3.21.10 sermon notes
This is kind of an odd story isn’t it? A dinner party is interrupted by a woman with expensive perfume, Judas criticizes that she should have spent that money on the poor, and Jesus (in an uncharacteristically dismissive statement about the poor) responds that this woman had every right to anoint him with the costly ointment. What is going on here?
This story of someone anointing Jesus appears in all four of the gospel accounts. They differ some in their presentation of just who does the anointing, why they do it, and how others react to it. But the presence of a similar story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is compelling evidence for scholars to think that something like this must have really happened in Jesus’ life. Matthew and Mark have accounts that have the most parallels to this story from John, and I have to admit, I would take either one of those over this version of the story any day. I was not terribly excited about John’s account when I first read it. In Matthew and Mark, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head with costly oil, and some or all of the disciples object to the extravagance. But here, John’s account has Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus anointing the feet of Jesus, and it places Judas Iscariot at the center of the narrative as our clear antagonist. Personally, I could do without the editorial comments: “Judas Iscariot (the one who was about the betray him) solely objects to Mary’s act because, we are told, “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 into it.” Clearly, this is setting up the narrative for Judas to be the one to turn over Jesus to the religious authorities. But I have always had a hard time with the demonization of Judas that is so clear here in this story. We as Christians proclaim a resurrection faith that unfortunately had to be preceded by an arrest, crucifixion and death. Judas is a necessary part of the story and part of the path we must follow to get to the resurrection. And part of this Lenten journey involves the reality that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. I think that we gain very little by historically attacking Judas as the betrayer.
So we know what the author of John thought about Judas. Most people turn their attention next to what Jesus had to say in this narrative. After Judas has pointed out that this perfume was quite valuable (worth about a year’s wages for a laborer), and that it could have been given to the poor, Jesus responds quite harshly. He says “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” . . . . . . . Ever since, many Christians have used this text to justify complacency about issues of poverty – if we will always have the poor with us, why should we try to use our resources to alleviate their situation? What business does the church have preaching a message of social justice? Why should we care about leveling the playing field? Judas wanted to spend the money to help the poor, and Jesus rebukes him – so why are we giving our money to charities and volunteering to help Interfaith Homeless Network and collecting food for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank to help the homeless and hungry? To this I would have to respectfully say . . . read the rest of your Bible. There are countless imperatives on the part of the prophets and of Jesus to seek social justice and care for the poor. We should not allow one verse to throw us off course that much. And I do not think that the purpose of this narrative here in John is to tell us something about the poor. It is telling us about true discipleship, and the kind of extravagant love and moments of reflection we are called to exhibit as followers of Christ.
Mary of Bethany, while she does not speak a word in this narrative from John, says the most. She gets it. Everyone around Jesus has been following him faithfully – literally walking behind him everywhere he goes, witnessing his miraculous works and hearing his teaching, and hearing him predict his own death and resurrection. But they do not get it. John is a bit more gracious to the disciples than Mark may be, where they appear downright clueless, but still, the gravity of what Jesus is saying about himself simply does not sink in. The disciples are still ready to be a part of a revolution – do some amazing work, heal more people, release the captives, overthrow the Romans, bring in God’s reign of righteousness all on their own. They are excited about the charismatic leader they have in Jesus, and either they do not see, or they do not want to believe that there might be a time when he is no longer with them.
But Mary, she is not like the other disciples. She is a woman who was clearly a close disciple of Jesus, the woman with whom Jesus wept at the death of her brother Lazarus, a woman whose family home is the last one Jesus stayed in before entering into Jerusalem for the last time. Mary understands that time is short and that this may be her last moment with Jesus while he is still alive. Who knows? Maybe Mary was picking up scuttle on the street that the religious leaders were plotting to kill Jesus. After all, John tells us that it was Jesus’ raising of her brother Lazarus from the dead and the resulting hype that followed that pushed these leaders over the edge. Jesus had gone too far and was attracting too much attention. Maybe Mary knew something bad was coming – things surely would not have been the same around her house after Lazarus was resurrected. We are told that people came from all around just to see Lazarus, for he was such a radical sign of God’s power working in Jesus. She might have picked up on signs that not everyone was terribly excited about what Jesus was doing. Or maybe she was just one of the only ones who took Jesus seriously when he foretold his own death.
