God has done a completely new thing in the Son’s extravagant offering of his life for the sake of us and the world, and that abundant offering moves us to offer praise and thanks in extravagant abundance for the sake of God and the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, 5 Lent C; texts: John 12:1-8; Isaiah 43:16-21
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We sometimes have an awkward, if not outright negative reaction to extravagant gifts. There is often in our culture a sense that when we receive a gift that seems exorbitant, generous, costly, we are required to say, “Oh, you really shouldn’t have. This is too much, too much!” In fact, we sometimes can find ourselves thinking or saying that even for gifts that aren’t so much. A wise person I knew once said that it is as important to learn to receive well as it is to give well.
What’s interesting about this beautiful act of Mary of Bethany toward Jesus is that the response of the recipient is gracious and grateful: Jesus praises Mary for her generosity. It’s others in the room that offer their criticism, in this case, Judas. When Matthew and Mark tell this story, it’s “the disciples” who criticize, but John has a point to make about Judas, including his exclusive tidbit that Judas was a thief who stole from the shared purse used to feed and care for the poor.
It seems clear that Judas isn’t really concerned about the poor, but Jesus’ answer is often seen, incorrectly, as an instance of him not caring, either. Of course he’s really saying that his own impending death and subsequent absence from his disciples is cause for their attention now, while caring for the poor will always be their job, their mission, their concern.
It is, however, Mary’s gracious, astonishing action that dominates our attention today. It raises in us questions of our own response to the presence of the Lord, to the grace of God, and our place on the spectrum running from Judas’ disdain to Mary’s adoration. Even Judas’ concern for the poor invites us to ask how we distinguish between gifts to God that in their own right are worthy and gifts we might give to the poor in God’s name.
Since we can scarcely take our eyes off of Mary in this story, let’s look at her more fully.
When we look at her gift we need to see it through her eyes rather than through our sense of its foolishness or wastefulness.
We do note first, however, the shocking extravagance of this gift, the careless regard for cost that is exhibited in this action of great care. This perfume Mary takes up is worth about ten months’ wages of a daily laborer, the kind of people Mary knew well, the kind of people who spent time with Jesus. In fact, many of his disciples likely weren’t earning that kind of daily wage, and were in various stages of poverty.
But even a daily worker couldn’t conceive of having ten months of wages set aside in savings, let alone deciding to buy perfume with it. At that economic level, you eat what you earn, and are glad if what you take home in wages at the end of the day feeds you and your family. So Judas’ concern for the poor has two truths in it: they literally could have fed a lot of people, a lot of families, with that money; and everyone who lived on the edge financially who heard his complaint could be sure to at least share his shock at the cost.
But Mary takes this perfume that cost so much and dumps it out, pours it over Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. She throws it away, seemingly, and though John tells us that the house was filled with the glorious scent, still, we might easily fall onto Judas’ side of this conversation. It certainly makes Matthew’s and Mark’s assertions sensible, that “the disciples” complained, not just one. Mary seems careless about the value, careless about the waste, careless about the hungry people she must certainly know.
Caring or careless: that’s the key distinction here, isn’t it? Mary cares more for Jesus than for the cost of her gift. That’s the point of concern for those critical of her.
We need to note, however, that Mary’s generosity arises out of her gratefulness to Jesus and her sense of what is now happening. In the first place, this happens immediately after Jesus has raised Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, from the dead. In real time and in John’s Gospel, it is the event that precedes this dinner party for Jesus. We can almost see this party as part of the family’s gratitude for Jesus’ miracle of restored life. Mary’s overflowing generosity comes in part from this gratitude and love.
In the second place, this happens immediately before Holy Week. Six days before Passover, John says. Now, Jesus has been telling the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem and will be put to death by the leaders of the people. In the synoptic Gospels, the male disciples at least seem to act as if they’re not really listening to Jesus. In John’s Gospel, in the previous chapter, when Jesus announces he is going to Bethany to help his friend Lazarus, however, his disciples, including the men, try to dissuade him because his life is threatened. When Jesus persists, Thomas encourages himself and the others that they should all go and die with Jesus. So in John’s telling, even the men are a little aware.
But clearly Mary’s more deeply in tune with Jesus’ mood and the political and religious tensions of the day. She anoints Jesus for burial, he says. She perfumes his feet and the whole room to prepare him for what is to come.
Which leads to the third thing Mary understands: she understands her role as servant of Jesus. It is John who tells us that Jesus does this very same action for the disciples, though without perfume, on the night of his betrayal. He washes their feet, and calls them to do the same for each other. Mary anticipates that action by nearly a week, and washes Jesus’ feet with perfume and her hair, showing herself as the servant disciple Jesus wishes the others to become, the ideal disciple.
Mary’s insight and actions actually help us re-imagine what the LORD is saying through Isaiah today.
