Sermon preached March 21, 2010
Text: John 12:1-8
Joan Chittister: “There is no substitute for the drama that goes on within the self” (Living Well, 41). She may be right, but what if the drama within the self is like a Hitchcock movie – intense and dark?
I don’t know what it was, but Friday March 5 I woke up feeling out of sorts. I was feeling kind of blue, kind of cranky, all mixed in together. Little things at the start of the day, a glitch with my computer and my pedometer, a small spill at breakfast, confirmed that this was a lousy day. Negativity engulfed me. I wasn’t much company and I was alone. I felt all this, could step back a little and recognize what was happening, but I struggled with this much of the day. It was sort of a long day’s journey into night, at least until finally, after struggling, the fog lifted and I could feel o.k. again.
Ever have days like those, or times like those – times when the inner struggle was real and difficult? This morning’s gospel text, strange and brief, invites us to look inside, to look at what’s going on within, to acknowledge that there can be darkness inside and to struggle with it. The text also invites us to acknowledge the good within and to try and strengthen that by the grace of God, with the help of God’s Spirit.
The text is parabolic. Jesus told stories which invited creative and surprising reflection. The author of the Gospel of John often tells stories about Jesus that have the quality of parables, and I think this is one. There is a lot going on here, and a lot that has the quality of parable. The setting of the story is a dinner party, but this is an odd time for a party. Rumor has it that Jesus is in trouble with the authorities, that they are looking to arrest him. Yet there is a party. At the party a very strange and wonderful thing happens. Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, took costly perfume, poured it on the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. If the act is not strange enough in itself, some of the details give this story the quality of parable. Judas says that the perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii - nearly a full year’s wages for a laborer. That amount of money could actually have bought about 100 pounds of perfume. The amounts here are extravagant, lavish. The act itself is wildly countercultural. Jesus should not have let Mary touch him in this way. Mary risks an intimacy that breaks the social conventions of the time. Letting her hair show would also been unseemly.
Then there is Judas. He raises a good question, a practical question, a question of justice. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Why indeed. Then the author invites us inside – inside the heart and mind of Judas. “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.” The parable of Mary and Judas invites us to look inside.
The story ends with a startling line from Jesus, one which is easily misunderstood. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” More on that later.
The parable of Mary and Judas, if I might call this story by that name, sets up this fascinating contrast between the two. We have the extravagantly generous heart against the self-centered heart, the open heart against the closed heart, the joyous heart against a spirit unable to celebrate, a spirit of creative risk against one of narrow caution. The parable invites inner reflection because the Judas heart is cloaked in “goodness” – concern for wastefulness, concern for the poor. It invites us to ask – “what’s going on inside?’
Let me tell you that what’s going on inside most of us is that we have within us both the Mary heart and the Judas heart. We have the capacity to be generous, extravagant, open, joyous, to take creative risks. We have the capacity to be self-absorbed, narrow, pinched, overly cautious. The work of God’s Spirit in our lives is the work of strengthening our Mary hearts and struggling against and diminishing the Judas part.
And in this struggle, I don’t think it does us much good to deny the Judas part. We don’t have to call it that. That can seem harsh, but something like that is within us, a darkness within against which we struggle. When we are honest about that, we can even see how that gets masked by good things. Judas masked his angry, self-centered, pinched heart by evoking concern for the poor. The Judas heart is insidious that way. There is a lot in the world to be angry about – poverty, injustice, senseless war, the inability of long-standing enemies to see how destructive their fighting is and to make peace, the inane comments of a Glenn Beck who tells Christians to leave their churches if their churches talk about social justice. But righteous indignation has its limits, and if anger is our default emotion, inner work needs to be done.
I am currently reading a novel called The Book Thief for an interfaith book group I lead. It is a fascinating read, and in it there is a wonderful example of the divided heart that is part of the human condition. The story is set in Germany during the Nazi regime. The contradictory politics of Alex Steiner: Point One: he was a member of the Nazi Party, but he did not hate the Jews, or anyone else for that matter. Point Two: secretly, though, he couldn’t help feeling a percentage of relief (or worse – gladness!) when Jewish shop owners were put out of business – propaganda informed him that it was only a matter of time before a plague of Jewish tailors showed up and stole his customers. Point Three: but did that mean they should be driven out completely? Point Four: his family. Surely, he had to do whatever he could to support them. If that meant being in the party, it meant being in the party. Point Five: somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out. (59-60)
This may be getting out of hand. Do we really have a certain darkness within that can be compared to a Judas or someone who uneasily joined the Nazi Party? Remember, I began with my own divided day, my own inner struggle. I don’t want us to overplay the drama within, I just don’t want us to deny it. There is good that comes from looking within and acknowledging that all is not always sweetness and light inside. There is some good in taking the long day’s journey into night. It is an important step into creating more light inside and in the world.
“In Praise of Self-Deprecation” Wislawa Szymborska
The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.
The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live and they live and are glad of it.
The killer-whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos
but in other respects it is light.
There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.
Acknowledging the inner struggle is an important step is strengthening the good heart – the generous, joyous, open, creative heart. And that generous, joyous, open, creative heart will include a heart open and generous toward the poor. Jesus, in responding to Judas in this parable may be referring to a part of their shared religious tradition – Deuteronomy 15:11 – “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” The whole verse, which parables are good at making cryptic reference to reads like this. Since there will never cease to be come in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open you hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Jesus’ response to Judas should never be taken as an excuse for doing nothing for the poor. The generosity of a Mary heart includes opening up to the poor and needy.
“There is no substitute for the drama that goes on within the self.” Sometimes that drama is a struggle between conflicting tendencies – toward a generous, open, creative, joyous heart or toward a pinched, narrow, self-absorbed crimped heart. This parabolic story invites us to acknowledge the struggle, not to berate ourselves but to strengthen the good heart, to let God’s grace and Spirit work more completely in our lives to strengthen the good heart. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen has a strong sense of this inner struggle. He writes about humans as “wounded-wounding creatures” (Age of Psychopathy, 8), but he also writes, “there are so many ways to light up the world” (The Electrified Tightrope, 276). There are so many ways to light up the world. There are so many ways for each of us to light up the world. But we only shine brightest when we are aware of, and struggle with those parts of ourselves that are not light. We shine brightest on the other side of the long day’s journey into night. We don’t ever take that journey alone. We don’t ever struggle alone. Jesus goes with us reminding us always that there are so many ways to light up the world. Amen.