a sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent
When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, it was an act of total love and devotion. But it was also completely extravagant and wasteful – totally unnecessary…like wearing diamonds on the soles of her shoes.*
*Title comes from a song by Paul Simon.
Judas was right.
When Jesus and the disciples stopped in Bethany that last time, just before they went into Jerusalem, and stopped at the home of his friends Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary, they all knew that something was up.
Martha, of course, immediately did what any good hostess would do – she started fixing supper. It was only right that when guests comes into your home, you provide whatever they need. Martha knew how important it was to be hospitable.
And this was JESUS, their oldest and dearest friend, the one who people were now calling “Messiah”. Ever since he did that thing with Lazarus, the crowds were unbelievable. Everywhere he went, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people all wanting something from him. All he wanted was a little peace and quiet – maybe a home-cooked meal with some friends. So Martha got right to work.
Lazarus wasn’t going help. He was NEVER much help around the house anyway – house work was for the women, after all. But over the last couple of weeks, ever since Jesus raised him from the dead, he seemed different some how. He was quieter, that’s for sure. And maybe a little unsure of himself. So now he sat at the table next to Jesus, not really knowing how to act around his old friend. What should he say? What would YOU say to the man who brought you back from the dead after four days.
And then there was Mary. Her sister had given up long ago trying to get Mary to help whenever Jesus stopped by. Mary loved Jesus – they all did – but with Mary it was different. That girl didn’t have the sense to come in out of the rain, when it came to Jesus. She would rather sit, listening to him talk, than eat or sleep or do anything else. Quiet Mary. Starry-eyed Mary. Gentle Mary.
When supper was ready, Martha began serving, as usual. Jesus was at the table with Lazarus and the Twelve. Everyone was making small talk – talking about the weather, talking about their travels, talking about what they hoped would happen in Jerusalem. But nobody really wanted to talk much about what was really bothering them.
The problem was Lazarus. He was the “elephant in the room,” so to speak. Ever since Jesus raised him up from the dead, the crowds had just become too big, too crazy. There was no way that the authorities would not have noticed. It might have been okay if Jesus had stayed in the countryside, healing a few lonely lepers. But now he raised a man from the dead, right under the noses of the chief priests and Romans. Too many people saw it. Too many people were calling him “Messiah,” a king.
As the conversation continued, nobody noticed that Mary had left the table. But then she came back carrying a jar. Quiet Mary. Starry-eyed Mary. Gentle Mary. What was she up to? She knelt down in front of Jesus, and opened the jar. Suddenly, the whole house is filled with the fragrance of nard, a scent so sweet, so powerful, that just a drop or two is all anyone really needs to perfume themselves. She must have a pound of it in that jar.
And she’s pouring it… on Jesus’ feet??? Look at how she anoints him, rubbing his feet, and now taking down her hair, she wipes it off. It is an act of total love and devotion. It is an act of total extravagance and wastefulness. It is an act that’s totally unnecessary, like wearing diamonds on the soles of her shoes.*
That’s why Judas called her out on it. A jar of perfume…for his feet? That much nard must have cost a year’s wage. Why not sell it, and give the money to the poor? Besides, why waste it on his feet? The only time you anoint someone’s feet was when they die.
Judas was right, of course. It was an incredibly wasteful thing to do. It was a crazy thing to do. And it seemed to fly in the face of everything Jesus stood for – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, setting the captives free. Judas was only saying what everyone else was thinking. Couldn’t they have done something – anything – better with that money?
It’s a question all of us ask every day. How much do we keep for our necessary things, and how much can we afford to give away. Is it okay to spend a little bit for a vacation with the kids, or should we put it away for college. Does God want us to give more money to the church, or should we keep it for a rainy day?
This church certainly wrestles with the same question: Should we save up our limited resources to pay our future bills, our should we give more money to the poor? Is it okay to buy beautiful altar hangings and vestments, or should we save that money for outreach projects? Do we honor God more through our devotion and worship, or by doing good works for the poor? Which is the greater measure of discipleship?
“Leave her alone,” Jesus said. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. Leave her alone, this starry-eyed one. Leave her alone, this dreamy girl. This is how she shows her devotion. Leave us both alone, if just for a little while. Can’t we stop pushing? Can’t we stop running? Can’t we stop complaining and just enjoy the gifts God has given us?”
“Yes, yes, of course we should help the poor,” he continued. “Of course we could have used this money for them. But you’ll have lots of time to help the poor, after I’m gone. They will be with us forever. You’ll have lots of time to help them, plenty of time. Have at it! Just remember that the only reason any of you ever care for them is because of me; that’s what being my disciple is all about. The only reason anyone will ever feed the hungry, or clothe the naked, or heal the sick, or set free the imprisoned, is because of the love, the compassion, that comes from being my disciple. It is your devotion to me, your extravagant, abundant, wasteful selfless devotion to me, that is source of your concern for the poor.”
All the while, Mary continued sitting at his feet – rubbing them, anointing them, wiping them with her hair, without saying a word. Quiet Mary. Starry-eyed Mary. Gentle, loving, devoted, disciple Mary.
Some say that she was just so filled with joy and gratitude when Jesus raised her brother, that she couldn’t help herself – she just had to do something that showed him how she felt, and nothing too good for Jesus. She was so devoted that she could only give him everything she had.
But I think that it was because she saw something the others didn’t see. When Jesus raised her brother from the dead, she suddenly knew. She knew that if she waited until Jesus was in the tomb to anoint his body, she might never get the chance, because he wouldn’t be there.
He would have already been raised.
Thanks be to God.
* Song by Paul Simon