Today we read of the Lord’s anointing at Bethany and Judas plot to betray Him as mentioned in both the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark:
And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, A woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.” But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial.
Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests And said, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. So from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him. (Matt. 26:6-16)
And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they criticized her sharply. But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” (Mark 14:3-9)
In these readings we are confronted with two opposing figures, the woman who recognized Christ as Lord and God, and Judas who rejected Him as His Lord and God.
The one inherited the Kingdom and the other, by his own will perished.
The one was fixated on Christ and shared in His glory… the other abandoned Christ and perished in dishonor! The one had hope in redemption and resurrection and the other one only saw misery and despair.
These two represent the paths that are before us all. And in analyzing these two opposing figures we are confronted with the God of mercy and love. When we contemplate how our Lord dealt with these two people we will understand the depth of the prayer of the conclusion of every hour in the agpeya which says:
“…who, at all times and in every hour, in heaven and on earth, is worshipped and glorified, Christ our God, the good, the long suffering, the abundant in mercy, and the great in compassion, who loves the righteous and has mercy on the sinners of whom I am chief; who does not wish the death of the sinner but rather that he returns and lives, who calls all to salvation for the promise of the blessings to come.”
Therefore let us contemplate together the two figures of this woman and Judas, and how our Lord responds and deals with each of them. In doing so, we hope to understand how our Lord deals with each of us on our journey to the cross and the resurrection.
Our Lord Jesus Christ enters into the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. This Simon was most likely healed earlier by our Lord. St. Jerome tells us that he kept his name in order that the power of his healer, the Lord Jesus Christ, might appear.
A woman came to the Lord, broke open an alabaster jar of fragrant spikenard, and poured it on our Lord’s head. In the Gospel of St. John, this person is Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha:
Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.” (John 12:1-8).
It is not clear whether this is the same incident or two different incidents. Many of the Fathers of the Church offer different opinions on whether or not these are the same incidents or different incidents, and some believe that the woman mentioned in St. Mark and St. Matthew is not Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. In any case, the message for us today is the same.
Alabaster is a precious gemstone. Spikenard is a very expensive perfume made from the oil of plants from India. It was imported to Palestine and was obviously considered to be very precious.
The Gospel tells us it was worth 300 denarii, approximately a year’s average salary in that time. Even today, spikenard has a market value of about $500 per ounce.
Some of the disciples were angry that such an expensive item was wasted when it could have been sold and given to the poor. Of course Judas was probably thinking of himself and not the poor.
Our Lord defends her action by saying, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her”.
Here we should contemplate a few points about what this woman has done and what our Lord has said in response.
First, were the disciples wrong in criticizing the woman? Was Christ in need of that ointment? Were they not correct in thinking of the poor?
Of course our Lord was not need of that ointment However, what this woman did was a natural reaction to one who is in the presence of God! She poured out her most precious gift as an expression of her love for Christ! This love, this intimacy between the human soul and the Lord, is more precious in the sight of our Lord than any act of kindness to the poor or any other kind of philanthropy!
Yes! More than anything else, what our Lord wants from us is our hearts! He wants us to seek Him above anything else and to abide in Him.
When we live in communion in Christ, we will do good works to the poor and needy as a natural reaction of our relationship with Him, who is the true Lover of Mankind.
However these ought not to be the aim. Many today, preach a type of social Christianity–that is –be good to one another, and that is it. Christ the Person is missing. Christ as the absolute and only truth is missing.
Christianity is about the truth–and the truth is not an idea or set of principles, but a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ. He said, “I am the truth, the way and the life” (and many other “I Ams”). Thus as Orthodox Christians we come to know that the essence of Christianity is to be union with Christ, not to be social workers. This woman today recognized she was in the presence of the Incarnate God and did what was appropriate.
And if in fact this woman today is Mary, the sister of Martha, then we can benefit from recalling another time when she was criticized by her sister. We read in St. Luke’s Gospel the following:
Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.” And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38 42)
Again, Martha was busy serving, an honorable work, but Mary sat at the Lord’s feet to hear His word. And the Lord responded that Mary had chosen “that good part”! The one thing needed is Christ himself and His Word. More important than anything else, our Lord wants us sitting in from of Him, in His presence, and fixated on Him.
