This is a difficult and demanding passage. Aren’t they all? We know where it is leading. The symbolism and language are clear. Mary’s actions with the expensive perfume directly foreshadow Jesus’ impending death. John says they are one week before the Passover (Palm Sunday). The inevitability of the moment cannot be lost on anyone. On one level, these are the events of Mary and Martha’s dinner party.
On another, we have the issue of money. Burial perfume isn’t cheap. The treasurer of the group, one Judas Iscariot, knows this. How could anyone in their party afford to spend so much money on such a wasteful display of extravagance? Especially, as Judas notes, there are poor people who need this money. John and others question Judas’ motives. Most scholars will tell you this is “after the fact” questioning. Everyone wanted to be able to says, “We knew he was bad” from the beginning. Regardless of his intentions, Judas made a valid point. The poor could have used the money far more than Jesus’ still living feet with burial perfume. (The whole feet anointing is awkward. It may have made others uncomfortable. Judas may have been trying to relieve some of the weirdness tension present in the room. Was he voicing what others were afraid to say? ) Isn’t giving to the poor exactly what Jesus has preached for three years?
It is exactly what Jesus has been preaching all over Galilee. Though now, in the dining room of Mary and Martha his response is different. He says, “The poor will always be with you but you won’t always have me.” I hate that answer. Hate is probably too strong a word. I really despise that answer. Not because Jesus said it but how it’s been used, taken out of context, and misconstrued since the moment it came out of his mouth. For centuries, these words have set up a false dichotomy between meeting your own needs (painting, new carpet, fancier pews, and larger doors) and helping the poor (food banks, mission trips). So when someone says, “we’ve got all this money and we could probably make do with what we’ve got for a few more years, why don’t we give to the refugees?”
Another person or group (in the church) will reply, “Didn’t Jesus say the poor would always be with us?” Meaning the poor will still be poor once we finish painting, carpeting, or doing whatever we need doing. It’s impossible to do both. Our reflection on Jesus’ words stops there because it fits our own cultural and financial presuppositions. In the end, the people who control the money win. The poor get poorer and American churches as a whole are well maintained but largely empty buildings. We rarely ever try to reconcile both points of view (help the poor and meet our own needs.)
This is where I’ve been this week. I’ve been trying to unify these uncomfortable ideas: Judas making a valid point, Jesus reflective at the end of his life and how we as Christians exist within that tension. Just the other day, I was reading this passage at breakfast. I’ve been queasy recently. I don’t recommend reading about washing feet with human hair over a meal. That’s beside the point. I’m going over it again and all of a sudden I stopped and said out loud (I might have even yelled), “The dead guy’s there.” Here’s where I should tell you this happened in the gas station. Walter, the cook working behind the deli, looked up at me and said, without missing a step, “Yes, the dead guy’s there.” The crazy gringo is reading his Bible in the corner.
I couldn’t believe I’d missed it. It was staring at me the whole time. How did I not see this from the beginning? I’d been so wrapped up in the nard, lard, hair, and Judas thing I missed the dead guy in the room. I might have missed the point altogether. What did I miss? There was a dead guy in the room. Lazarus was at the party. It was his celebration.
Have you ever met someone really famous? Or even someone who you (and perhaps 15 or so of your friends considered famous)? I once met Justice Scalia while I was changing planes at Logan Airport in Boston. Maybe you know the person who sewed sequins on Earth, Wind, and Fire’s jump suits. Fame is much like beauty; in the eye of the beholder. If you’re in a room with a famous person, or have the opportunity to hold a conversation with this person, you might like to talk with them and ask them questions. You’ve been presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Now, all I want to do is talk to Lazarus. This is the real story. Let me talk to the guy who died and came back. He’s the main attraction. What was it like? This guy has been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. He’s probably wearing a, “I Died and All I Got Was This T-Shirt”. There’s a man who came back from death, in the room, and we’re worried about nard and money. If that’s not a parable about priorities, I don’t know what is.
He was their brother; they had to invite him to the party. They couldn’t exactly say to him, “Laz, the neighbors are still kind of wigged out by your deadness episode last week. You look like one of those Galilean Meth heads we see on the evening news. How about you stay in your room tonight?”
Even so, I’m sure some of the guests were less than pleased to walk in and see Lazarus. We’re told he stank to high heaven when he came out of the tomb a few days earlier. I wonder how long it took for the funk to wear off. Did he still look dead, pale, weak, or less than “alive”? One doesn’t die for a few days and bounce right back. After complete and total shutdown of your bodily systems, I would assume you don’t immediately go on a regular Middle Eastern diet. Open minded types, such as those who hung out with Jesus, still had some of those old Jewish hang-ups about coming in contact with a corpse and ritual purity. Lazarus had been a corpse. My question is this, would everyone be staring a Lazarus while trying to listen to Jesus? Is anyone listening to Jesus at all?
If you had a chance to talk to Lazarus, what would you ask? What do you remember? Was there a bright light? Did you see Aunt Lula? Do you mind if I stare? May I watch you eat? I want to ask him something funny. I’d like hear someone who came back from the dead laugh. I believe Lazarus would value laughter.
Is Lazarus’ laughter upstaging Jesus’ mini sermon on the value of money? I hope so. Perhaps, this was Jesus’ intention all along. Who knows? Lazarus’ presence calls the whole absurd spectacle into context. Lazarus shows us what happens when Jesus calls you, when you’re dead, and you run head long into Jesus. Lazarus is what happens when death collides with life. What did Jesus say to Lazarus when he brought him back to life? He said, “Come out!” Lazarus stumbles out, smelling like rotting flesh and human decay. Jesus says, “Get him out of those death clothes and find him something to eat.”
My belief is simple: Jesus does amazing things with what we bury, write off, and place in tombs. We write off people, ideas, and places. We condemn ourselves to graves of living mediocrity.
Lazarus isn’t an idea called resurrection or resuscitation. Lazarus is that guy in the corner of the party who has been transformed, by God, from the inside out. I know lots of Lazarus’. Some of them are awkward and smelly. They have walked headlong, somewhere in their journey, into Jesus. Lazarus and the people like him remind me, what God did for losers, adulterers, killers, slaves, persecutors, and even a dead man, God will do for us.
Lazarus is a regular person who embodies the inversion of darkness and the subversive nature of hope which affirms this principle: death is not the end of the road.