Oh traitor Judas, you value the ointment of his passion at 300 pence, but you sell his passion at 30 pence. Rich and valuing, cheap in wickedness! — Ephrem the Syrian
I have become aware of Ephrem the Syrian of recent. There is a certain economy in the juxtaposition in Ephram’s quote I present above. The story of Judas is indeed one that is lived between valuing the ointment highly but the Lord’s life cheaply.
There is also another juxtaposition in play here. A few days before the anointing at Bethany, there had been the warning by Martha, who today serves the gathered company, that: “ . . . There will be an odor [of death.]” (Jn 11:39) Now there is the smell of the ointment that fills the house. (Jn 12:3) As an aside: Mary and Martha must have prepared Lazarus for burial and might just have had some nard left over. Mary’s use of it pretty much says: “we do not need this any longer.”
The obvious third juxtaposition is Lazarus raised from death by the one who will now go to his death by betrayal. Ephrem points out that Sheol and greed are exposed here: Sheol will not hold him forever, greed — sin — will not sell him forever. He raised his friend and buries himself by the ointment.
All of this seems to happen as they recline at table, with Martha serving the earthly part of the story as it unfolds and Mary the spiritual, similar to the story in Luke 10, only here Judas is the one challenging Mary’s choice of the better part. (Lk 10:42)
So we have a journey from death to life, a journey of the Living One toward dying for others, a hint at eternal life and end of sin, and an earthly and a spiritual part to a supper, and a challenge: Which do you hold more precious: the earthly ointment or the heavily host?
One might pardon my flight of fancy here but I seem to see a eucharistic theme here as the elements and questions of the Eucharist asks are also present here.
Those who saw him raise the dead continue to be with him and they spread the word about it. (Jn 12:17) Many more come to see along with the Greeks, the Gentiles, who come to see him. (Jn 12:20) He will soon enter Jerusalem and as John tells the story he will spent a quiet week there before the night in the upper room and his Passover. (Jn 13-17)
What remains sort of hanging in the air loosely is the quote from Deuteronomy 15:11:
For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’
Jesus adds the words: “Me you will not always have with you.”
The words of Deuteronomy are addressed to a people of God, under God, and called out by God to be “peculiar” and a heavenly possession. This open handedness for the poor is to be a character of the people. You are my house and this is how the house acts. You do it out of submission and love for the house of God and in praise of God. Praise and worship is assumed when Moses recalls this command.
Certainly a day is coming, the Kingdom of God, when there will be no more poor. The presence of the poor is really a living reminder that something is wrong. It is a reminder that a new and better reality must come and must be prayed for earnestly. The disciples are not taken out of the world. They live among these reminders that something is amiss but they live there as reminders of Kingdom come. They will certainly keep their hands open as Deuteronomy demands they do. But, they also will keep their oil ready to praise him.
Yet, that Kingdom coming calls for sincerity in present time. Augustine saw in Jesus warning: “Me you will not always have with you,” as a warning that lacking that sincerity was a recipe for being excluded from the Kingdom and therefore truly being “without” him in eternity. Spoken to Judas, whose insincerity John alerts to in an aside (12:6), this is really a dire warning and it connects to the parts preceding it. Worship will be a complete waste of time to those whose life really is insincere. It will be too long, too loud, not joyous enough, too exuberant, not long enough to express my feelings, too emotional, to contemplative, too old, too young, too preachy about the rest of my life, not connected to Monday morning, too escapist, too worldly, too heavenly minded to be earthly good, to earthly minded to be heavenly good, [proceed at your own pace.]
Aside from Jesus, we really cannot do anything that is of value, not even serve the poor. (Jn 15:5) Outside of him, we are of the world and not joined to the one who has overcome the world. (Jn 16:33) Yet, as a branch of the vine — another Eucharistic image — we shall do greater things. (Jn 14:12) Regrettably, that is denied Judas for whom heaven is cheap and oil is expensive and today is all there is.