Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 3 2022
This story from John’s Gospel comes out of the blue for us today, after many weeks of walking through the Gospel of Luke. It might be helpful to know the Scriptural context of this extract: had we been following John, we would have just read the stunning story of the raising of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. Between that story and today’s, and as a direct result of Jesus demonstrating his ability to raise the dead, the plot to have Jesus killed starts to take shape, as the religious authorities realize what a threat he is to their power.
Jesus has been in hiding for his own safety, but he has now decided to come to Jerusalem, and Bethany is his last stop. It’s the night before he will enter Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday and initiate the terrible events of Holy Week. So the dramatic tension is high, as we observe this intimate dinner party among dear friends. Mary has good reason for both a deep gratitude to Jesus for restoring her brother, and a strong sense that his death is not far off. This may be her only chance to express her love for Jesus.
You can see why the lectionary committee has placed this story on the Sunday before Holy Week: the new thing that Isaiah prophesies is about to unfold; the mighty power of God is about to be revealed in all its contradictory and subversive glory.
This story is rich in detail. We know this family of siblings. We know, from Luke’s Gospel, that the two sisters are very different: Martha bustles about in the kitchen while Mary is the contemplative, sitting at Jesus’ feet, creating a bit of a scandal in a culture where women were expected to stay in the background. We know from the previous chapter of John that they have been through a traumatic experience: when Lazarus got sick and died before Jesus could get there; when Martha met Jesus at the door with an agonized accusation – why weren’t you here for him? followed by an astonishing confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah; when Mary and Jesus wept together at the tomb; and when Jesus called Lazarus forth from the grave, freeing him from the power of death.
So we can imagine the scene. Of course Martha is in the kitchen again and Mary is once again the one who scandalizes with her behavior. She takes the pot of precious nard, breaks the seal, and slathers it over Jesus’ feet, in a foreshadowing of the moment when he will wash the feet of his friends. It is the action of a priest anointing a king. She actually lets her hair down – shocking! – and caresses his feet with it, a breathtakingly intimate gesture. We can imagine the conversation stopping abruptly as the guests witnessed this extraordinary behavior, as they breathed in the overpowering perfume, a scent everyone would associate with death and burial.
There are certain scents that carry memories for each of us. A combination of beer and cigarette smoke makes me think of my father. Star lilies remind me of the birth of my first son. Freesias take me back to my wedding day.
Nard was an extremely expensive substance, so Mary’s was a highly extravagant act. When is extravagance justified? As a gesture of reconciliation perhaps, as an element of worship? We wear extravagant and expensive vestments to lead our liturgies, we use ornate silver dishes and candelabra, and we gather every week in an expensive and oversized space. You could very well say that we could do all this without ornament in a storefront and give the money to the poor. But we do it because we think God is worthy of the effort and expense. In a similar vein, in some cultures Christians wear their very best clothes to worship every Sunday, as a way to honor God.
Our God is all about abundance, and we see that in the Gospels: 5,000 fed! 180 gallons of good wine! 153 big fish! How are we to respond to God’s incredible generosity, other than by being generous ourselves?
Sometimes a gift feels like too much, and it can change a relationship as we ponder the motivation. We live in a transactional culture and economy – what does the giver expect to get in return for this gift? A true gift comes without strings attached, no expectations or limitations. Donating blood is the purest kind of gift: you don’t know who will receive it and they will never know it came from you. Similarly, when we pray for people we don’t know, it is pure gift with no expectation of return. This is the kind of gift we experience in the voluntary suffering and death of Jesus: he knew that his gift would be disregarded ridiculed, and undervalued by many, many people, but he did it anyway. He did it for each of us whether we appreciate it or not.
Judas complains, “This could have been sold and the money could have been given to the poor.” If we take Judas’ words at face value we see a theology of scarcity at work here: there is only so much wealth to go round, and if we “waste” this resource people will suffer. It’s a theology that is hard to shake in a world of budgets and seemingly finite resources.
But what if the extravagant generosity of Mary were to influence others to be generous? What if her gesture led to the other dinner party guests digging into their pockets and taking up a collection of 200 denarii to help the poor, inspired by what they have witnessed? This is the essence of our Christian faith: we see Jesus pour himself out, empty himself of divine power, submit to a horrific death for our sake, and his sacrifice inspires us to give of our own lives, use our own power to change the world and bring the Kingdom of God a little bit closer to full bloom.
John’s parenthetical comment about Judas forces us to interpret the comment differently: we cannot take it at face value, even if we were able to disregard what we know Judas is about to do. And that takes us down a whole different path. How many times do we say things but mean something different: spin and context can turn an interpretation on its head. Judas sounds compassionate in his comment but then the parenthesis gives him away.
How often do we have our own hidden parenthetical motives: offering sympathy in a way that invites sympathy for us; or the habit on social media known as virtue signalling, where we say something apparently humble that conveys how wonderful and generous and accomplished we think we are. Consider President Putin saying that his invasion of Ukraine is for the protection of the Ukrainian people from Nazism; or the abusive parent who beats the child “for their own good” but really in order to bolster the parent’s own fragile sense of power. It’s unusual to see such an editorial comment in the Gospels.
Jesus responds to Judas with a quote from the Torah: “You always have the poor with you.” It comes from Deuteronomy, and continues, “Therefore I command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” That’s where the minds of his listeners would have gone, which would fit with what Judas said; but Jesus takes it in another direction altogether. “You do not always have me.” Jesus, God’s word incarnate, puts himself in the place of the God’s word the commandment, a reminder of his divine identity; and with these words he tells us that he knows where this drama is going. And so we are left in the tension that will continue to mount through the next two weeks until the day of the Passover comes, when God’s own son will be poured out as a precious and extravagant sacrifice for the salvation of the world.