By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 3/30/12 in The Madera Tribune
In ancient times, tomorrow was known as Lazarus Saturday. The name refers to the organizer of a supper that Jesus ate in the community of Bethany “six days before the Passover” (cf. John 12:1).
That naturally wasn’t the first visit of Jesus, but it would be his last.
The Greco-Syrian physician Luke describes the first meeting (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus had arrived in the village of Bethany, which sat a few miles east of the metropolis of Jerusalem, and a woman named Martha welcomed the traveling rabbi into her home. While Martha busied herself with serving her famous guest, her sister Mary sat at his feet and listened.
This irked her sister, probably for multiple reasons. For one, Mary’s pose was customary of male students listening to a religious scholar.
Jewish boys began their formal education around the ages of 5-7, either in the synagogue or at home. They would first be taught the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph Bet, and then memorize and study verses from the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch.
Note that I said “boys.” Jewish women received little formal instruction, did not read from the Bible in the synagogue, were not taught Jewish law, could only observe religious ceremonies, and weren’t expected to attend on festivals and feast days.
Mary’s adoption of this student role before a rabbi was scandalous.
Moreover, Martha didn’t think it was fair that her sister was just sitting around while she was busy with the work of being a good host. So she complained: Rabbi, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!
Surely to Martha’s surprise, Jesus not only didn’t scold Mary for her revolutionary behavior, he praised it: Martha, Martha, you are full of care and trouble about many things, but only one is necessary. Mary has chosen that good part, and it will not be taken from her.
This wasn’t the only time Jesus defied expectations in a radical way. Those unwilling to accept this struggled with his hard teachings. From there, it was only a step onward to reject the teacher too.
The memoir of the “beloved disciple” John says that when Lazarus later died of illness Jesus wept, prayed, and called his friend forth from the cave in which his corpse had been entombed (John 11:1-44).
Talk of this alleged miracle frightened Jewish religious leaders.
It wasn’t the first time a self-proclaimed messiah had arisen. Decades before, a tall and handsome slave of King Herod gathered followers, declared himself king of the Jews, plundered and burned the royal palace at Jericho, and did the same elsewhere, according to Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. The commander of Herod’s infantry led Roman soldiers against this “messiah,” Simon of Peraea, and beheaded him.
Likewise a shepherd named Athronges and his four brothers led a flock of rebels against Herod Archelaus. Less than a dozen years later, Judas of Galilee marshaled a violent fight against the Roman census. All these so-called messiahs had ended amidst bloodshed, and Jewish leaders decided it would be better if only one died this time -- Jesus -- instead of many.
In this context, Jesus ate in Bethany with his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary in the house of Simon the leper on the sabbath (Matthew 26:6-13; John 12:1-11). Unexpectedly, Mary washed and anointed his feet with costly scented ointment and wiped them dry with her long hair.
This was another scandalous gesture by Mary, and yet once again her teacher praised it. Leave her be, he told his indignant apostle Judas Iscariot, for it is for the day of my burial she kept this spikenard.
It was the custom of the day to perfume the newly dead to soften the eventual stench of decay.
The next day, which Christians call Palm Sunday, Jesus rode a young donkey into nearby Jerusalem. There was symbolism in the choice of transportation, for a horse was the mount of war and the donkey a steed of peace.
He was met with cries greeting him as the king of Israel and you can easily imagine the alarm of those fearful of another disastrous false messiah.
So began the time that fourth-century Christians called the “Great Week” (now known as Holy Week).
Spy Wednesday was the day Judas joined those plotting against Jesus; Holy Thursday, his last supper; Good Friday, his death; Holy Saturday; and Easter Sunday, new life.