March 20, 2016

Doctrine and Doing


Text: John 12:5: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii
and the money given to the poor?”

You will forgive me if I begin today in an unusual, maybe even a troubling, place. But even petty criminals deserve the right to a full defense at the bar, and that is all the more true of those held responsible for the most notorious crimes. People charged with crimes don’t deserve a defense only in keeping with their reputation; they get it because our understanding of human dignity is made real by the equal application of the laws.

So let me speak in defense of Judas Iscariot. Even by the time the gospel of John was written, perhaps eighty years after the events of Jesus’s life, Judas has already become the clear and exclusive villain of the narrative. The writer of John’s gospel even makes sure to include a little propagandistic aside to discredit Judas’s motives in asking what is otherwise a perfectly reasonable question.

Down through the centuries the very name of Judas has become a synonym for a betrayer, a miscreant, someone absolutely without principle or scruple other than the seeking of self-gain. By the time the Gospels are written, and especially by the time the last Gospel is written, there is no obligation to regard Judas as innocent until proven guilty, or to see the story through his eyes.

But that is too simple, and too easy. After all, Jesus chose him, presumably because he saw some important qualities in him. He has stuck with the disciples all this time. He seems to have had been invested with responsibilities on behalf of all the disciples.

The facts of case before us today, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, set before us a conflict all too familiar to us today: The injustice of extravagance in the face of great need. The doctrine of our faith is very clear about these things: We are to care, first and foremost, for those who are suffering, who are hungry, who are without homes.

The best sermon about salvation means little to a man with an empty stomach, or a child living in terror. Indeed, God makes the plainest possible case that the world of the physical body matters very much by taking on human flesh in the form of Jesus. Poverty is a primary problem.

That is the clear teaching of our faith. We fail that standard so easily and so routinely that it ought to fill us with shame. In the midst of so much human need we have so much comfort; that alone is enough to convict us.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if there is a clearly unforgivable sin that my client Judas is guilty of, it is the sin of trying to hold his closest friends, even his own boss, accountable to the standard of the faith they claim to believe in. Judas is only speaking on behalf of the clear teaching of the faith. And if that doctrine makes us uncomfortable, then the problem is not the doctrine. The problem is probably us.

And what do we do about this? It’s a very old story. We set about tearing down the reputation of the one who would presume to tell us that we’re not doing all that we might, not living up to the expected standard. It’s easier than actually examining our lives to see whether he might just be right.

Just about every church, just about every community, has someone like this. They are the killjoys, the holier-than-thous.

And what is even worse, at one level they are insufferably right.

At one level, yes. But then consider the setting of the story, and then take a moment to recall what else we have learned, from a different gospel writer, about that story.

The whole drama unfolds in the house of Mary and Martha of Bethany. Remember them? They are very close to Jesus; they have a brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus loved deeply, and who died as was restored to life by Jesus in the previous chapter of John’s gospel.

But we get another story about this family in Luke’s gospel. It’s a story that focuses again on Mary, but this time on the very different ways Mary and her sister Martha deal with Jesus as a guest. Martha fusses around trying to get the house in order and a meal prepared. Mary sits and listens to what Jesus has to say. Once again there’s a conflict between what is right and what is wise.

Martha is exactly right in what she does, and in what she says. There is work that must be done, that ought to be done, to receive a guest. And Judas is exactly right in what he says; there are people that are suffering, and a thing of great value which has only extravagant use could be turned in to funds to help them.

Both stories pivot on Mary, who manages to get it right in both instances without ever saying a word. But as it turns out she also teaches us that there is no one way to get it right—to be a disciple.

In the first case she teaches us by example that the best possible way to receive a guest is to bother to pay attention to them. We do well to remember that lesson when we see someone here among us for the first time. We are usually so occupied with the roles we have and the responsibilities we perform for the community—and I confess to being first in line with that problem—that we forget the best hospitality is actually what we offer of ourselves, not of our entertaining.

But in the second case—this morning’s case—Mary’s example is given not over and against her sister’s busyness, but of Judas’s righteousness. And this time she is not sitting and listening. She is taking action. She is doing something.

What she is doing the source of the tension in the story. Her actions are what offends Judas’s sense of propriety. He has the doctrine right. He just doesn’t have the discipleship part right.

Mary’s simple act seems extravagant to Judas; indeed it may be extravagant. But that is exactly the point. She is lavishing something of great value on someone she loves very much. More to the point, she is lavishing something of great value on God.

The rule of doctrine may seem attractively clear and simple. It certainly is to Judas. And it often is to us. We like bright-line distinctions to tell us the difference between right and wrong, the thing we should do and the thing we must not do. Rules are helpful. They help us avoid the difficulty of making actual judgments.

But judgment is exactly what is at the heart of discipleship. We have a clear guide: it is the law of love. We have the charter Christ himself gave us: Love God, and love others as you would love yourself. The rules of doctrine are good as far as they go, but when they come into conflict with that larger, higher rule, then it is time to ask whether the doctrine is an accurate reflection of God’s hope for us, and for the community of the faithful. And we have to make that judgment—and act, accordingly.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client Judas can plead consistency with doctrine as his defense. It is not a bad defense. Indeed, it is more than most of us manage to do. But that is a limited defense, and—let’s face it—ultimately no defense at all. Because when the rule of doctrine conflicts with acts of compassion aligned with the law of love, then the doctrine must come second to the doing.

It’s a simple formula, but there is a reason the bracelets don’t say, “What Would Jesus Think?” or “What Would Jesus Believe?” They say “What Would Jesus Do”—because in the end discipleship is demonstrated by acts of compassion, acts of mercy, acts of justice, acts of reconciliation.