April 07, 2019
May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As in the Last Supper narrative on Maundy Thursday here, today, in our gospel reading, we have a gathering around a table for a meal. At the gathering are those who have a great devotion to Jesus as well as a soon to be betrayer of Jesus. We also have feet being attended to…not your typical dinners for 8.
Here Jesus is at the home of Lazarus…this is a familiar family to us from the previous couple of chapters in John’s gospel – siblings on quite a ride in their faith and relationship with Jesus.
Lazarus is the one for whom Jesus wept and who was raised from the dead after being dead for four days.
Martha is the one who gave a confession of faith before her brother’s resurrection: “Yes Lord,” she says, “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
And Mary – whom we have seen at another gathering for dinner being affirmed for sitting at Jesus’ feet.
In our narrative, the next day – for us next Sunday – Jesus will enter Jerusalem; what’s become for us Palm Sunday.
Jesus has been talking about his death and folks are not really grasping it…in fact, the disciples do not think it is a good way to do things – remember Peter’s rebuke of Jesus – “God forbid it, Lord, this must never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22).
Here we have Mary and she gets it. She’s is comprehending what others could not and is acting out of her understanding – out of love, gratitude, and sacrifice.
In this narrative, Judas criticizes her action. With a tone that almost seems casual, John asserts Judas is a thief who regularly stole from their common purse. Character is obvious and John does not minimize or apologize for his assessment of Judas.
This narrative may be read as a juxtaposition of Mary and Judas – one of following Jesus at great cost, and one of following Jesus for personal gain. It is there but let me also assert a metaphorical reading of the narrative: Theological professor George Stroup, in reflection on this passage, asserts: “Judas plays just as important a role in John’s story of Jesus’ death as does Mary…The Christian disciple [you and I] is neither Mary nor Judas but a paradoxical combination of both.”*
We, each of us, are both Mary and Judas. We love Jesus. We have self-interest. We follow Jesus with devotion and sacrifice. We follow Jesus for personal gain.
Let’s hold that as we walk through this narrative together this morning.
Jesus is about to go into Jerusalem, which he knows and has said is where it will all blow up. Suffering. Death. Before this great transition, he has dinner with friends. Maybe Jesus needed encouragement, support, or time to kick back and not talk about anything too directly – much like we might be like under duress in our lives.
At this dinner, Mary brings a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard to the table.
In our contemporary cultural read of this passage, we may picture her grabbing a container of Crisco or lard used for cooking – that thick opaque not quite white stuff. But this nard is actually from the head of an Indian plant that is described as having an amazing aroma*. Another consideration is the description of it being a perfume – the word for perfume translated there is not something you put on before you go out on the town to smell good. More accurately in English, it would be an ointment*.
Mary is using this wonderful ointment to declare Jesus’ approaching death. Anointing his feet with her hair in preparation for burial - But on a live person, and with her hair.
Why use her hair? I don’t know that we can know for sure. It may simply be that in her understanding of her Lord’s coming death, she was expressing that she understood Jesus would die and that she loved him. She loved him and instead of using a towel, she used something that was a part of her – her hair, to accomplish what she was doing.
This is a woman clearly not concerned about being misunderstood. In fact, as she did this, my guess is she was quite un-self-conscious, aware of Jesus only.
Another aspect of the show stopper in all of this is the value of the ointment – 300 denarii: then and there – nearly a year’s wages. A year’s pay. To anoint Jesus’ feet.
Imagine taking a year’s pay and doing something crazily extravagant for God in a way that could be really misunderstood…
Into this beautiful and likely confusing moment for those gathered – but not missed by Jesus, Judas blunders in and says: “Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?” and John’s addendum: “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put in it.”
Judas is willfully lying, and his character is known. A thief. One who stealthily takes for their own personal gain*. A practitioner of deception.
Judas does bring up while seeking to deceive, a legitimate concern for the practical among us. How could this be a good thing? Could this resource be used better? More effectively?
Jesus defends Mary: “Leave her alone.” I don’t think Jesus uses blunt words like this to defend anyone else in the gospels….“Leave her alone.”
To be devoted is to commit or give something*. A close synonym might be a gift.
Mary is expressing generous or sacrificial devotion. The giving of a gift.
Judas is accusing her of waste – a squandering of something, something spent or used carelessly*.
What is happening? Not a waste but the giving of a gift. With great humility, sacrifice, cost, and devotion.
A part of our take away from this narrative may simply be that as we live our lives and give all of ourselves to God, there is no such thing as waste. It’s an offering. A gift. A life spent on God. There’s no such thing as waste when we spend ourselves on God and for God. We don’t waste time when we pray, read scripture, serve others. We don’t waste money when we give to God’s purposes…as we express our faith nothing is waste because God is worthy.
This is in contrast to Judas personal gain mentality rooted in stealth and deception.
As we journey through these last couple of weeks in Lent, let us take in the courage of Mary – to welcome reality. We need saving. Jesus needed to suffer and die before rising from the dead. Her response: extravagant affirming of reality while expressing a tender and intimate love for Jesus.
Let us also grow in our awareness of our Judas propensities. May we know greater ruthless honesty and turn from selfish gain and deceit.
Hear again our collect for the day:
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
*Thayer and Smith’s Dictionary Bible
*Merriam Webster Dictionary
*Feasting on the Word, Lent 5 Year C