Year C, Lent 5
April 3, 2022
Year C: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
For over two years now, people around the world have been struggling to find a new balance in their lives while dealing with the significant tensions of life in the times of COVID-19. It was brought home to me the other night when Marty and I went to Philadelphia for a concert – those vaccine cards are as important as your passports. I had to keep them in my possession at all times lest I fear losing them. It was still a venue that required masks, so the ubiquitous usher was there walking through the aisles with a sign “Mask up.”
Whether we like it or not, tension and awkwardness are, in fact, always have been a part of everyday life. COVID has just complicated it ten-fold. Sometimes tension can be a good thing, perhaps pushing us out of our comfort zone to do something we wouldn’t otherwise have done. But tension can also be not good, causing us so much stress that we struggle to breathe, act, or make simple decisions.
Each of us reacts differently to tension, and some of us can deal with more tension than others.
Have you ever found yourself in a social situation that suddenly got very awkward? Did you react to this awkwardness in a way you later regretted?
Well, imagine the tension in the room in today’s gospel story. The story presented to us in John is not just a story of a typical dinner party suddenly turning awkward and uncomfortable; it is also a story of extravagant love and gratitude and people willing to gather with one another despite the risks.
This story takes place not too long after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus has stopped by to see Lazarus before entering Jerusalem for the last time. The Passover is near. When Jesus arrives there in Bethany, his days are numbered. 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 also celebrating Lazarus, raised from the dead by Jesus. So our readings today 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 chooses to display her love and gratitude for Jesus in an extravagant way. It puts me a bit in mind of last week’s gospel when a father showed love to a son extravagantly.
Think about it. Jesus had done a big favor for Mary and Martha. He had raised Lazarus from the dead. Yet, a simple “thank you” or even just a thank-you card doesn’t seem good enough to convey her profound thanks for this selfless act.
I don’t know how Mary felt as she knelt at Jesus’ feet, holding this expensive jar of nard, and began to anoint Jesus. Then she takes her hair and dries his feet with it. 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 decency? What was she thinking?
Think of all the money that perfume costs. Three hundred denarii! One denarius was equivalent to a single day’s wage. Imagine! A year’s wages spent on nard! I can 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 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 she spent on the oil would be better spent on the poor. We would probably nod our heads in agreement.
Yet, Jesus justifies Mary in how she had decided to spend her money. 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. That surely must have added to the tension in the room.
Six days later, in the next chapter of John, when Jesus does celebrate Passover with the disciples. Again, 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 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. Yet, she also was vulnerable. Jesus could have mocked her as Judas did. Yet she trusted totally and did not seem to react when 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 the cost.
We are entering into a time of tension—both in the Christian calendar and in our day-to-day life. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, where a large crowd of people celebrates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. But it’s not long after that when celebrations turn to disappointment, anger, and immense grief, before finally turning to a mixture of shock, amazement, and joy. So although it’s tempting to skip Holy Week and go right to Easter, we are invited to sit in the tension of Holy Week, so we can fully embrace the resurrection of Easter.
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 take only 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. May we be upheld by their love of Jesus Christ, and may our love carry us through.
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.