April 7, 2019

Series: April 2019

Category: Lent

Speaker: Rob McClellan

John 12:1-8

1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5"Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" 6(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.) 7Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.


          Take a moment and calculate how much you or your family earns in a day.  Then turn to your neighbor and share it.  Kidding.  Multiply your number by 300.  If you make minimum wage in California the number comes to $28,800, almost $29,000.  This is the value of what Mary poured out on Jesus’ feet.[1]  You can understand why the disciples may have gasped and as today’s story recounts, Judas protested.  Judas, as you may not know, was the treasurer of the bunch, so he is attuned to value, tapped in to the price of things.  While we know his intentions weren’t pure, he does ask the same question you or I might well ask, “Why was this perfume not sold…and the money given to the poor?” 

From the outset, we should clear up something about Jesus’ response:  “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (Jn. 4:8).  There is no denying Jesus’ deep concern for the poor.  It’s all over the gospels.  The fact he acknowledges that there will always be poor should be impetus to always provide care for them, not to dismiss them, certainly not in the name of Christ.

          Something else is going on here.  There is a clue hidden in plain sight.  Notice where this encounter between Mary and Jesus takes placed, in Lazarus’ home.  Mary, who is not Jesus’ mother and sometimes called Mary of Bethany, is Lazarus’s sister.  Earlier, Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead.  Don’t get lost in the metaphysics of medical miracles here.  Put yourself firmly in the story, in Mary’s place.  That kind of gratitude doesn’t have a budget. 

I still remember the first time I saw all those grand cathedrals in Europe when I studied abroad in college.  I thought, what a waste to build such structures in the Middle Ages, when there was so much poverty.  What a waste!  You’ll notice we don’t build our churches that way anymore.  Over time I started to realize in a world where life was short, plagued by disease, often ugly and painful, where poverty was rampant, something so exquisitely beautiful might have meant something really important.  There are clear landmarks to the way the people of these communities valued these spaces.  When the Dom in Cologne, Germany, the closest of these grand buildings to where I studied, was bombed in World War II, citizens came out and propped up the corner with bricks lest it fall down.  This is a church with spires so tall they reach into the clouds and was built over 600 years.  It’s hard for us to get around, because our economic system is so vastly different, but for them Cathedrals were a mirror of heaven.  We can raise understandable objections, but they, like Mary’s wasteful outpouring, knew the extravagance required to match in return what has been given.  It was a different understanding of value, a bold display of the lengths to which people would go to honor Christ.

          Just like Mary.  Think of all that perfume, a pound’s worth.  How must that have smelled?  As my friend and colleague, Sarah Wiles, a pastor in Tacoma imagines it, “It filled the house.  Surely the other women in the kitchen smelled it.  Everyone walking by must have smelled it.  Is it too much to imagine that the temple authorities two miles away might have caught a whiff?  Or Pilate in his palace?  Did people all over the city smell a trace of it and wonder?”  Let them smell it, she must have thought.  This isn’t a private act of piety, it’s an open act, one of defiance, a political act dare I say making it clear who deserved adorning and anointing and whose power was not worth honoring.  As New Testament Scholar Matt Skinner takes it from a theological perspective, writing, “The sweet smell of Mary’s perfume counters the stench of Lazarus’s tomb (11:39).  Life and death, wholeness and corruption remain contrasted throughout both scenes.”[2]  Mary is acknowledging the gravity of the tomb while bearing witness to the power of the one who will roll away the stone forever and in every moment.

Mary recognizes that nothing has more value than what is before her.  Nothing else matters without this.  On one level we know this.  People tell me all the time how much they want their faith to matter and then clearly orient their life around an entirely different set of priorities.  Even our efforts to do good we can miss the point.  We approach Christ with a clipboard, ready to get to work, without first attending to his feet or better yet paying enough attention to the ground to recognize that he’s down there, on bended knee, attending to ours.  The gift of the Reformed tradition is to remind us that we are not what we do.  We do what we do out of recognition of who we are and gratitude for what we’ve been given.

Do you know what “Christ” means?  It means anointed, or more literally, “rubbed” or “smeared.”  Anointing was common in the ancient world.  Kings were anointed with oil at their coronation.  When we call Jesus “Christ,” we are saying he has been smeared with the stuff of God.  Perhaps you know of someone who has been “touched” with something of this stuff, someone in your life or someone in the public world who seems to carry this wisdom or way from beyond.  In wiping his feet with her hair, Mary is not just saving a towel, she’s ensuring some of Christ, some of the anointing, will rub back off on her.  It’s not such a silly notion.  From at least one theological angle, isn’t the point of Jesus to make God approachable? 

What, then, keeps us away?  Do we think we’re not good enough?  Do we think we don’t believe enough?  Are we afraid we might be rejected?  Are we afraid we might be accepted, which requires its own vulnerability?  Are we afraid of what might be asked of us?  Mary doesn’t seem concerned with any of that or at least not enough to stop her from turning her penny jar into a perfume jug and dumping it all out.  Maybe she had nowhere else to turn or maybe, again, she had just figured out what she had in front of her.

Have we?  We live in a world where it is ever-easier to drift into isolation or cynicism, to hopelessness or powerlessness—think of that, we, of all people on earth, feeling powerless…and yet I hear it all the time.  Mary recognizes the source of true strength is right before her.  It’s almost as if she pours out the expensive perfume just to prove her point.  Would we?

Let’s go back to the beginning.  This sanctuary seats 306, and most weeks between the two services we fill it.  If everyone poured out what Mary did, do you know that would come out to?  $8,640,000, almost $9 million-given with no expectation of return, no return on investment, no services rendered, just out of reverence, just out of recognition of what’s right in front of us.  If Jesus walked in, would we do it?

In the end, wouldn’t you know that Mary of Bethany seems to have rubbed off on Jesus too.  What does he say on that fateful night?  You know the words:  “On the night that he was betrayed…” What are the words?  “…he took bread and blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them saying, “This is my body, which is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same manner after they had eaten, he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you for forgiveness…”  Do this.  Do that.  At what we now celebrate as communion, Jesus pours out his everything in an act of total devotion, out of love for the world. 

So, let’s review:  A pound of perfume - $29,000.  A room full of minimum wages - $9 million.  The one who will raise your sibling from the dead in the next life or in this one - because I can’t resist…Well, that’s priceless.  Amen.