Years ago – OK, many years ago, my father and I were at a country fair in Cleburne, Texas. We walked around, ate fried things, and I remember enjoying the evening for the way it let him tell stories of his life growing up that I had not heard before. One of the things they had there was a maze of mirrors, and he talked me into trying it. We stood outside of it for a while, because you could see in and watch the people run into walls they thought were pathways. Once I thought I had a system that would work, I paid for my ticket and entered the maze.
My plan was this: I would walk, looking only at my feet. When I saw a reflection, I would know it was not a pathway; when there was not a reflection of my shoes, then I would know the way was clear to go. Now, we were at a country fair, so this maze was actually built in some sort of double wide trailer. Dad said he watched me start through the maze and pick up steam as I became more confident in my approach. Then I zigged when I should have zagged and hit one of the mirrored panels at full steam, shaking the whole trailer. My father was still laughing hard when I made my exit some minutes later.
I thought about the hall of mirrors this afternoon as I reflected on Ginger’s sermon on the lectionary passage for the week, John 12:1-11.
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.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
I love that the sequence in the lectionary offers this story following that of the Prodigal Son, which shows the boy’s father to be extravagantly forgiving and celebratory at the young man’s shame-filled return. The entire chapter of Luke 15 is made up of parables portraying a ridiculously spendthrift God who is up for a forgiveness celebration at most any turn. My favorite is the middle one, which portrays God as a woman who has lost a coin and tears up the house looking for it. When she finally digs far enough into the couch cushions to collect the runaway change, she blows all of her next week’s grocery budget throwing a party to celebrate.
That’s the extravagant-over-the-top-I’m-here-for-the-party love of God.
Enter Mary, kneeling before Jesus and pouring out a pound of perfume (nard) on his feet and then wiping them with her hair. From what I could find out, nard was something that came from the Far East and was ridiculously expensive, not to mention potent. She poured enough perfume on his feet to fill the entire neighborhood with her fragrance of love, and then she used her hair as a towel. Everything about the scene is over the top and a wonderful incarnation of the Love she knew had saved her.
Judas inserts himself into the story with a tone not unlike the Older Brother in the Prodigal parable. He can’t smell the perfume for the price. Why didn’t she sell the perfume and give the money to the poor? How could she justify that kind of extravagance? And Jesus told him there would be time to do things for the poor; she was making her best offering now.
Ginger did a great job of challenging our sense of extravagant gratitude, or lack thereof. As a committed, well-intentioned, social justice oriented, liberal Christian church, we are good at working and caring, and even giving, but extravagance doesn’t come easily. Ginger put it in terms that hit home. Imagine, she said, you had worked to save $2000 to give to the homeless and you found out someone close to you was dying and wanted to go to the Grand Canyon before he or she died. Would you spend the money to take the trip? If we follow Mary’s example (and Jesus’ as well), she said, we would take the trip and then start working on saving another $2000 for the homeless when we got back.
I got it. Don’t let Judas’ judgmentalism become a characteristic of my life.
Here’s where the mirrors came to mind. One of the things that has always intrigued me about the Gospels is they was they talk about Judas. It becomes readily apparent all four were written after the fact because they work hard to make sure you know Judas was a bastard from the beginning. In this account, John makes no bones about pointing out the villain:
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.)
BAM! The mirror hits me in the face in one of those the-only-people-I’m-prejudiced-against-are-prejudiced-people kind of moments. Even as the story points Judas out as the sinfully judgmental one, it judges him. Their grief at his betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane never allowed them to look at why he made the choices he made, or what was happening in his heart. He was a liar and a thief. Let’s all make sure we spit every time we say his name.
And I feel as though that leaves me to choose between Jesus being a terrible judge of character in choosing him, or choosing him because they needed a bad guy to make the whole crucifixion thing work out. I don’t buy either one. None of us is that simple to explain. Who knows why Judas said what he did about Mary. We don’t know his story other than what we’re told. We do know he tried to return the thirty pieces of silver after he saw what happened to Jesus and, when they wouldn’t take the money, he killed himself. His remorse doesn’t sound much different than that of the Prodigal Son coming back home, yet Judas found no one waiting to forgive him.
Shakespeare’s plays are divided into comedies and tragedies. The difference, it was explained to me, is the plot lines are basically the same except everyone ends up getting married in the comedies and everyone ends up dying in the tragedies. The Prodigal came home to a party. Mary found love enough to give her the freedom to respond with extravagant gratitude. And Judas ended up dead and alone, even though he heard the same stories and saw the same things Mary and the others did.
I’m not sure how to get out of this one. I look into the faces of everyone in the story and I see a mirrored reflection of myself.