This is my second year of experiencing Lent and Holy Week outside of a traditional church. I didn’t grow up observing these days, but I came to value observing Lent while I was in college. Later, in graduate school, several of my friends were Catholic and shared with me the beauty and transcendence in moving through each day of Holy Week.
My experience of Holy Week this year has been subtly different than in years past. I’m in a better place spiritually, and I’ve had the opportunity to dig back into Jesus’ life with new sight. I’ve mentioned a few times that my small group is reading through Mark, and I’ve been repeatedly struck by how political Jesus’ ministry was. Nearly everyone around him saw his work and words as political, even revolutionary, activism, and he didn’t do much to discourage that.
It seems that a lot of the people who followed him– and opposed him– did so for political reasons. Under a tyrannical Roman regime, Jesus represented the hope that they could overthrow their oppressors. Many of his enemies disagreed with him on theological grounds, but the most powerful ones seemed worried about his growing revolutionary influence. One of the passages for Spy Wednesday highlights that they were worried about arresting him in public, during Passover– they were afraid it could spark riots. Since the Sanhedrin operated under the Roman government, Jesus represented a substantial risk to their political power. He could potentially undermine the scant safety and security they’d managed to bring to Israel through an eternal barrage of compromise and maneuvering.
They needed an insider– and thus we come to Judas Iscariot. Judas, the betrayer. Judas, son of devils.
Judas, the cynical political activist. Judas, the greedy and ambitious rebel.
Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, heralded by a crowd of people desperate for change. Maybe Judas had exulted right along with them, fully confident that Jesus represented hope for a better future, free from Roman oppression. But then… but then Jesus starts saying some things that concern him, and then deeply worry him. It looks like Jesus is setting himself up to be a martyr. He looks around at the other apostles and realizes that they’re not seeing it. Bunch of oblivious fools, who don’t even realize they’ve aligned themselves with a man too weak to do what needs to be done.
On Wednesday a woman enters the story. The various accounts have created so much confusion over the centuries that many people today believe that the woman known for anointing the Messiah was Mary Magdalene. This story, with all its conflicting accounts, is why Mary Magdalene has spent thousands of years being slandered as a prostitute. We don’t know for sure who she was. Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus? Another of the many women who supported Jesus, who saw in him a man like no other? Or was she a sinner– possibly a prostitute, like Luke seems to suggest?
We don’t know, may never know. But in her we’re intended to see something startling. She approaches Jesus, breaks the seal on her spikenard, and begins anointing his body. She pours the oil over his head and silently grieves. As a woman, she exists outside the political system, her fate decided by the whims and schemes of men. But this man is different. He doesn’t prioritize anger, or violence, or strength. He speaks softly, even gently. Not everything he’s said has made logical sense to her– but in her womanly heart she recognizes the truth he proclaims with his every word and deed: love changes everything. He stands up for the people who can’t stand up for themselves. He heals the sick, he feeds the hungry, he cares for the poor.
To her, Jesus seems more like a woman. And, because of that, she knows that the system is bent on breaking him, destroying him. Empire always seeks to crush those who refuse to take up its weapons. It endlessly marches forward in its headless lust for power and influence. It’s reckless. It mangles life. She knows this. She knows that Jesus is going to die for daring to confront the system, and so she grieves.
In this moment, in her acknowledgement of a coming doom, we can see what Judas instantly recognized.
He protests, using the same barrage of words the others cry out. But Jesus, what about the poor? We could have used that money! This is utterly wasteful, a crime against those we could have helped! Judas goes along with this, hoping that Jesus will say something that will comfort his fears. He didn’t join this little ragtag band to become just another martyr. No, he joined with this visionary because he wanted power. He wanted to wrest back control of his homeland. Something inside of him is vicious, and it hungers.
He watches this woman, practically a nobody. Watches Jesus defend and praise her. Finally, he has to admit the truth: this is a sinking ship he has to abandon and soon before he goes down with the rest of them. He can’t be associated with a man who won’t step up, who won’t do what’s necessary, who praises women for their silly emotional displays. He’s weak. Ineffectual. He’s just going to talk and talk and talk, gather all these people who could be an amazing tool against the Romans, but then do nothing?
When he leaves that night to find the Sanhedrin, he knows he’s doing the right thing for Israel.