When we finally perceive what the Triune God is doing in Christ Jesus, God’s Son, and what the cross means to God and to love and to life, we will respond as Mary did, with extravagant, boundless worship and offering of all we have in love.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, year C
texts: John 12:1-8; Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
What did Mary do that was so shocking?
The perfume cost a huge amount, nearly a year’s wages. But it was hers to give.
It was an intimate, emotionally intense gesture, making others uncomfortable. But Mary apparently was that way.
So why criticize her? John, who often paints Judas badly, says only he complained, and since he was a thief, John says, we can ignore his pretended compassion. But Mark, writing earliest, said “others” there were angry, and called it a waste. Matthew clarifies the others as “the disciples.” She’s surrounded by friends upset at her.
But everyone there loved Jesus. They saw him at least as Master and they cared for him. How could they complain – especially out loud – that Mary honored him in this intimate, extravagant way?
Isaiah may help answer that. God says through the prophet, “I am about to do a new thing; do you not perceive it?” That new thing is that the Triune God faces suffering and death at human hands to bring about this new creation.
Mary’s different because she perceives this. This dinner party is in Holy Week, and only Mary seems to see clearly. God’s doing this new thing in Jesus’ coming death, and she responds.
And if we don’t share Mary’s outpouring of love and extravagance toward God for what God is doing at the cross, maybe we don’t perceive God’s new thing any more than the others.
Oddly, even at this dinner (to say nothing of us) there should have been clarity about Jesus.
Peter had already confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God. Martha confessed the same thing only days before this meal. They knew who Jesus was. Why didn’t all honor him?
The disciples also knew that coming south to raise Lazarus was a risk. They argued against it, knowing the leaders wanted Jesus dead. Now, a couple weeks later, it’s hard to believe they didn’t sense the tension in the city, and in Jesus. He walked toward Good Friday with a great deal of pain and sadness they ought to have felt.
It’s likely most of them couldn’t admit what was coming. Whenever Jesus told them he was going to be killed, they were uncomfortable, sometimes angry. Peter was harshly rebuked when he told Jesus a proper Christ doesn’t get himself killed. They were clear who he was. They weren’t ready for what he felt he had to do.
Whatever their problem, Jesus deeply appreciates Mary’s gift.
He says, in effect, “I’ve been telling you that I will die for a long time, and now I’m facing death and in pain, and Mary gets it. Leave her alone.”
Mary feels Christ’s pain and responds to God’s lavish love with all she has, this extravagant, foolish gift. She risks ridicule, and gets it. She’s utterly vulnerable before her Lord, and risks he won’t want it. Days before he will himself kneel at the feet of all these disciples and wash their feet, Mary gets it: she loves her Lord, and will serve him, take the weight of his pain if she can.
And Jesus loves her for it. Imagine the burden of giving yourself to so many, being constantly poured out for people you love, and knowing you’ll die for that. To have this woman understand, and seek to ease his pain, must have meant the world to him.
But weren’t the disciples right? Lots of people could have been helped by that money.
In answer, Jesus says something that still shocks people: “You’ll always have the poor with you; you won’t always have me.” But if we think he’s indifferent to the poor, we’re still not perceiving God’s new thing.
All along Jesus has said the will of the Triune God is that we love God with all we are and have – our heart, soul, mind, strength – and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s the center of his teaching.
Here Jesus says, thank you, Mary, for loving me, your Lord and God, with all you have, giving me this extravagant gift, focusing on me.
Nothing else changes. There will always be neighbors, poor people. Of course we’re to love them, care for them, as Christ.
But apparently it’s good for God to be loved, too. It’s good for us to love God with all we have. To offer extravagant beauty and praise, like Mary. The others let their proper concern for the poor distract them from facing the deeper truth about what God is doing, and what that means for God.
We might be the same.
We have a hard time facing what it means that God’s new thing results from God facing death.
When we think of the cross, we most often separate Jesus from the Trinity, we see him at the cross alone. But if he is the Son of God, then – and this is mystery beyond our pay grade and mental capacity and imagination – then Father, Son, and Spirit are bound up in the cross.
Somehow, the Triune God is making a new thing by allowing humanity to execute the Incarnate One, who is one with the Father, and whose Spirit renews the earth.
We’re not very far from Peter and the others in struggling with how this can be God’s answer, to lose to us, to kneel down as a servant but also as a sacrifice to our self-centeredness and arrogance and need to be in control.
But this is the new thing God invites us to perceive: this is the right path for God because it’s the only way love is preserved. This is how God can love us and bring us into the life we were meant to live. Because if this is God’s way to a new thing, then this is our way, too.
Mary shows us God’s new thing comes with that invitation.
In her vulnerable offering of herself, her opening of herself to humiliation, her willingness to give the most expensive thing she had ever had, Mary showed she saw this deep truth: the Triune God’s willingness to die for the love of the world is always an invitation to us to follow.
To offer ourselves extravagantly to our friends, our loved ones, our colleagues, to the world, and most important, to our God. To see, as Paul sees, that everything we hope to gain and accumulate and protect, all these things are rubbish, trash, compared to knowing Christ Jesus and sharing in his suffering.
We might resist this more than anything. We like to protect our selves, our egos, our boundaries, our lives. Following an extravagantly risky God who invites us to risk extravagantly sounds nice, but in practice, it’s hard.
It’s safer to argue about whether Mary could have found a better use for her giving. Safer than asking what extravagance we might be led to give of ourselves to others, or to our God who loves us.
It’s OK to live in this tension.
The reality of God’s new thing is hard to perceive. It takes time. Maybe it even did for Mary.
But see her, and ask: is the Spirit drawing us there? Can we name our reluctance, our anger, our need to distract ourselves from the implications of following Christ Jesus on his path? If so, we’ll see more clearly.
Perceiving our own barriers means with the help of the Holy Spirit we’ll be able to get them down. Then we’ll not only perceive more clearly this new thing God is doing in Christ, we’ll see how it’s happening in us.
And Christ’s road will seem less frightening. Because we will see where it is headed, to resurrection life in Christ which begins even now. And because we will see more clearly our Lord and God who fills us and keeps us on the road.
And our lives and love for such a God will begin to pour out extravagantly, ridiculously, because we’re starting to see like Mary.
In the name of Jesus. Amen