At one level, this beautiful text can be understood as a message promising the return of the exiles. In this section, the first part of Second Isaiah, the prophet who spoke comfort to the Israelites in Babylon, the LORD God of Israel once more claims what is always God’s name-tag identification for Israel. Since the Exodus, whenever the people of Israel needed to identify their God, or God needed to self-identify, it was always, “The One who brought us out of Egypt, out of slavery, into the land of promise,” or similar phrases and images.
So it’s no surprise to see the LORD say today, “I am the one who makes a way in the sea, who casts down chariots and armies.” Of course: that’s who God is. What is surprising is what’s next: God says, “Don’t remember that any more. Forget all that stuff.” This is the defining moment of salvation for Israel, the deliverance at the Red Sea and the entire Exodus. And now in exile, God says, “Yes, that was I. But forget about that.”
And that’s because God is about to do a new thing, a greater thing than the greatest thing. And the new thing is described as a way in the wilderness, water in the wilderness, to give the chosen people drink, to sustain them. Given its context, of course we can see this abundant grace of God, this promise, as referring to the return from exile. They will have a path made for them through the wilderness, they will go home.
But in light of the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God, Christians have seen that “new thing” as far greater than the return from exile. Death is reversed, the new reign of God has arrived, and the life in the Spirit is given.
At this point, on the verge of Holy Week, the fullness of this abundance is not yet known. But somehow, Mary gives a gift appropriate for such an abundant grace that is to come, such a new thing. Perhaps only such an extravagance could begin to approach an appropriate response for such love. In light of the cross and empty tomb, Mary’s generous foolishness seems a perfect choice.
And though she didn’t know fully what was to come, she did know that in this Master of hers life came to her brother and was restored to their family. The deaf heard, the blind saw, the lame walked. And her brother lived.
And she knows, even if she doesn’t yet understand, that somehow this Master, this Son of God, whom she loves, is facing death. So she gives him beyond the best. She pours out all her love in a gift that is beyond understanding, just as her Master is going to pour out his love in a way that is beyond her understanding.
What Mary gives us is a model and inspiration for our own extravagant response.
We of course know what is to come for her and the others, for Jesus. We know the marvelous end of this story and the beginning of the new story of God’s reign begun in Jesus. We know more than she does at this point that Jesus’ sacrifice of himself was truly a new thing, the new covenant Jeremiah foretells, a new thing where the God who can bring a people out of bondage and return a people out of exile offers himself for the sake of those people.
This cross to which Jesus is heading is his choice, his willing giving up of all divine right and power and authority. He does this, John says, to draw all people to himself. To redeem, not to judge. To save the world, not to condemn it. The LORD was right back in Isaiah, but only after Easter do we fully understand how utterly new this is. That the almighty God who made all things would set aside power in order to win us back with sacrificial love. To seek and to save the lost, Jesus says. To find us. To find all.
What Mary teaches us is the proper response when such a Lord is present, when such a Christ is with us: there is nothing we give that is too extravagant, too priceless. So when we worship, like Mary, we bring the best we can bring. We have a choir that rehearses hours on one piece of music that lasts three and a half minutes at our liturgy, a waste of time to an efficient world. But the gift of our best, our all, to the God whose love transforms us.
We take time in liturgy weekly to be with God, praise God, lament to God, be fed by God, to gather in God’s presence and give our best. There are some who would see this as a waste of time, too. But we have found that the love of the Triune God is so profoundly deep we are included in that love, broken and sinful that we are. We have nothing better to do than be here to worship such a God.
We “waste” money on expensive candles and use them up in our worship, people among us “waste” a lot of time and care to bake bread which will be gone in ten minutes of Eucharist, because this is the best we can offer. There would probably be cheaper options, but we don’t choose them.
And for your information, Judas, we also give of what we have to help others, feed others, love others because of this transformative love we have received. Perhaps we could learn from Mary to be more extravagant with this, more wildly giving, that is true. But the poor we always have with us, and we will care for them because we are loved by God with a death-defeating love.
And speaking of Judas, we also know this mystery and marvel: With such a new thing that God has done, such a new thing that includes even we who are broken and sinful, perhaps there is even room for Judas in it. There was for Peter. If Jesus truly came to seek and to save the lost, who is more lost in this story than Judas? Cannot the One who is to be lifted up and draw all people to himself also bring Judas into his cruciform embrace?
We know it is so. And that gives us more reason for abundant response like Mary’s, abundant joy, abundant grace to share with all who fear they have no place in God’s gracious abundance.
Perhaps what Mary invites us most today is to quit looking at her and start following her example.
The abundant love of God in a world that claims there is a scarcity of love, the overwhelming outpouring of the grace of God in a world that keeps score of wrongs and judges others, this is the reality that our Lord Christ has made known in his death and resurrection. We are invited by Mary’s example to respond with the same abandon, the same joy, in worshipping the One who has done a new thing and is making all things new, and so participate in that making, that gracing of this world, this new creation.
In the name of Jesus. Amen