betray Jesus—he seems rather dour in this story. We of course have Jesus, who is celebrating a meal with friends. He knows that it is his chance to say goodbye to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Most importantly, we have Mary, the other sister. She more than anyone else in the Gospel stories understands who Jesus is, she more than anyone else understands what he is worth, and she more than anyone else seems to understand how special her time is with him. It is indeed a most unusual group of people for a dinner party!

This story that we read today, the anointing of Jesus, is told in all four of the gospels, although the details differ between them. In all of the stories, it is a woman who anoints Jesus’s feet; although occasionally his head is anointed as well. In some of the gospels, it takes place while Jesus eats with the Pharisees, in one of the Gospels it is while at dinner with Simon the Leper, while in John it is with Lazarus and his sisters. Perhaps most interesting of all is that in the other three gospels, the woman who anoints Jesus is never named, only John identifies her as Mary. In all the stories, people—whether they are the Pharisees or the Disciples—are scandalized by the actions of the woman who anoints Jesus, once because she was reported to be a sinner, but most of the time for the same reason that Judas is incensed in today’s story. After all, Jesus had this nasty habit of wanting to feed the crowds that gathered around him and it cost money. Couldn’t this costly perfume have been used to buy more food to feed the hungry people?

But today’s story is not the other stories and the Gospel of John does not present us with a nameless woman who angered a loosely defined group of observers; John gives us Mary and Judas, who are the focus of this narrative.

Jesus has stopped for a meal with his good friends before he finishes his journey to Jerusalem, before he finishes his way to the cross. Jesus knows that this is to be his last meal with them and we the readers know that this is to be his last meal with them. The only other person who seems to have this knowledge is Mary, and when he arrives for dinner, she pulls out a pound of perfume with which to anoint his feet. She pulls out from some hidden place a pound of perfume that cost somewhere near the equivalent of a full year’s wages for an average worker. She rubbed the perfume into his feet with her own hair, an incredibly intimate, even erotic, act. Make no mistake, this was an incredibly extravagant gift matched only by the intimacy of its delivery.

The Gospel of John seems to assume that the reader is rather dim and so takes great care to explain everything and add in its own interpretations through parenthetical remarks. I would encourage you to ignore them and take Judas’ words at face value. It is no surprise that he is shocked at this extravagance—most of us would be if we were in his place. The intimacy makes him uncomfortable and he can’t help but to think of how light their common purse has become of late and how much the money from this perfume would have alleviated their financial strain and allowed them to do even more with the hungry and the poor. He is appalled at this display of abundance in the face of the scarcity that seems to surround him.

This is ultimately what is at the core of today’s story—the tension that exists between God’s abundance and our very human disposition towards scarcity. The concept of scarcity is central to so much of our society! Our economic system is based on the premise that resources are scarce and therefore people will pay a price to secure them for their own use. Perhaps now, more than any other time in recent history, we are aware of scarcity, whether it be food or fuel or housing as supply chains continue to reel from the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine disrupts what is left of market normalcy. Every visit to the grocery store, every time we stop at the gas station, we are reminded of scarcity, and we become more susceptible to the voices that tell us that we don’t have enough.

We do not worship a God of Scarcity, we worship a God of Abundance, and the abundance shown and shared in the life and work of Jesus is in direct opposition to the message of scarcity that we humans so dearly love. Whether in the turning of water into wine, the healing of the sick, the casting out of demons, and even the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus demonstrates to those who would follow him an abundance of celebration, an abundance of grace, an abundance of love, and an abundance of life.

This is the Good News of the Gospel over and over again! We say, “I don’t have enough” and Jesus says, “I am all that you need.” We say, “I don’t do enough,” and Jesus says, “I am sufficient.” We say, “I’m not good enough,” and Jesus says, “I love you and have loved you since before the earth was lifted from the formless void.” In this abundance that God shows to us, we are invited to respond with abundance ourselves, not because we are obligated but because the life within us, the breath of God within us, longs to partake in the abundant life of God, to inhale deeply God’s spirit.

Mary, more than anyone else in the gospels, more than any of the other disciples, gets this. Mary alone recognizes the abundance that stands before her and responds in abundance. Though John does his best to cast an ill shadow over Judas, Judas is not to be despised but pitied. Judas is not an evil character in today’s story, he is a tragic character. Here is a man who has lived and walked with Jesus throughout his travels. He has heard Jesus’ teachings time and again, seen the work Jesus does time and again, and yet does not comprehend what stands before him. The tragedy of Judas is that day after day he stands before the abundance of God and cannot see it because his sense of scarcity has scaled over his eyes. Judas just doesn’t get it.

It is a bizarre group with whom Jesus shares this meal—a person who is always dutiful, a person who has received new life, a person who gets it, and a person who just doesn’t get it. When you stop and think about it, though, we’re a rather odd group of people too. We’ve all been each of these people at different points in our lives. We don’t always feel joy and awe in our faith and we’ve all been the person who acts out of a sense of duty. We’re also sometimes the person who has received new life. Sometimes we’re the person who “get’s it,” and at other times, it feels like no matter how hard we try, we just don’t “get it.”

But you know what? That’s ok. The last piece of this story is that Jesus sits down with all of them; Jesus sits down, eats, and celebrates with those who are dutiful, those who have new life, those who get it, and those who don’t. We who are so attuned to scarcity are always worried that there is not going to be enough room at the table, but God says, “my table is bigger than you can possibly imagine, and there is always more room for you, so come and join me at this most unusual of dinner parties.”