Sermons That Work

It Is the Night Before, Lent 5 (C) – 2004

March 28, 2004

It is the night before Palm Sunday. Jesus has already traveled much of the way to Jerusalem. He has faced many trials along the way. He has spent a lot of time, energy, and God’s love feeding people, healing people, confronting people, being confronted and challenged, and all the time walking, walking, walking along the way to what the world calls death, and only he can see as the entry to abundant life: a life lived with God.

We might link this episode to the last Sunday after the Epiphany, where the identity of Jesus is revealed both on a mountain top, with a doxological voice from a cloud, and, then, in a valley where he casts out a demon from a young boy. Suggesting that there is no understanding of who Jesus is without both the voice and healing activity together, One without the other would be misleading.

So, again, perhaps, this Night Before Palm Sunday, which some have suggested might be called Spikenard Saturday, bears a narrative link to the Night Before the Cross, also known as The Last Supper, or Maundy Thursday. That narrative link being, of course, feet: Spikenard Saturday features the anointing of Jesus’ feet with nard—a costly ointment made from the root and spike of the nard plant—while Maundy Thursday features Jesus stripping himself, taking up a towel, and washing the disciples’ feet.

And equally, “of course,” in both cases there are disciples. Peter and Judas, to be precise, who simply do not get it: what is all this business with feet doing in the midst of such an otherwise important, holy, and passion-driven story? Resulting, even more of course, in Judas and Peter acting silly, if not downright stupidly, demonstrating a total lack of understanding of just who it is they are traveling around with and what it is he is up to.

Which would make us all feel a little better, in those crystalline moments, too, realize much to our chagrin, that we, too, simply do not get it, or have forgotten, or perhaps never have seen just what is going on here.

It has been suggested by none other than the noted author and curmudgeon of American letters, Kurt Vonnegut, that the centerpiece of Spikenard Saturday is a joke. And, indeed, when one looks at all of these episodes from such a perspective, it is not difficult to detect, at the very least, deep notes of irony, if not outright humor, in the midst of an otherwise steady and serious march to the scaffold.

After all, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, will enter Jerusalem—not on a noble steed—but on a donkey. And here we see oil anointing his feet, not his head. We read that the kings of and priests of Israel were anointed with oil flowing down their heads to their beards. And instead of his disciples waiting on him hand and foot, as they would in so many master/apprentice relationships of the time, it will be the King of Kings, Lord of Lords on his knees washing their feet like the lowliest of all household slaves.

As if speaking for us all, and remembering that, in fact, he is numbered among us, Judas complains. A pound or liter of nard, after all, was valued at one year’s wages—300 was a lot of denarii, recalling, perhaps, the earlier extravagance of 180 gallons of wine, and not just wine, but good wine at that!

So here is Mary, the sister of Martha, who is serving dinner (what else!), and Lazarus who has just been raised from the dead—so dead that the Bible makes clear that he really stank, and all of a sudden Mary is down on her knees with all this costly nard massaging his feet and wiping them with her hair.

Imagine, just for a moment, having walked nearly a hundred miles or so on the rocky and dusty highways and byways of Israel without much more than sandals on your feet, under the hot sun by day and through the cold, chill air at night. Now close your eyes and try to imagine someone like Mary, the sister of Martha, and Lazarus massaging your feet with oil and wiping them with her hair. Is that a smile creeping across your face right about now? Can we allow ourselves some idea of just how Jesus, who seems to know that in a mere few days he will feel all that a mortal can feel when he dies on the cross, might feel right then and there in Bethany? Can anyone blame him at all for feeling that way?

But leave it to Judas, our own inner Puritan, to cry out in abject horror, “No way! This cannot be right! Why don’t we sell the ointment and give the money to the poor?” Believing, in his heart, that he has finally understood what Jesus was about. And despite the unkind editorial remarks of the editors of the fourth Gospel, we should admit that, in fact, he is not far from wrong. His mistake here is that he is simply “not living in the moment,” as we might say nowadays.

It is a wonder that Jesus does not come out with anything more severe that his astute observation, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

Of course we all know Jesus’ remark was made in his own language, Aramaic, and may have sounded more like, “Don’t worry, Judas. There will be plenty of poor people left after I’m gone.” Today, it might sound like, “Yo, Judas! No hurry! Plenty of time left for that! Let loose, dude. Check this out. Just a few more days and I will wash your feet and you will see what I mean, man. Stay with me!”

Sadly, Judas never did get it. And often it is difficult to see much evidence that Christians today get it either. For verse 8 tends to be heard as something more like this, “Poor people are hopeless. We will always be stuck with them. Jesus said so.” Which then appears to give people warrant to say other things—like “the poor are helpless and hopeless, because they are lazy, or dumb, or drink too much, or take drugs, and have too many children”—and on and on it goes.

What with best selling books like The Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose Driven Life marketing a Christianity of prosperity and self-fulfillment, it becomes all too easy to fall into “the Judas trap” ourselves. Which may be just why on Thursday, following Spikenard Saturday, Jesus got on his knees with a wash basin and towel and began washing feet and saying, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” That is, there is end to a life of serving others as I have served you.

If we do not understand it on Spikenard Saturday, surely when we see Jesus on his knees washing feet on the very night he would also say, “Do this in remembrance of me,” surely he must be thinking, “they will get it now!” And surely we do.

So let Jesus wash your feet. And know that in washing the feet of others and taking care of the poor, we are, in fact, joining ourselves with Mary of Bethany and washing our Lord’s feet as well.

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Christopher Sikkema


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