5 Lent – April 3, 2022
In our gospel story today, Passover is less than a week away, and Jesus and his disciples have returned to Bethany where they are visiting in the home of their friend Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. John almost goes out of his way to remind us that this is after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. He’s setting the stage for this story, right? A dinner is being given in honor of Jesus and his disciples, and as seems typical, Martha’s in the kitchen and Mary is at Jesus’ feet.
Apparently without a word, Mary takes a bottle of very costly perfume made from pure nard, pours all its contents over Jesus’ feet, and wipes it with her hair. The whole house, John says, “was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” “The whole house.”
This story just begs for some explanation, doesn’t it?
So, a little background. In those times, this would have been a shocking occurrence. Mary’s gesture goes far beyond the custom of washing guest’s feet after they have traveled on dusty roads. She uncorks a valuable treasure. The nard plant was used by the wealthy as a perfume, but for the more common folk it was reserved as a burial ointment to offset the odor of decaying flesh. And then she lets down her hair in front of guests. That was not a usual occurrence in those times.
Mary’s is a layered story that raises thorny questions about poverty, piety, and stewardship. But it’s also a powerful story of a woman who dares to love extravagantly — even in the face of ridicule and censure — and receives the blessing of Jesus.
This perfume was likely the most precious thing she owned, and she wanted to share it with Jesus… all of it… every last drop. She didn’t think of the consequences or the cost. That didn’t matter. The only thing that counted was showing her love for Jesus.
Perhaps there is a lesson in that for us. Mary teaches us that if we’re going to give anything to Jesus at all, we ought to give everything to him. You don’t reserve a small section of your heart for Jesus. If you give him any of it, you give him all of it. Perhaps Mary teaches us this.
One thing we do know for certain: Judas doesn’t like it… not one bit. Immediately, he protests the waste of such a valuable resource. Why, that perfume could have been taken to the local market and sold. There’s always a strong demand for products like that. The money secured from the sale could have gone into their benevolence account and used to help feed the poor.
Mary treasures the moment: Jesus responds to Judas’s criticism with a comment that might sound callous: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” What is Jesus saying? That the poor don’t matter? That we should accept poverty as inevitable and unfixable? I don’t think so. In fact, many commentators argue that Jesus’s reference here is to Deuteronomy 15:11, whose message about poverty and generosity is crystal clear: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded.” In other words, the call to care for the poor is constant. It never ceases. In fact, if we are called to love Jesus without limit or calculation when he is with us, then we are called to the same limitless and uncalculated extravagance when the poor are with us. Which is always.
Lutheran minister Reagan Humber puts it this way: “What won’t always be with us is the opportunity to see God in whatever and whomever stands in front of us right now. The kingdom of God is here. Right now is the moment when God can break our hearts. The love of God is the grace of now.”
Angelus Silesius, a seventeenth century German priest, writes this:
“The rose has no why; it blossoms because it blossoms.
It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.”
Are we like Mary who held nothing back? Or, are we like Judas who counted the cost of material things?
Perhaps it’s not a question of choosing one over the other, gift or economy, Mary or Judas, but of living in the tension of the two. That tension is what sometimes keeps us up at night, calls us into question, awakens us to how we truly want to live. That tension is the call to be discerning and thoughtful about how we respond to others and engage life. That tension pushes us to look within ourselves at our motives and desires. That tension reveals that Mary and Judas, gift and economy are interwoven, and each has the possibility of the other. It reminds us that the fragrance of life can be neither bought nor sold. It’s priceless.
What Jesus was really saying to Judas and to us was that the solution was right in front of us that day when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet. “Open your eyes, you fool! You are not even paying attention to what is happening right in front of you. Don’t you see the extravagant love being displayed? Don’t you see the wild and uninhibited love Mary is showing? That is how God loves. Wildly, extravagantly. With such abundance that it seeps into the skin of everyone. God’s love is a love that breaks free from all rules and manners that try to contain it. And until you see that….until you love like that, you will always have the poor and the oppressed with you. Open your eyes, Judas.”
Keep your eyes out for that wild love of God. It’s everywhere. You can’t contain it. And when you see it, point it out to someone. Show the world that abundant love of God that you see filling the earth.
Mary’s perfume symbolizes God’s grace through Jesus because like the perfume that was poured out of the bottle, His blood was poured out for you and me for the forgiveness of our sins. There is no greater and more extravagant love than that that Jesus exemplified for us on the cross!
Thank you, Jesus, for your extravagant love. Amen.