It is evening in Bethany, the little village near the top of the Mount of Olives. A dinner party has been planned at a small and modest home inhabited by Mary, Martha and Lazarus. With their extended invitation the three siblings plan to honor a special guest. Since the three are living together, some folks assume they don’t have much money. This fits well with the highly symbolic world of their Scriptures because Bethany, in Hebrew, means house of the poor.
Jesus is a close friend to these three siblings, each one so different from the others. They embrace him with a love that helps us see what godly friendship is all about. Jesus and the siblings are especially close now. After seeing his loving tears at Lazarus’ tomb, and how he brought their brother back to life, he is dear to the two sisters’ hearts.
While evening brings quiet to the village, those gathered for the meal sense a wariness amongst their neighbors. Jesus’ arrival in nearby Jerusalem has evoked tension and conflict. Despite this, his beloved friends appear not to realize that Lazarus’ resuscitation has prompted a plan to kill Jesus. Just before describing this supper, John tells us that the chief priests and the Pharisees have ordered anyone knowing where Jesus was to report it, so they might arrest him. Tension radiates outward from the Temple, throughout the city. But at the top of the hill across the Kidron Valley, in the soft light of small oil lamps, Jesus and his disciples are welcomed to dinner. Despite having a small household with limited means, their hosts have planned a festive and joyous evening.
With spiritual insight, James Tissot has captured the circumstances of Jesus’ slow walk to the dinner. The Eastern Wall of the Temple is at Jesus’ back ~ the very place where he will enter in a few days on what we now call ‘Palm Sunday.’ He is ascending the Mount of Olives, from which it was believed the Messiah would someday come and enter into the Temple. In a very subtle way, Tissot visually hints at the storms hovering over the Holy City as the Passover approaches. Yet, at this moment, Jesus walks quietly toward what he surely wishes will be a peaceful evening ~ and for a pause from the stress and pressure that his coming to Jerusalem has aroused.
At this dinner, Mary models a beautifully extravagant idea. It is to offer all that we are, and all that we have to God’s self-revelation in Jesus! And, for the sake of God’s kingdom! To make such an offering is way beyond the usual and reasonable bounds within which we constrain ourselves. And far beyond the usual prudent limits by which we measure things in terms of cost. But as we see in Mary’s example, there is usually only one thing that moves us to respond in this way: joy! Sheer joy grabs her heart and moves her to give her all. Mary gives her all to him, and to the new life that he is even now unleashing in this world.
The above painting is James Tissot’s, Jesus Goes in the Evening to Bethany. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, April 7, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.
Oh, I forgot to say this: Did Martha make the meal? How do we know that she wasn’t listening the Jesus the whole time she was scurrying back and forth in the other story and–presumably–in this one? I had a beloved aunt whom people sometimes compared to Martha; she whisked away your plates and put on the dessert with incredible efficiency. This quiet person once shocked us by quoting various Psalms by memory. We had assumed one was either “listening to the Word” or doing hostess work.
A friend (lay reader) who preached on the part about the meal, asked “What colour was Martha’s dress?” “What was on the menu?” He was trying to get us to enter and make the story our story.