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A Pause for the Dead

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A Rather Odd text

This week’s Gospel text is John 12: 1-8, that sees Jesus visiting the home of Lazarus. Martha provides a dinner for Jesus, who is with Judas. Mary then takes costly perfume and anoints Jesus using her hair to wipe his feet. Judas, for reasons none too gracious thinks this is too much money to expend, when he claims they could give the money to the poor. Jesus tells Judas not to worry; the poor you will always have with you, but you do not always have me (verse 8).

This is a bit of an odd text, and for one so short has stirred up a variety of differing interpretations. Some have concluded it is really about Jesus saying keep the poor with you, based on the translation from the Greek. Others say that it is prefiguring Jesus’ own death. Others focus on the intimate adoration Mary offers in using her own hair to anoint Jesus’ feet.

All are reasonable views, and a cogent case can be made for each of them. There are always many ways to approach something as rich as a biblical passage.

Death is in the Air

My take is similar in many ways to the standard views. Death, it seems, is hovering all about the place. First, it is set in the home of Lazarus. He, of course, is the one Jesus raised from the dead. Second, the whole business of anointing is richly symbolic. That kind of anointing, using that kind of expensive perfume was only done then at coronations and burials. Jesus is about to undergo both in short order and this does indeed prefigure his Passion. Third, the statement about always having the poor with you is also prefiguring Jesus’ death, more, I think than keeping a focus on the poor at that moment. This is not Jesus saying the poor are unimportant but that there are other things at work here.

The Pause for Death

What Jesus seems to be saying here is that while focusing on the poor is important, there are times when we pause to take care of other things. Death is one of those other things. When a death occurs, we STOP. We put a hold on work and commerce. We pause our lives and honor and reflect on the one that has died. We grieve our loss and comfort those who are also bereaved. There may be nothing more human than taking the time to bury the dead and honor their lives and comfort their loved ones. Jesus, as always, is pointing us toward the way to live a fully human life and the critical time of death is one of those times.

Yes, he is prefiguring his own death. This too is to point out the totally human nature of our savior. He too will die, albeit a horrible, criminal’s death, but die he will, like all of us. He is not shying away from the mortal nature and finite time of his earthly ministry, and we are not to shy away from our mortal selves either.

This is why, I think, Jesus admonishes Judas. Judas is concerned with the day-to-day business of finances and such. Jesus is asking for a pause. Set aside the narration that John offers about the true motive of Judas. The important thing here is that Jesus is asking for a cessation of business as usual while someone is dying and about to be dead.

As with so many passages this has an eternal perspective; Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross as well as an earthly point about how we are to live amongst one another in community. This dual point reflects the divine and human nature of Jesus.

So, when faced with the dying and the dead; others as well as our own, remember to pause. There will be time enough to get back to the world’s problems, as Jesus reminds us. But we only have but a moment to pause, reflect and honor those we have lost and to comfort those in bereaved pain. So, when faced with that moment, do the human thing, and give a pause for the cause.

Praise Be to God

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