St. Augustine says, “Martha, who was arranging and preparing to feed the Lord, was occupied about much serving. Mary her sister chose rather to be fed by the Lord.”
Even those of us who serve in the Church as popes, bishops, priests, deacons, Sunday school teachers, etc.,…must be careful that in our administration, service, and labors, we do not lose sight of the “one thing that is needed”!
Therefore our goal in this life is to be united with Christ, and this unity has two dimensions: on the one side we are as empty vessels seeking to be filled with God’s grace and presence through His Word, and the Holy Mysteries of the Church. And on the other side we live a life of praise and thanksgiving, and sacrifice our lives for the One who sacrificed His life for us.
These two dimensions are brought together most perfectly in the life of prayer where both we hear God’s word and feel His presence and in return we praise Him and offer thanksgiving, and entreat Him for mercy! That is why one of the Syrian Fathers said, “Prayer is a ladder leading up to God; for there is nothing more powerful than prayer”. And again, “Prayer unites one with GOD, being a divine conversation and spiritual communion with the Being that is most beautiful and highest. Prayer is forgetting earthly things, an ascent to heaven. Through prayer we flee to god.”
So this woman today, was not concerned about the earthly worth of the perfume, but was engaged in an act of prayer, she poured out her love, praise, and thanksgiving to the Lord, and the Lord did not allow the others to take that away from her.
Secondly, she anointed the Lord’s body in anticipation of his death and burial, as was explained by the Lord to His disciples.
St. Jerome explains to us that the breaking of the alabaster box was a reminder that the destruction of death precedes resurrection to life. He says, “the alabaster jar which had been sealed is broken that all may receive its perfume. Just as a grain of wheat, unless it falls to the ground and dies, does not bring forth any fruit, so also unless the alabaster jar be broken, we cannot smell its fragrance”.
This fragrance is also the Holy Church, the faithful people as St. Paul said, “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” (2 Cor. 2:15). Again St Jerome says, “The Church, gathered from the nations, is offering the Savior the abounding faith of believers. The alabaster jar that had been sealed is broken that all may receive its perfume.”
So whether or not she knew her act was prophetic, the Lord explains the importance of her action to the others. According to St. John Chrysostom, He does this to console his disciples and to praise her actions.
Finally, the Lord promises that her action will be a memorial to her wherever the Gospel is preached.
Her love for Christ will be honored by the Lord, just as all the saints after her. It is not us that elevate the saints but the Lord Himself who honors them.
That is why in the Orthodox Church we venerate the saints… because not only has God commanded us to, but also because He has glorified them first. We are merely recognizing what God has already done!
And this is the promise for all of us. Our Lord says, “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him [My] Father will honor.” (John 12:26). And again, “And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one” (John 17:22).
So again, this blessed woman represents the ultimate purpose of all of us, to be glorified with Christ! Let us not lose sight of God’s promise for us if we are faithful.
This is the path to Christ that we are all called to follow, that of this blessed woman. The other path before us, which is on the opposite side of the spectrum, is that of Judas.
The person of Judas is mysterious. Just the mention of his name reminds us of the depths that humanity can fall. In examining his life, however, we can find truths that are essential to our salvation.
First, we should understand that Judas was called to be an apostle as were the other eleven, and he too, left family, friends, and relatives in order to follow Christ. So his beginning was genuine. This is an important reflection.
It is good that all of us today are in Church, and it is good that we were in Church last week, but Judas also started out well? This warns us that we must always look forward in our spiritual lives and never rely on the past. Listen to St. Jerome when he says, “Christians will not be asked how they began but rather how they finished. St. Paul began badly but finished well. Judas’ beginning was praiseworthy but his end was despicable. Many start the climb but few reach the summit.”
In the parable of the laborers of the 11th Hour (Matt. 20:1-16), we are told that the laborers who joined at the 11th hour were given the same wages, that is reward, as those who started in the 1st hour.
But what if those who started in the 1st hour left the vineyard at the 3rd hour, would they have received their wages? Of course not. The agreement was only for a full day’s work, meaning to the end of our lives. Therefore, we must keep our focus on how we end our journey, not how it began. And as H.G. Bishop Serapion reminded us last night, we do not know when our journey will end.
So what happened to Judas? Judas had a vice that began as a worm and grew until too large and finally choked him. This of course was greed. He was in charge of the moneybox and his temptations turned into sin and his sin into passion and his passion into death. Passions here refer, according to our Orthodox Fathers, to sins that have grown and become ingrained in our lives.
Is his temptation any different than those we struggle with today, each of us individually, whether it be greed or any other sin or passion? We must be on guard–Judas’ fall began with a temptation, he was not born into wickedness!
St. John in his Catholic Epistle says, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Keep in mind he is writing this to believers regarding the topic of sin. What then does he mean by idols? He means that our sins become our idols, that is our gods, and they replace the true God.
We can only have one master as our Lord Jesus Christ said: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
This was the problem of Judas, his greed had become his god, and therefore he was blinded from the true God. We must always be on guard!
But how was it that Judas was not affected by following Christ as a disciple. How many times had the Lord spoken against the love of money in his presence? How about Christ’s own example of voluntary poverty? What about the example of those who left everything to follow the Lord? Was he not afraid of the Christ who could look into the hearts of the Pharisees and reveal their thoughts?
Judas lacked nothing. He like the others had been given apostolic power to perform miracles and expel demons. He also saw miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus bent down to wash Judas’ feet just as the others.
And yet, Judas was unmoved and his heart, overtaken by sin, was cold. We should not underestimate the power of sin in our lives.
But how did our Lord deal with Judas?
Our Lord Jesus, who knows the heart of man, could see what was happening to Judas–and yet He continued to treat him throughout his ministry as He did the others. This is an amazing thing! Even though our Lord could see inside Judas’ heart, He made no distinction between him and the other disciples. Through Judas, we see the depths of our Lord’s love, mercy and patience towards His creation.
The Lord waited on Judas to the last moment. Even at the Last Supper, our Lord gently remarked “Assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray me” (Matt. 26:21). Why didn’t the Lord name Judas? The only answer we can conclude on is that He didn’t want to offend Judas by naming him but continued to love him.
And there is a very important lesson for us in how the disciples responded!
The Bible says they became sorrowful and one by one began to ask, “Is it I Lord?” St. John Chrysostom says that he didn’t mention Judas by name in order to give him more time to repent, even at the expense of alarming the others!
Can you imagine? After all of this time with the Lord–and now each of the disciples don’t even trust themselves that they aren’t the one who will betray the Lord? How is it after everything they have seen, heard and experienced, that they each doubted themselves?
The disciples knew the weakness of man and began to question whether or not they were the ones. How much more should we be on guard regarding our own weaknesses? How certain are we of our strengths?
Even St. Paul was cautious regarding himself when he said, “But I discipline my body and bring [it] into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1Cor. 9:27) and again, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1Cor. 10:12).
What are we to make of this? Certainly we must be careful of the sin of pride. Only humility can guard us against such a fall! St. Isaac the Syrian says, “Remember the fall of the strong that you may be humble in your virtues.”
And again look at Christ’s compassion even in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas brought the mob to arrest him. After Judas kissed him as a sign to those he brought , the Lord replied, “Friend, why have you come?” (Matt. 26:50).
Why does our Lord Jesus call him friend?
He calls him “friend” to remind him of the bond they had and the good things Judas enjoyed at his side. We should recall when our Lord said to His disciples, “No longer do I call you servants–but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)
So our Lord is reminding Judas of the things that were made known to Him from the Father! This expression alone should have moved Judas, but again his heart was cold.
Up until the last moment our Lord was patiently and lovingly awaiting for Judas to repent. How great is God’s mercy for us. If Judas who he committed the ultimate betrayal would have been welcomed back by His Savior, we also should embrace repentance.
Listen to St. Cyril of Jerusalem:
What then? some one will say. We have been beguiled and are lost. Is there no salvation left? We have fallen: Is it not possible to rise again? We have been blinded: May we not recover our sight? We have become crippled: Can we never walk upright? In a word, we are dead: May we not rise again? He that woke Lazarus who was four days dead and already stank, shall He not, O man, much more easily raise thee who art alive? He who shed his precious Blood for us, shall Himself deliver us from sin. Let us not despair of ourselves, brethren; let us not abandon ourselves to a hopeless condition. For it is a fearful thing not to believe in a hope of repentance. For he that looks not for salvation spares not to add evil to evil: but to him that hopes for cure, it is henceforth easy to be careful over himself.
But what about Judas? Why did he not embrace repentance?
One Orthodox Father explains it as such:
“Passion led to betrayal, and like the drunk gives in to drink, and has no sense of what he is saying or doing, so Judas, who became drunk not with wine but with money, could not consider the horrible consequences of his betrayal”.
“From Gethsemane he went along to the palace of Annas and Caiphas. He saw Jesus’ face transformed by the slaps of servants and soldiers, and around the morning hours of Holy Friday he heard the decision of the Great Sanhedrin. The whole hall of high priests echoed with the harsh cries of “Death, death!” Then Judas came fully awake and saw at once the abyss to which he had been brought. This is the way the devil works. He moves us to crime, hides the terrible consequences from us, presents the evil as small and minor, shows us profits in the material sense, and when the sin from conception to execution has run the whole gamut and the crime is committed, then the devil opens the eyes of the guilty one and says, “What a horrible thing you have done!” Does he move you to repent? Anything but! We wail over the sin we committed. Hope is extinguished, every exit is closed by the choke of sin, and we are moved to despair and from despair to suicide. Suicide is Satan’s triumph.”
So you see, Judas didn’t repent. Repentance means going back to the Father, as did the prodigal son! And there is joy. For Judas, his sin led to despair, to hopelessness.
This is the tragedy of Judas. He didn’t remember when our Lord promised, …”the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” (John 6:37).
St. John Climacus in his Ladder of Divine Ascent makes this point when he says, “Nothing equals or exceeds God’s mercies. Therefore, he who despairs is committing suicide. ”
This is the essential lesson we must learn from Judas. There is no sin greater than that of despair because it is an utter rejection of God’s redemptive work. When we lose hope we make God a liar who promised forgiveness and healing regardless of the severity of our sins! We reject His power as God to forgive!
That is why when the Lord healed the paralytic, He said “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:9-10).
He wanted to show them that there was no greater work of our Lord then to forgive sins! Judas did not believe this.
Beloved, Judas did not perish because he betrayed our Lord, for even St. Peter denied our Lord three times, but he perished because he didn’t believe in the salvation of Christ, in the value of the blood of our Lord. This is most dangerous trick of the devil, to convince us that we are without hope, that our sins are too much, that we have disappointed the Lord too many times, that God’s patience has run out on us! Don’t listen to him, he is a liar! This is what our Lord Himself said, “for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains to us that whatever our sins, God’s mercy is always infinitely greater: “Hear what the Psalmist says: ‘How great is the multitude of Thy goodness, O Lord!(Ps. 31:20)’. Your accumulated offenses surpass not the multitude of God’s mercies: your wounds surpass not the great Physician’s skill. Only give yourself up to faith.”
And not only the severity of our sins, but even the multitude of our sins. How depressed we sometimes become when we go back to Abouna and confess the same sins. But if the Lord commanded Peter to forgive his brother up to “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22), how much more will the Lord forgive us if we truly repent each time?
As we approach the remainder of this Holy Week, and especially the Feast of the Resurrection, this should be our focus, not on the person and works of Judas, but on the mercy, love, and life-giving sacrifice of our Lord on behalf of us all!
Finally, there is another message for us from our Lord’s example in how he dealt with Judas. Everything Christ did, He did to be an example for us. And His relationship with Judas is a prime example of how we are to deal with others, especially those whom we have judged to be the worst and not worthy of our love and attention.
Christ did not stop loving, teaching, and advising Judas, even though he knew he was incapable of rehabilitation. From the beginning, Christ, in His foreknowledge knew what Judas’ outcome would be, so how much more should we follow His example, we who do not know what the outcome of others will be.
So, the Church has presented us today with the potential that each of us have, to be in united with Christ as this blessed woman, which brings us salvation and glory, or to abandon Christ, like the wretched Judas and swim in hopelessness and death.
May the Lord, the Hope of our Salvation, bless us and protect us and give us the strength and grace to follow Him to the cross and resurrection and Glory be to God forever and ever. Amen!