We went back to the house of the dead man for dinner.
Crazy to be back there again, four days later, the tomb still standing open. We passed it on the way, still faintly smelling of spices and death. Here we were, back at the place that had turned the tide. Word was the leaders were just annoyed with Jesus before that, found him an oddity, an irritation; some wanted him gone but others thought he was not that big a threat. But when it happened, some of them were there, they saw it. And that clinched it.
Lazarus was an upstanding guy, good family, so many had come to pay their respects to the sisters, and really, the whole town was grieving. And the rumors were circulating – because they had sent word to Jesus days before that Lazarus was sick, and he was only two miles away, and he never came.
This was Lazarus, his friend, brother of Mary and Martha –These were his people. And he didn’t go. I didn’t understand it. I kind of agreed with the rumors, at the time, that he should’ve been there. I had seen him do all kinds of things, surely he could have kept his friend from dying. But we lingered for two more days. I figured it was because it was a bit dangerous; last time we’d been through there some people had tried to stone him, there were enough folks around that wanted him gone that it was safer to just avoid Bethany. So I didn’t question him.
But then suddenly he decided we would go, and he got all cryptic and said we were lucky he hadn’t been there earlier because now we’d really have a reason to believe in him, and that Lazarus had fallen asleep and he was going to wake him up. Somebody, I can’t remember who, helpfully pointed out that sleep might do the fellow some good, he just may be well by the time we arrived. But he looked at us and sighed and then said, “Listen guys, he’s dead, ok? And I am going to him.” Thomas turned to the rest of us, and shrugged, knowing Jesus was walking into a potential minefield and said, “We might as well go along and die with him.”
So we got there, and Lazarus was dead. And Martha met him on the road and said Jesus could’ve done something sooner and also that she thought he still could. He told her that her brother would be raised up, and she said she knew that in the very End there was resurrection, and that one day he’d be alive again, but he said he was the resurrection and the life, and everyone who believes in him will actually never die, “Do you believe this?” He asked her. She said she did, and that she had always known he was the Messiah, the Son of God come into the world, and we all stood there a little astonished and bewildered at this back and forth. Then she ran and got Mary who came out crying and a bunch of people came with her, also crying, and she ran right up to him, and punched him in the chest and said that if he’d been there Lazarus wouldn’t have died. And she was right.
It was awful.
Then he asked to go to the tomb and I have never seen him so emotional. He was devastated, and angry. Actually he exploded with rage, angry it seemed, at death itself. He just completely lost it. He threw his head back and shouted, and then dropped his face in his hands and wept. He absolutely crumpled to the ground and sobbed. I could hear the whispers around me, some were remarking on how much he had loved Lazarus, and others thought, then why hadn’t he come when he could’ve done something to save him? And all the while he knelt there bawling, great gasps wracking his body.
Finally he pulled himself together and walked toward the tomb and told them to roll away the stone. Martha balked. “He’s been dead four days already Jesus, the smell will be horrible. Please!”
She was crying too, by this point most everyone was, - the whole thing was both heartbreaking and a little horrifying -, and Mary was hovering nearby, her face puffy and streaked with tears, trying to comfort Jesus but not wanting to touch him, his anger was so great that he had thrown off her grasp and she hesitated to reach out to him again.
He said to Martha, “ You said I was the Son of God, now roll it away and see what happens next.”
So she told some men to move it aside, and they did, and it did smell, a great wave of stench rolled out and engulfed us all. And it seemed to summon out all the remaining rage inside him because Jesus absolutely roared, “Lazarus! Come out!’
The whole crowd got silent, we could hear our own breathing, or holding our breath as the case may be. Nobody moved. And then we heard something. Thump, thump. And Lazarus came out. He hopped out. He was tied in the grave clothes, his face still covered with a cloth and he came jumping out of the hole. People screamed and gasped, others laughed with delight, one woman actually fainted. Jesus yelled for people to go untie him and let him free, so a bunch of people did.
And that was the turnaround. Suddenly a bunch of people believed, how couldn’t you? We’d seen this with our own eyes, and the story spread like wildfire – some of the leaders were actually there when it happened, so it couldn‘t be denied. And now they hated him. And not sort of friendly kind of hate, hate with jealousy or admiration in the mix- they hated him with that deadly hate that comes from fear. They feared him and hated him, and decided he must die.
We barely stayed the afternoon and we were off again, but we knew there was no turning back, that nothing had prepared us for the life and death stakes we’d just reached.
They said that the same day the Pharisees and High Priests called a council and decided something had to be done, or before long everyone would believe in him and the Romans would come and strip them of what little power and privilege they had. And then it is rumored that the Chief Priest Ciaphas spoke up, and said, “Don’t you know anything? Can’t you see that it’s to our advantage that one man dies for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed?” And without even realizing what he was saying, he prophesied that Jesus would die to save us all.
We hid out a few days, in growing apprehension and restlessness. Things had changed, you could feel it in the very air. It was sharp, tense, everyone knew who he was whenever we set foot in public, and you could practically feel the threat breathing down his neck when you stood close to him. The whispers had reached us that they were out to capture him, that they wanted to kill him. And the whispers were all around the temple as well, people speculating about whether or not he’d show up in Jerusalem for Passover. Everyone, it seemed, had heard about Lazarus and the whole world wanted to get their hands on him.
So to kick off the week before Passover, we went back to the home of the dead man.
