There are two things going on in today’s Scripture readings. First, we have the Jews, and now Judas among them, who are very jealous of Jesus and are seeking to arrest and kill him. And not just him, but anyone who encourages people to believe in him, like Lazarus in today’s Gospel. In these holy days, it’s not safe to be around Jesus.
Second, we have Mary, who pours out the most expensive thing she has for love of the Lord. She gives no thought to the expense, to what seems like waste, but instead gives it all out of love for her Lord.
For Jesus’ enemies, it was all about them, and not at all about the God they supposedly believed in and served. But for Mary, it’s about Jesus, and she understands in some way where this is all headed.
So we have the jealousy of the Jews and Judas against the love and generosity of Mary. In these Holy days, we are called to be Mary, to pour ourselves out in love and generosity, even when the jealousy of the world around us would try to prevent that.
It could have been jealousy. Or maybe they just felt threatened. Either way, the Pharisees had lost sight of the mission.
You could see how they would have been jealous: here they are working long and hard to take care of the many prescripts of their religion, attending with exacting detail to the commandments of God and the laws that governed their way of life. But it is Jesus, this upstart, and not them, who is really moving the people and getting things done. People were being healed – inside and out – and others were being moved to follow him on his way. That had to make them green with envy.
And, yes, they probably felt threatened. The way that he was preaching, the religion he was talking about – well, it was all new and seemed to fly in the face of what they had long believed and what they had worked so hard to preserve.
But how had they gotten here, how did they lose the way? Because what Jesus advocated was really not a different message: it was all about how God loves his people and that we should love God and others with that same kind of love. That message was there: buried deep in the laws and rules that they were so familiar with, but somehow, the laws and rules became more important than the love.
The Pharisees wanted to preserve their religion and the way of life they had lived for so long. Jesus wanted to make manifest God’s love, forgiveness of sins, and true healing. It’s not that the rules of religion are not important, but the underlying message and the greatness of God cannot be overshadowed by legalism. That is the argument in today’s Gospel; that is the argument that ultimately brought Jesus to the cross. He would rather die than live without us; he paid the price that we might be truly healed and might truly live. As the Psalmist reminds us today: Praise the Lord!
Petty jealousy is a pernicious thing. Paul experienced it, directed against him by those Jews who were jealous of Paul’s effective preaching and suspicious of the Christian Way. In their fear and jealousy, they appeal to Gallio, a Roman official, complaining that Paul stirred up the people to worship God contrary to the law. By this they did not mean that Paul and the others were worshipping in a way they didn’t like – although that was certainly true. What they were trying to do was get Paul and the others arrested for worshipping God at all, in violation of Roman law.
The Romans were a pagan people, with their own gods, and it was required that all citizens worshipped these gods and not the God of Israel or certainly Jesus Christ. Sometimes this was not enforced so rigorously, as was the case with Gallio. So those troublemakers among the Jews were guilty of it too. But these troublemakers were trying to get Gallio to enforce it against Paul and his followers, and not against themselves of course. Gallio sees through their very thinly veiled patriotism and throws them all out, turning a blind eye as they beat a synagogue official who was a supporter of Paul.
What a horrible mess, isn’t it? Neither those troublemakers nor Gallio were at all virtuous. The troublemakers weren’t so much concerned about the laws of the land as they were quibbling about following Jesus. And Gallio wasn’t so concerned about defending the Christians as much as he wanted them all to go away and leave him alone. Through it all, Paul was able to see the fulfillment of God’s promise in the vision he had: “Do not be afraid. Go on speaking, and do not be silent, for I am with you. No one will attack and harm you.” And that’s exactly what Paul did.
It is up to us to witness to our faith courageously too. We might face opposition, and even petty jealousy. But the message is too important to bury for fear of what might happen. We must trust that the Lord will preserve us too, in the same way he guarded Paul in his efforts to proclaim the Gospel.