Eating dinner with Jesus must have been kind of a risky thing to do. I’m not sure it would have been an unmitigated pleasure, for instance, to know that you were going to be the host at a party to which he was invited, or worse yet a party to which he had invited himself. After all, you could practically guarantee that crowds would be gathering at your door trying to get a glimpse of him, and there would likely be tensions breaking out, murmuring among your guests. Remember the folks who let their friend down through the roof to get healed by Jesus? Would you like that to have been your roof? Would you like to have cleaned up after the woman in Luke’s gospel who broke open a jar of perfume and poured all of it on Jesus’s feet? Or in Matthew’s gospel, when a woman poured perfume all over his head while he was reclining at the table?
And then, even worse, sometimes Jesus seems to have chosen his dinner companions more or less explicitly to make a point about what sinners they were. You could rely on Jesus to invite himself to the home of the people nobody liked: the tax collectors or the self-righteous, for instance. Even at the wedding in Cana Jesus was remarkably uninterested in helping with the wine until his mother made him step up.
In the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus commands his followers not to invite the kind of people they normally hang around with: “When you give a luncheon or dinner,” he says, “do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid” (Luke 14:12). He really isn’t kidding. Jesus’s parties are perfectly awful. They cause stress.
All of which is to say that Mary and Martha and Lazarus must have been special people indeed, because Jesus really truly liked them. In Luke’s gospel he just goes to see them—and here I’m mixing Luke and John if you’ll bear with me. He doesn’t seem to have come to their home because they were notorious sinners, or to make a point about how self-righteous they were. Sure, there was the small dispute between Martha and Mary about who would help with the housework, but by the standards of Jesus’s other social occasions visiting this family was remarkably civil.
It seems like Lazarus and Martha and Mary were on Jesus’ team, allied with him. Maybe they felt that. Maybe they could see that they were not in Jesus’s life to be object lessons or to provide the setting for someone else’s healing story. (I think this is universally true about Jesus and us, but in the way gospel stories are told, that’s not always evident. But it is here.) Maybe they could sense that it was their peculiar gift to be in the company of our Lord just for the sake of simple love. What an honor. The deepest and most consoling form of contemplation, just to sit at the feet of Jesus with no agenda. And here it was, given to them, apparently just for the joy Jesus felt in that communion. They were happy together. They were friends. They had an understanding and a mutual sympathy. This family knew how to be friends with their creator.
What a devastating and priceless honor, then, that they should become the central figures in Jesus’s most searing, most inexplicable demonstration of his power. What spiritual and emotional labor it took them to participate in the events of this morning’s story. Lazarus died knowing that his beloved friend, who could save him, did not do so. Martha had to reach down within herself to forgive Jesus. She rushes out on the road beyond the village to meet him, as though he were some kind of prodigal son. She does not try to paper over her sorrow. “My brother would not have died if you had been here,” she tells him, and it’s true. Mary says the same, with much weeping. Even Jesus is working very hard. His own weeping feels like a signal that what he has had to do is unbearable even for him. He has had to let his friend die. Think about it: his own understanding of the situation causes him deep distress. That’s profoundly unsettling. I don’t know about you, but I cruise through my life blithely sometimes, assuming that suffering has some kind of explanation and that if I could see it all through God’s eyes I would be consoled. But Jesus sees this suffering through God’s eyes, and he weeps. Even though he understands. This kind of understanding is not necessarily a consolation.
Jesus takes Mary and Martha and Lazarus with him, in other words, into the deepest mystery of death and pain and the suffering of the righteous. And they are more or less unflinching. They ask him challenging questions, they worry, but they stay with Jesus and they don’t ever stop hoping in him. And Lazarus is raised from the dead. These are friends of Jesus. These are the people we need to become.
The next time we see Martha and Mary and Lazarus, six days before the Passover, Jesus is on the verge of facing crucifixion. He stops in Bethany and they hold a dinner in his honor, with Martha serving and Lazarus reclining at table with him. Mary enters with “about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume” (John 12:3). She pours it on Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair. When Judas objects, Jesus says that Mary is anointing him for his burial.
Do you hear how rich this is? Having been to hell with Jesus and back, they are ready to host him at the kind of banquet he desires. Mary messes up her own house and her own hair, voluntarily. She and Jesus understand each other. This is not the time for easy communion or happy respite from the pain of the world. This dinner is a testimony to their shared readiness to face the whole truth of the world’s rejection of Jesus, and the suffering of the innocent, and the painful mystery of God’s will.
As Jesus faces the events that we call “Holy Week,” he needs friends like these. And as we face Holy Week liturgically, this gospel reminds us to be willing to surrender easy feelings of communion with God so we can be taken deeper—to hell and back—with Jesus. We have to learn how to want to host this Jesus at our tables. We have to learn, for our own sake and for the sake of a world that is in tremendous pain, how to welcome a Jesus we can’t fully understand, who doesn’t make us comfortable in our own homes, who wants our company on a journey of death and resurrection.
Our prodigal savior does not operate on the timetables we set, even when we really need him to. Can we run out on the road like Martha did to meet him when he comes to us? Can we find it in ourselves, as she did, out of love and gratitude, to forgive him for even our most incomprehensible losses? Can we see him weep without losing faith in him? Can we live and die like Lazarus did, knowing that he is with us even when we fear that he will never come? Can we move with Jesus from the occasions we enjoy—when we are in a place like this, where everything speaks to us of his love and his presence—to the occasions we dread to face?
Stay with him. Ask your questions, worry about the answers, but enter with Jesus into the heart of suffering and loss, into the passion of God that awaits us as Holy Week approaches.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
2 April 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia