The 5th Sunday in Lent
April 3, 2022
Good morning! Good morning to all of you in this room with me, and all of you in the Zoom room! How good it is that we are all together! Who among us could have predicted this, two years ago? “Thus says the Holy One,” according to Isaiah, “Forget the events of past, ignore the things of long ago! Look, I am doing something new!”
We’re coming up on the Passover holiday. Jews from all over Palestine are traveling to Jerusalem because that’s where you go, to the holy city to purify yourself for the holiest time of the year. Jesus, too, is on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples, even though they all know that he’s in serious danger: the people in power, the religious leaders, feel threatened by him.
Six days before Passover, Jesus and the disciples arrive in Bethany, the last stop before Jerusalem. There’s a big dinner party for everyone at the home of Jesus’ close friends, the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus. Martha serves, of course, she’s always the one doing the work. Lazarus is sitting at the table; he’s a guy, after all. Mary comes into the room carrying a box containing very a expensive ointment, “pure nard,” and proceeds to pour it all out onto Jesus’ feet.
The source of this ointment, or essential oil, is spikenard, and it grows only in the Himalaya mountains of India and Nepal – it’s not related to the American spikenard plant. The amount is a Roman pound, equivalent to about 11½ ounces, just a bit smaller and lighter than a can of soda. It is worth 300 denarii, about a year’s income, as one denarius was the wage for a day’s labor. So, in terms of the average annual income of a farm worker in the U.S. now, Mary poured about $30,000 worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet. And then, not having a towel handy, she wiped up the mess with her long hair. Now Jesus and Mary are covered with the earthy, spicy scent, which is spreading throughout the house.
In the Hebrew scriptures, spikenard was used as an incense offering in the Jerusalem Temple. Possibly it was also one of the perfumes and oils used in preparing a body for burial.
As I read this story I think, Mary is doing something that God might do. There are so many stories of God’s extravagance: the Parable of the Sower, where God is indiscriminately scattering seed everywhere, on rocks and thorns and where the birds can eat it. The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, where the ones who work only an hour get paid for the whole day. In the reading today from Isaiah, God gives water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, for God’s creatures to drink.
Another parable of extravagance is The Prodigal Son, which we heard last week. The father gives his wayward son his entire inheritance, just because the boy asks for it. Then, when he returns home after wasting his entire inheritance, the father greets him with a lavish feast in his honor. Last week Deborah, in her sermon and her reflection for Inward/Outward, examined the challenge to her of such recklessly unconditional love. As she wrote in Inward/Outward, “If responsibility is really the ability to respond to whatever life offers, my dutiful joylessness is a prison that keeps me from responding to the gifts that are freely given to me in every moment.”
As we arrive in Bethany now, we already know Mary and Martha. In an earlier story, Mary is the one who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened and absorbed his Wisdom, while Martha was busy with the work of getting dinner on the table. Jesus said that Mary had made the better choice that day. Yet, when their brother, Lazarus, was dead and buried four days ago, it was Martha who went out to meet Jesus as he approached their house, and she said to him, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life . . . and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha answered, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Clear-headed Martha made her profession of faith, while Mary, leading with her heart, remained at home, grieving the loss of her brother.
Both Mary and Martha know Jesus well, and love him. Now, they’re all having dinner together, including Lazarus, alive and well. But now, Jesus’ close friends and disciples all know he is heading into an extremely dangerous situation. Mary, leading as always with her heart, knows that the religious authorities will have him killed, and she, unlike the disciples, is not in denial about this. So she takes this last opportunity to pour out her love as extravagantly as she can, to pour out all of her precious ointment, worth a year’s income, to spend it all, wastefully, on her Beloved’s feet and the floor.
We all have both Martha and Mary within us. In me, clear-headed Martha is dominant and she grows stronger as I get older. It’s been quite a long time since I lavished wasteful love on anyone, and that period of my youth was also when I committed my most dramatic sins, so far . . . what I did for love, you could say. Following my image of a false god.
Kate Bowler, an associate professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School and a New York Times bestselling author, says in her latest book, titled Good Enough,1 that we are not unaware of our false pursuits. Bowler writes, “I work predominantly with pastors, and I have yet to hear any good sermons that come out strongly in favor of any of the exciting sins.” (p. 23) Those would be our false gods.
“My sense,” she continues, “is that we are more likely to be Judas than Peter. Peter denies God. Judas betrays him.” (p. 23)
Judas is right, you know. How many meals, how much clean water, how many blankets, how much job training could a year’s worth of my income provide for people living in poverty?
Bowler says, “We are much more likely . . . not to have a false image of a false God, but a false image of the true God.” (p. 24)
All of my careful, clear-headed practice of daily disciplines to strengthen my body, mind, and spirit; all the attention I give to caring for needy family members; all my efforts to contribute to the life of this faith community and to a more just and peaceful world – could all of this really be, as Bowler puts it, substituting “a safer, lesser goal for the tough and exciting work [I] really ought to be doing”? (p. 25)
Of course, Mary’s act of extravagant love does not give us permission to ignore the needs around us and wantonly spend our gifts. That’s not what Jesus means when he says, “You have poor people with you always.” Yes, the work is always calling me. But if I am not listening to the Holy Wisdom deep within me, then I’m following my own version of God, a version of faithfulness that is more comfortable because I create and control it. I probably won’t be committing any of the dramatic sins – murder! adultery! – but I will be committing idolatry, by following “a false image of the true God.”
I love how the songwriter Sydney Carter imagines the conversation between Mary and Judas in the hymn we sang this morning.2 Mary says, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll think of the poor; tomorrow, not today; for dearer than all of the poor in the world is my love who is going away.”
Then Jesus says to Mary, “Your love is so deep, today you may do as you will. Tomorrow, you say, I am going away, but my body I leave with you still.”
The costly perfume – given from the deepest joy that lies beyond all suffering. She gave her best, her most precious, beauty, sweetness, joy, from the deepest, most alive part of her heart, from the spark of the Holy One within her, she gave for the death and burial of her Beloved.
She gave like the parent or caregiver of a newborn child, giving love, food, comfort, every two hours round the clock, for weeks that seem to go on and on, costing sleep, costing sanity. She gave like the child or caregiver of a dying loved one, giving gentle hands, sips of water and Popsicles, soothing touch, comfort, keeping vigil round the clock for the beloved one who is going away.
She gave like one who is consumed by love – for a person, for a people, a cause, an animal, a garden, an ecosystem, any expression of the universal Christ that opens your deepest wellspring of love, so that you give extravagantly, wastefully, not counting the cost of giving to that which will, sooner or later, be gone.
We don’t have a story of the resurrected Christ appearing to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, but I like to think that these dear friends of Jesus were among those who saw the risen Lord, and knew, as they had experienced with Lazarus, that the Beloved is not gone, but transformed.
As the songwriter imagines Jesus’ words to Mary,
“The poor of the world are my body,” he said,
“to the end of the world they shall be.
The bread and the blankets you give to the poor
you will know you have given to me,” he said,
you’ll know you have given to me.”
- Bowler, Kate, and Jessica Richie, Good Enough: 40ish Devotionals for a Life of Imperfection. New York: Convergent Books, 2022.
- “Said Judas to Mary,” The New Century Hymnal, No. 210. Text by Sydney Carter, ©1964 Stainer & Bell Ltd. (Admin. by Hope Publishing Company).