We preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the church—each of the four Gospels, in their own way, begin with some statement about how what follows is the “good news” or gospel, of Jesus, as understood by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. They heard the stories of Jesus, and then interpreted them and wrote them down and they became the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Luke, etc. We then hear their Gospel of Jesus, internalize it, interpret it, and proclaim it—so it’s still the Gospel of Jesus, but it also belongs to us. There is a Gospel of Jennifer—and a Gospel of Janet, and a gospel of Edings, just like there’s a Gospel of Mark or Luke or John. Our way of understanding the good news of Jesus and our way of sharing that with the people we meet—whether by our words or our deeds or the model we set—is our piece of the Gospel.
And that way that each of us has Good News to share about our relationship with Jesus is how I’ve entered today’s Gospel reading, because there are some really interesting characters present, with widely divergent Gospels all contained under the roof of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What is the Gospel of Mary of Bethany, in today’s story? What is the Gospel of Martha--of Lazarus—of Jesus? And intriguingly, what is the Gospel of Judas—because I think even he has good news for us today. We’ll get to him at the end.
But first, let’s start with the Gospel of Mary of Bethany. Mary’s good news is that we can love Jesus fully, no holds barred. Mary is insightful—she is anointing Jesus for his burial, yes, but also as a king—also as the Christ—the anointed one. Mary is not burdened with practicality; she loves to an extreme and expresses her gratitude on behalf of her family in this over-the-top way. And while she is ridiculed for it by Judas, she is honored for it by Jesus. How many times do we want to do something big—audacious—splashy—for our faith, and hold back over “what will people think?” Mary is not concerned with that—and even when Judas speaks out, Jesus immediately turns it around to honor her, in just the way that Jesus will honor our wild audacious gifts.
Martha’s gospel is about taking action and supporting other people in their ministries. She’s the one who goes out of the house and finds Jesus after Lazarus’ death and accuses him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Today she is taking action again—making the meal, serving her beloved brother and Jesus, and probably contributing to the possession of ointment (more on that later). Martha is not splashy or fancy. But she sets the stage and makes those actions possible for those who can make them. Mary’s gratuitous action of anointing Jesus is made possible by Martha’s work, which has real value. The Mary/Martha story of her serving and Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet isn’t in John’s gospel, but its essence is contained here—perhaps Mary has chosen the “better part” by anointing Jesus, but she is only able to do so because of Martha.
Lazarus proclaims his good news at first just by virtue of sitting at the table. Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead; he is the living embodiment of the promise of New Life. But Lazarus’ presence also reminds us that having ointment for burial in this household is not a coincidence. Lazarus’ body would have been anointed before his burial… which makes me wonder if the ointment Mary uses on Jesus may be left over from Lazarus, or maybe even other family members.
Now this is entirely my own imagination, so take it for what it’s worth, and I know very little about 1st Century burial practices. I don’t know if when someone died you went to the local apothecary to buy just as much ointment as you needed…. Or if it was something you had stored around the house in case of need. But there’s some beautiful imagery to me if the ointment used for Lazarus, the first man raised from the dead, is the same ointment that is then used to anoint Jesus, the one who raised Lazarus and who will be raised himself and who raises us. Or, what if this ointment is more like the loaves and fish—and it is the ointment not just for Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ family, but gathered from among the community—perhaps Mary went from house to house in Bethany asking them to share, saying “I need ointment for the burial of someone we love”—until there is so very much to pour out all at once.
So much abundance, of course, that Judas objects. There have been some attempts to rehabilitate Judas’ reputation in the last 50 years—Jesus Christ Superstar comes to mind, where Judas’ affection for the poor is assumed as sincere; more recently the discovery of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas from the early centuries of the church portrays Judas as acting on Jesus’ instructions and was the only real, true disciple who understood Jesus. A few years ago, the play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adlai Guirgis played at the Public Theater to much acclaim, and it was fascinating—Judas being retried in purgatory by Satan for his crimes.
I’m not interested in rehabilitating Judas, per say; but what I do notice about Judas in today’s text is that in the other three gospels in the scene where a woman anoints Jesus with costly ointment, it is not Judas who objects. It is “some of the disciples”—no names, but understood to be some of the good guys, who are just—as usual—misunderstanding what Jesus is doing. John is the latest gospel written. It intrigues me that the last telling of this anointing story, the last word, if you will, lays this malapropism on Judas’ doorstep—and adds that he has been misappropriating the common purse—a detail contained nowhere else in scripture.
Do we try to make people look worse in hindsight than they really were when we want them to be our scapegoats? I hope that the gospel of Jesus is about escaping the cycle of blame that the world teaches us to enact—not about conforming to it and participating in it. In a few verses, Jesus is going to wash ALL the disciples feet, including those of Judas. I think Jesus’s Gospel as a whole is pointing us away from making Judas the scapegoat for our own doubts, our own frailties, our own misunderstandings of his gospel. We need to own Judas’ question: how do we appropriately praise and honor and worship God with the best that we have to offer and strive for justice and care for the poor? That is not a question to be dismissed—whether it’s Judas or another disciple or Jesus himself who raises it.
So here’s the good news of Judas: we are all going to fail Jesus at one point or another. We are all going to put our own pet projects ahead of those of the gospel sometimes. We are all going to be out of sync with our communities sometimes. And Jesus is still, still going to love us, wash us, redeem us, and save us. Judas isn’t alone in this. Peter will deny Jesus. The other male disciples will abandon him. And they will all be welcomed back. Even Judas—I believe—finds welcome back with Jesus in eternal life. And taking Judas at his word—and not at John’s word—his reminder of that balance between devoting our resources to praising God and devoting them to justice on behalf of God is one we should also keep in mind.
With all this in mind, what is your gospel? What is the good news of Jesus that you have to share with the world? What kind of ointment do you have to pour on Jesus? What tough questions do you have to ask of God for the benefit of all of us? Who do you serve so that they can deepen their relationship to God? And what part of your story is a story of resurrection—of new life? Where have you experienced Lazarus’ story… what part of you is coming to the table today that used to be dead and is now alive?
You have a gospel to share. Bless you for it.