It was nearly dark when we passed the tomb and made our way up the road to the house. They were throwing a dinner party, like dozens of other dinner parties they’d thrown for him, but it felt so strange tonight. He was tense, anxious, tired. We’d been growing worried about him in the past few days since we’d last been here, and more than once wondered whether it made sense to come back so soon. But when we neared the house, the light from the windows throwing squares onto the path, the sound of laughter inside, and the smells of Martha’s cooking filling the air, his demeanor visibly changed. His shoulders relaxed, his face softened and he seemed, well, relieved. Mary had seen us coming and she threw open the door and hugged him, waving us in, welcome, welcome!
Home, they say, is the place that when you have to go there they have to take you in. I realized in that moment that this was home for him. He hadn’t had a home as long as I had known him. There were places we were welcomed, certainly, we had met his family and seen him relax and have fun in many settings, but there was something different about Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They were his home, this was the place where we’d seen him most vulnerable, most comfortable, most human. He loved them intensely, and they him. They were family – in the very highest sense of the word.
So he went there and they took him in, and the night began as most of their dinner parties had before. Drinks and conversation, Martha getting everything organized and prepared, but things felt different. Like the fog had blown off and we were seeing everything in stark relief. Like inside this house, right now was different than everywhere else in the whole world.
I couldn’t stop staring at Lazarus. He still smelled like the death spices, to be honest. It had been just four days, and from sun up to sundown, the gawkers found reason to pass by the house for a glimpse of him. But what about him? I wondered. What is it to be dead, and be given back your life? How does a dead man keep living?
He was quiet that night. He sat near Jesus and was very quiet.
Just after Martha served the meal, Mary left and came back into the room holding a jar of the death spices, precious, expensive oils. She was pale, and shaking a bit but she seemed focused. The conversation and laughter kind of dwindled away because she came into the room carrying that jar and she did the strangest thing.
What does it mean to know you’re going to lose someone? Someone you love? If you really know it, then nothing else matters. Mary, somehow Mary had heard what the rest of us had missed or refused to really take in, she had been listening to him. Somehow she knew.
She came in and knelt down, between the dead man who was alive and the living man about to die. She uncorked the bottle and the smell filled the air, mingling with the smell of bread and lamb on the table.
Then she unbound her hair – as no woman ever does in front of any man she did in a room full of men - and she began to cry.
Surely Jesus would stop her, everyone was watching – looking from him to her and back again, surely he would spare her, and himself, further humiliation. She has already gone too far. Surely….
But Mary was saying goodbye to the one she loved. She didn’t care if she looked crazy or inappropriate, which she did. Both. Because when you know this is goodbye then nothing else matters.
Then she tipped the jar and poured the oil, dumped the whole bottle over his feet, lifted them into her lap carefully, and massaged them, and began wiping them with her hair. Now the smell was overpowering, staggering. The room was electric. We could feel it. Something was happening here that we did not understand, but the moment, as bizarre and inexplicable as it was, was also holy.
We couldn’t turn away but could hardly bear to watch. Nobody dared speak. Well, almost nobody.
Suddenly Judas cleared his throat and let out a nervous chuckle. He rolled his eyes and nodded his head towards Mary and said to Jesus, - and the whole room, - “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It could easily feed a family for a year.”
Jesus didn’t even lift his gaze from Mary. His eyes also were filled with tears, and he had the strangest expression on his face… Gratitude, I think it was.
“Leave her alone.” He said quietly. “She’s anticipating and honoring the day of my burial.” Then he quoted Deuteronomy, where it talks of caring for the poor at every turn, “The poor you will always have with you.” He said. Then his voice broke, and he continued, “But you will not always have me.”
Funny, now I can’t even remember how the dinner ended after that. And now, after everything that has happened, I just keep coming back to that night. That moment.
I don’t know if she really knew what she was doing, or if she was just so full of love that she did what she could – as excessive and unlimited as she knew how – she kept back not a drop of that perfume, she cared not a whit for her dignity, she clung to his feet and wrapped herself, her hair, over them.
The tenderness and intensity was almost too much to stand, it’s no wonder Judas broke in. I’ve seen heads anointed plenty of times, in blessing, even in coronation, but feet? Only corpses. Before any of the rest of us could even begin to fathom what the week was to hold, Mary knew, and was saying goodbye.
But she did more than that. Because a few days later, on Passover when he stood up from another dinner table, set aside his robe and wrapped an apron around his waist, when he knelt down at our feet, when he wiped them with a towel, I looked down at his head, and at his hands holding my feet in his lap and I saw what he saw, looking down at Mary. I saw his love and devotion – to me – I saw his dignity aside and his heart laid bare. “Do this for each other,” he had said. Do this like Mary did to me, I heard.
I can’t help wishing I were a little more like Mary. She didn’t know. I mean, she knew more than the rest of us, but she had no more than an inkling, really. But she followed anyway, always, with her whole heart. And it is easy to look back and say Judas just said that because he was going to betray Jesus, but actually, Judas only said something most of us were thinking at some level, anyway. Why are you wasting all of that precious resource on a frivolous act? Why not use it for something that really matters?
But I see now that nothing mattered more. And I admire Mary. She wasn’t afraid to live into a reality she had only just begun to grasp, to act without knowing the significance of her actions, only someday to realize how profound and meaningful they really were.
The morning after the dinner party he rode into Jerusalem on that donkey. That next morning the crowds screamed and clawed their way to catch site of him, the man who had raised Lazarus from the dead. The man who threatened to tear a nation in two.
The very next day he rode into the center of it all and the meaning of Mary’s prophesy began to unfold. That was six days before he died.
So I keep coming back to that night.
The dinner at the home of the dead man.
The room where the rules of time and space didn’t apply.
I keep reliving the night when Mary knelt,
with the future and the now,
the very End and the already,
right there on either side of her,
the resurrected one
and the Resurrection.
Rev. Kara K Root
Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church
Last Sunday of Lent
March 21, 2010