There are some big characters in this morning’s Gospel reading. Lazarus, Martha, Mary, Judas Iscariot – and Jesus in the centre of it all. If you were responsible for staging the scene, I wonder what decisions you might make. Who would be in the spotlight and who could be relegated to the shadows? Whose lines should be given centre stage and who might discover that they were actually a supporting actor rather than one of the leading lights? Who has that apparently insignificant role without which the entire scene would lose some of its potency?
Let’s look first at the setting. We’re in the home of Lazarus, after he’d been raised from the dead. And in the text we read this morning is says: there they gave a dinner for him. There’s a suggestion in the way that’s worded that this wasn’t a spontaneous invitation to share whatever food had already been prepared for the evening meal; a demand on the kitchen to make food for 3 or 4 stretch to feed 5 or 6. Rather that this was a bit of an event – they gave a dinner, presumably with invited guests. Was it perhaps in the way of a thanksgiving celebration?
As I imagine myself into the role of set designer, I’m thinking about how the table might be laid; whether there would be flowers or candles to decorate the space. Were they using the best china and linen? However the stage was set, it would be important to convey the hospitality that was being offered – the gratitude felt by that family. So I think I would want the table to be a focal point, at least at the start of the scene. To ensure that the audience recognised the centrality of the shared meal.
And then we witness an act of kindness – Mary anointed Jesus’ feet. I imagine that to be a scene of care and compassion, of tenderness and love. It feels as though we might be in danger of intruding in a moment of connection between two people that is really precious. And just as we’re settling into that comfortable scene, the mood changes. Up until now there has been no obvious dialogue; perhaps there was some gentle music providing ambience, maybe a few quiet words were shared. Perhaps we could hear the clanking of cutlery and the rattle of crockery as plates were served and cleared.
Whatever the audio accompaniment has been up till now, we’re suddenly bombarded with words. Judas has plenty to say – his attempt at persuasive words shows that he’s wanting to get the audience on his side, making a point about the fairer or better use of resources, regardless of his actual agenda. We’re not entirely sure at this stage whether he is a goodie or a baddie. But he has demanded our attention. So we have a real dramatic contrast: the quiet self-giving of Mary alongside Judas’ rather assertive intervention.
And then Jesus gets involved. As soon as we hear Jesus speak, our responses to these two characters are given some parameters. Jesus directs us towards a sympathetic response to Mary and to a wariness towards Judas. As an audience, we are being encouraged in our responses and given a hint about the direction from which trouble might arise.
Let’s look a bit further around our stage. Central to the set and to the action is Martha. She may not have any lines, but her act of serving at table sets the entire scene. The core values are put in place as she goes about her business.
She acts out for us the welcome and the generosity; she enables the connections that come when people share food together. We’re encouraged to relax into the setting, to recognise something that is familiar and comfortable. Martha is a catalyst for our emotional connection with what we can see.
And now let’s move our gaze towards the shadow areas of the stage, towards all those unnamed extras who are lurking just at the edges of our vision.
This crowd is clearly not well intentioned – they’re not just after Jesus, but they have their sights on Lazarus as well. As soon as they begin to capture our attention, the complexities of the story start to be teased out. This isn’t a soap opera kind of tale with an easy feel-good message. This is, perhaps in common with all good drama, a tale of two parts; an exploration of both the light and the dark, a reminder that our experiences in life teach us that goodness and evil co-exist, often in the same places and, indeed, in the same people.
We’re seeing that co-existence of goodness and evil played out not just on this imaginary stage but on our TV screens on a daily basis. We witness the atrocities of war at the same time as we witness acts of generosity and kindness. And what can be tricky, of course, is to recognise the times when an act with evil intent is dressed up as an act of kindness. An example we see unfolding on the borders of Ukraine is in the reports of the arrival of sex traffickers. That’s nothing new – sexual exploitation has always been a tool of warfare, opportunistic chances will be taken by those who have their own agendas. And vulnerable people don’t always make good choices for themselves.
What is new is that we live in an age of 24 hour news where we can follow situations as they develop and escalate. We are better informed about the realities of what we observe. What is also new is that we can follow the acts of self-giving and quiet kindness. They may not commandeer the news headlines in the same ways, but we know that there are very many people who in a quiet and unassuming way are making a difference in whatever way they can.
The majority of people who are offering hospitality are kind and generous and wanting to help. Their actions can easily be overlooked because we find ourselves focussing on those whose actions appal us.
That reminder of the co-existence of goodness and evil is important for us as we enter into Passiontide. This morning marks a change of gear in our journey through Lent. Our faces are now firmly turned towards the events that we will engage with in Holy Week. And the headlines for that week make pretty grim reading. Condemnation and an unfair trial. Brutal physical challenge on the way to the place of death. Mocking and humiliation. A slow and painful death.
Those are the headlines. But when we read some of the detail, we see evidence of humanity at its best. Simon of Cyrene who helps to carry the cross. Veronica who by tradition wipes the face of Jesus. The women who watch and weep, who find a way to stay there right to the bitter end. Women whose kindness continues to be expressed after death as they do what they can to show honour and respect.
At its heart, this morning’s Scripture is about honour and respect. Mary and Martha honour and show respect to their guests. Their kindness makes a difference. It doesn’t necessarily make headlines, it’s expressed in simple action and it’s not all about them.
Showing a sign of honour and respect is something that we can do – in the smallest of ways perhaps, in ways that certainly won’t make headlines but that might just collectively act as a reminder that the balance in our world is on the side of goodness. We probably have no lines or dramatic gestures, but we can play a role in setting the scene for the transforming change that is at the heart of our Holy Week story.