Monday, April 6, 2009

Monday in Holy Week

Isaiah 50:5-10 / John 12:1-9

It's a familiar scene: Jesus at Bethany in the company of his dearest friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary. As usual, Martha is serving and Mary is attending to Jesus with undivided attention. Once again, Mary finds her devotion subject to a stinging rebuke, and one that, at least at first glance, wins over the reader's loyalties. In the days past, it was Martha's rebuke which made us pause, namely that Mary, in attending to Jesus, was leaving her with all the work that needed to be done. Perhaps we sympathize; perhaps we have known what it is to work so tirelessly for God and his people, only to see those who have not labored one bit worried we have not been as assiduous in prayer as we ought.

However, Martha did not escape Jesus' correction. What Martha had failed to see was who Jesus is and therefore where her own heart ought to have been. Was Martha wrong in doing the domestic chores? Certainly not. Yet, she was wrong in two crucial ways. First, she allowed her own busy life to distract herself from what she really wanted, which was to be with Jesus. Second, and more crucially, she was on the verge of the sin of envy. Rather than adjust her life so that she too might enjoy sitting at Jesus' feet, who after all fed the multitude with a few loaves and fish and so did not need Martha's ministry at all, she resented Mary and her happiness, and sought to drag her out of that blessed communion with God which she enjoyed.

Now, as the time of Christ's suffering and death draw near, the drama is sharper, and so is our confusion. This time, Mary does not simply listen. She anoints Jesus' feet with a whole pound of aromatic nard, a true fortune, enough if sold to supply nearly a year's wages for unskilled labor. To be sure, the evangelist assures us that Judas Iscariot's criticism did not come from any love for the poor: Now he said this, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and holding the purse, used to take what was put in it. Even so, while Judas might have had ulterior motives in his criticism, the criticism itself on another's lips — perhaps even our own? — sounds altogether fair. Is the momentary creature comfort of an upscale foot massage really in any kind of proportion to putting bread in the mouth of a poor man for a year?

Here again, we find ourselves in the same trap which threatened to ensnare Martha long before in the house in Bethany. We have failed to attend to who Jesus is. There is no proportion between him and any created good. There is no project, no system, no work of charity, no righting of wrongs, no act of love for any creature, even a created person, which can ever remotely be balanced against Jesus, who is love, joy, and the answer to all of our longings, and who is goodness itself, without whom all other created goods have no meaning, and in whom alone, even apart from anything ever made or that ever will be made, is goodness undiminished. For the poor, Jesus reminds us, you have always with you, but you do not always have Me.

Our solution in face of the Betrayer's challenge is the same as served Martha. If we indeed love the poor so desperately, how do we need to change ourselves so that, in serving them with all the resources we can bring to bear, we draw closer to God and in drawing closer to him, come also to love those who love him with exuberance and extravagance? Only that love of God is true which seeks not by its righteousness to condemn those whose holy folly has moved them to endow Christ and his Church with outlandish acts of self-giving and adornment, but rather seeks only to outdo them in equally lavish acts of charity to the least of Christ's brethren. It is when our love for the poor is enlivened by that same tender and ecstatic love which moved Mary to anoint Jesus with precious nard and wipe his feet with her own hair, with her own very self — it is then that we will stand not with Judas Iscariot but with the beloved sisters in Bethany. It is then that our works of justice will be indeed a sacrifice acceptable to the Lord, a fragrant offering of love to our Lord Jesus Christ.

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