So out of deep and extravagant devotion, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, an act of humility and service that Jesus will later model when he washes his disciples feet on the night of his arrest. Anointing was a practice often reserved for the dead, and Jesus understands Mary’s action as preparation for his death when he states that she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of his burial. Mary’s silent action of anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair gives us a picture of humility and extravagant love. This woman who has no voice in the narrative speaks volumes.
As I think more about this I wonder, who would I be in this story? Who would YOU be in this story? I would love to think that I might be Mary, faithfully understanding what others do not and showing my devotion without concern for cost. But in the true form of so much of the gospel narratives, if we really think about it, we often see ourselves in the faces of those who are not the most beloved in the story. Imagine that you are one of the disciples. You have been blown away by the miracles of Jesus, moved to action by his teaching, given up everything to follow him and serve others. You stand up for the poor, the widows, the sick, the children, the unclean of your society. And here you sit as a guest in someone’s home – someone who is close to your group and to Jesus. Someone who knows what your values are. Martha is serving a lovely meal and you are just tickled to see Lazarus up and about, chatting and sharing a meal with you. But then, Mary, this woman, interrupts the meal by wasting a year’s worth of wages in perfume on Jesus. Outraged and fully expecting to not be alone in it, you call her out – saying “why was this perfume not sold, and the money given to the poor!?!?” How many of us would have had a similar reaction? I know I would have. I watch with disbelief when millions of dollars are poured into buttons, stickers, and commercials for campaign issues that claim to be about helping those in need. I get frustrated when charity organizers serve filet mignon and crème brulee to their donors while collecting funds to offer meager meals to the hungry. Maybe it is part of why I want to redeem Judas in this story – I find myself identifying the most with him. But in this moment, Jesus does not echo Judas’ (and perhaps our) critique of Mary’s wastefulness. Instead Jesus praises the value of her actions and affirms her understanding of his fate. Judas’ zeal for the poor is not misdirected, but it was not the most important thing at this moment. It is still important to want to help others, but those who hunger for righteousness can sometimes find themselves with a little too much self-righteousness. We all have a need for humility and redemption.
And Mary shows us that we also have a need to stop and reflect sometimes. Mary was always the one sitting and listening to Jesus while her sister Martha filled her time with busy tasks. How often do we really stop? So often, even as we try to drift off to sleep our minds are racing through the day that now ends, or we are thinking of the day to come. Even when we worship, where we are supposed to allow ourselves to turn our sole attention to God and to be re-created and renewed for the tasks of life, we cannot be still. We carry our anxieties and mental lists into the sanctuary, we feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world or just simply wonder if we will get out of church in time to get to the next thing we have planned. There is so much to be done – both in our own lives and in the world around us.
But some of you might be thinking – surely it is ok to be constantly worrying and working for social justice. Isn’t that part of our calling as followers of Christ?! . . . . . There is so little justice, and so many of us feel compelled to do something about it. But we must remember that there is a difference between us and God, and that we do not have to be the ones totally in control. Do not get me wrong — our actions do matter, and we have a great responsibility to this world. But sometimes, like Mary, we have to take a moment to be still, to turn our attention to God and demonstrate the kind of extravagant love and attention that may seem pointless to those around us. And in this stillness, we may experience the radical transformation that comes when we realize that it is not our ways, but God’s ways that will bring about righteousness in this world. We must let go of some of our control, and allow the grace of God to infuse all that we do. And as we draw near the close of this season of Lent, we are reminded that God’s grace surpasses all of our notions of how the world works – new life springs from death, hope gets the last word in the face of despair.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that are to pay attention to God, who is about to do a new thing. Let us never forget to keep our eyes open for the new and sometimes surprising ways that God continues to work in the world. AMEN.