Fifth Sunday in Lent: April 7, 2019
Year C, Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 12:1-8
At the time of this posting, there was no recording of this sermon. The text is below.
John tells us a rather intriguing story in today’s story, indeed a bit of a scandalous story in today’s gospel. Jesus has stopped by the home of Lazarus before entering Jerusalem for the last time. The Passover is near. When Jesus arrives there in Bethany, his days are numbered. He knows it, and if his friends haven’t been listening to his warning, we hear it right in the gospel when he refers to his burial.
But this night, they are throwing a party in Jesus’ honor. They’re probably celebrating Lazarus as well who has been raised from the dead by Jesus. Our readings today really do give us a foretaste of resurrection.
Can you imagine the scene before you? There’s this great rabbi and teacher, Jesus. There’s Lazarus who was just recently dead. There’s Mary. Martha. And there’s Judas who we know is going to betray Jesus.
While Martha is serving, Mary brings a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard. Without a word, Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet and begins to anoint him. Then she takes her hair and dries his feet with it. Now, I’ve never had hair long enough to do what Mary did. But really, what woman in her right mind would caress another man’s feet in public with her hair? Had she lost all sense of propriety? What was she thinking?
Think of all the money that perfume cost. Three hundred denarii! Remember – one denarius was equivalent to a single day’s wage. Imagine! A year’s wages spent on nard! I can just feel everyone in the room shudder with discomfort and then feel sheer embarrassment for her and Jesus. One can only imagine what gossip and rumors this act must have invited. I can see it now – it would be a topic for the most outrageous reality show of the day – the equivalent of Maury Povich or Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown.
But Jesus allowed her to anoint him. What was he thinking? Why did he allow Mary to do this?
I imagine all the conversation at the dinner table suddenly stopped. All eyes were focused on Mary and Jesus. I doubt there was much talk about how Lazarus had been brought back from the dead by Jesus. As this scene unfolded, I’m sure that dead silence reigned, at least until Judas exploded and said what was probably on everyone’s mind.
“What about the poor!? This is a waste! How can you waste this nard? It is criminal not to sell it and use the money to feed the hungry.” We would probably agree with him that Mary is being wasteful, that the money that she spent on the oil would be better spent on the poor. We would probably nod our heads in agreement. “Yep,” we might think. “What a waste! What a silly thing to do! We can find a much better way to use this kind of wealth.”
But because of those sentences in the gospel that appear in parentheses, we the reader have just a little more insight. John lets us know that Judas was stealing from the common purse.
If we think about this entire scene we should think, “what a stark contrast”. We have Mary’s outpouring of love and anointing Jesus feet with expensive perfume and wiping them with her hair contrasted with Judas’ bitterness and anger. Why was Judas bitter and angry? Perhaps because he expected more of Jesus. He wanted him to be the political king that was anticipated and expected.
And then, Jesus speaks. “Leave her alone!” and, then adding, “you always have the poor with you.” In our 21st century lens, we take this as a very negative statement. Very unlike Jesus. Remember, this is the same Jesus, the advocate of the poor, who always puts their needs above his own. In this case, though, he reverses his course – and at the same time reveals the meaning of Mary’s offering.
Mary had experienced Jesus’ love first hand and responds by showing her love for Jesus in her anointing. This was an act of love and devotion amidst grief and sadness. Once she had a taste of Jesus’ love, she had to respond with an extravagant outpouring of adoration and love.
If there has been any doubt that Jesus’ final hours are coming, Mary’s behavior and Jesus’ response made it clear. She was anointing Jesus for his burial.
Six days later, in the next chapter of John, when Jesus does celebrate Passover with the disciples. We see how prophetic Mary’s actions are. Just as she had washed Jesus’ feet with her hair, he wraps a towel around his waist and washes the disciples’ feet to show them what it means to be a servant. Then Jesus tells them that they are to be servants to each other, and by extension, servants to people in need around them.
Love like Mary and the disciples experienced is powerful. Mary did not seem to care how her actions appeared to others. She gave all of herself in giving the costly perfume. She also was totally vulnerable. She could have been mocked by Jesus as she was by Judas. Yet she trusted totally and did not seem to react when she was criticized for spending so much money on such an item as perfume.
Her love for Christ led her to share what she had, no matter what the cost.
Paul, too, experienced the overwhelming love of Christ. While Mary used actions to show her love of Christ, Paul uses words. He lists all his credentials to show what a high value he places on his Judaism. But all of these credentials, advantages, status, achievements, he counts as lost once he found the love of Christ. Paul was willing to give up all his accomplishments in order to live in this love of Jesus Christ.
We see God’s love in Jesus fill Mary and Martha and Lazarus and Paul. They were ordinary people experiencing Christ’s unstoppable love. Christ’s love flowed through each of them and led them to show others what it meant in their lives.
The oil that I use on Wednesday’s during our healing Eucharist is not, I hope, as expensive as the nard that Mary used, but in that act, we allow ourselves to be anointed as Jesus allowed Mary to anoint him. Whenever we partake of the Eucharist, Christ’s love fills our hearts and lives as Christ filled the hearts and lives of Mary and Martha, and Paul and Lazarus. In a very real way, Mary’s ritual actions at that dinner party in Bethany transformed that meal that was shared into a Eucharist and we continue that outpouring of love and healing in the Eucharist today.
Remember that neither our nard nor our credentials give us a place at this feast. We are invited to the feast by the overwhelming love of God in Jesus Christ.
Sometimes our culture – perhaps our very human nature – pressures us to only take measured risks, to consider the costs and benefits of our actions. I think Judas was a man who was concerned that Jesus was taking too many risks in one way and not enough risk in another. But our God is not a God of cost-benefit analyses. Our God calls us to love without counting the cost of the nard. Our God calls us to love one another with abandon.
It would be a brave new Lenten discipline to engage the final days of this season as Mary would: to love generously, just because; to meet our impulse to give abundantly, just as our God gives, and embrace it.
May we all stand with Mary and Paul in their faithfulness as we follow Jesus to the cross in these next two weeks.
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