Address 1: Bethany
Matthew 26. 6-13
It is the final week of Jesus’s life. Like many pilgrims to Jerusalem at the time of Passover, Jesus has found board and lodging outside the city. The place he is staying, Bethany, is about two miles east of the city and Matthew has already told us that Jesus spent the night there after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. In the reading we have just heard, which is set at some unspecified point during the week following Palm Sunday, Jesus is staying at the house of Simon the Leper. The focus of the story is the approach of an unnamed woman who anoints his head with costly oil, much to the chagrin of his disciples who consider it a waste of money. Jesus defends the woman and interprets her action in a striking way: by pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.
Bethany is a place of significance in all four Gospels. It is noted as the place where Jesus’s very close friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived. In St John’s Gospel Bethany is the place where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. This miraculous sign was confirmation that the Son ‘gives life to whom he is pleased to give it’ as Jesus had once told the crowd after healing the invalid man at the Pool of Bethesda. Bethany is the place where three of the Gospel writers, including Matthew as we have heard, describe Jesus being anointed abundantly by a woman in an act of extravagant generosity, given the cost of precious ointments in the ancient world. Bethany is a place of safety, a place to which Jesus withdraws in the final week of his life as his confrontations with the religious authorities in Jerusalem become increasingly fraught with foreboding and danger. And Bethany is a point of departure. After the anointing we hear how Jesus makes his way into the city to share the Passover meal with his disciples. He will not return this side of the Resurrection.
So Bethany is a place of miracle, and a place of recognition; a place of hospitality and safety, yet also a place of no return. Bethany is a place where both the authority and the vulnerability of Jesus are in plain view. Bethany is, in short, a place of paradox – like the cross of Jesus itself.
Address 2: The Upper Room
Matthew 26. 20-25
In the Jewish tradition the Passover is celebrated in the form of a family meal. It commemorates an event that even in the time of Jesus was in a far distant past: the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and the beginning of their journey to a promised land. As a faithful Jew the Passover would have been an entirely natural part of Jesus’s regular religious observance.
Jesus celebrated his final Passover not with his blood family but with his disciples. The importance of this cannot be overstated. In gathering this disparate group of frail and often slow-witted men around him Jesus was making a point about God’s new community. This was to be a community founded not on ties of family allegiance, nor even on outstanding personal qualities, but simply in a rootedness in him, the source of God’s life and love.
After some introductory material, Matthew’s account of the events that take place in the Upper Room, and immediately afterwards, is the literary equivalent of a triptych, the three-panelled picture often placed behind an altar. The reading we have just heard is the first third of the triptych: Jesus predicts the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. This is followed by the central panel, in which Jesus blesses bread and wine and shares them with his disciples. In the final part of the triptych, which actually takes place on the Mount of Olives, Jesus predicts his betrayal and abandonment by the rest of the disciples: you will all become deserters because of me this night.
Most triptychs are hinged so that the side panels can be folded in to cover the central panel. But we should think of the side panels of the triptych that begins in the Upper Room and ends on the Mount of Olives differently, as folding out to leave only the central panel revealed. For the Upper Room is above all the place where Jesus reveals through word and action the meaning of his life-giving death and his unbreakable covenant bond with his disciples – and with us. This covenant is one that will survive our weakness, our cowardice, and our betrayal. This covenant is one that calls us into God’s new community of love, a community whose life we celebrate in the bread and wine of God’s Kingdom of justice, joy, and peace.
Address 3: Gethsemane
Matthew 26. 36-42
Gethsemane was a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where, you will remember, we left Jesus and his disciples after the Last Supper. Its name derives from an Aramaic word meaning oil press, indicating the likely presence of olive trees – not surprising at the foot of the Mount of Olives. And olives have a particular resonance in the Gethsemane narrative because the oil the trees produce is associated in scripture with the anointing of those who are to be set apart for particular tasks, and with healing.
In Matthew’s Gethsemane account, Jesus literally does set himself apart: initially he leaves most of his disciples and takes Peter, James, and John a little further with him; then he leaves them as well. He goes on alone and throws himself to the ground, asking his Father that the cup of suffering might pass from him. Meanwhile his disciples fall asleep, and at this point we remember Jesus’s words of rebuke at the house of Simon the Leper to those who complained about the cost of the woman’s anointing: by pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Gethsemane is the place in which Jesus begins himself to understand the full import of the woman’s act of anointing: Jesus sets himself physically apart from the disciples because he knows himself to have been set apart by his Father. Only he can undergo what is to come.
But Gethsemane is also a place where we, Jesus’s disciples, begin to understand the nature of the healing that will flow from the cross. It is a healing that comes at great cost, but it will not be a cost borne by us. In the gathering darkness of Gethsemane Jesus, knowing that the cup of suffering must be drunk, addresses his heavenly Father a second time: if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done. At this point of no return we know, paradoxically, that the light of Christ can never be extinguished. Jesus identifies his will with his Father’s to such an extent that we move from a moment in springtime in a Middle Eastern garden into God’s eternity, glimpsing at one and the same time the cost of love and the very essence of that love; glimpsing at one and the same time the suffering our Lord must undergo and the healing that will make us whole, a people finally, and eternally, reconciled with God.