St. John's, Centreville
April 7, 2019
5 Lent C
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We are now in the fifth week of Lent and Jesus is beginning his final journey to Jerusalem. Passover is approaching and he is joining with fellow pilgrims to observe the event. Jesus stops in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, to visit his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. They have a nice dinner together, along with some other people, including Judas. We can imagine a delicious dinner prepared by Martha, perhaps accompanied by some fine wine, good conversation, laughter, the kind of atmosphere that happens when good friends get together.
Then Mary takes a pound of costly perfume, made of pure nard, which is oil extracted from a balsam tree, anoints Jesus' feet with it and dries his feet with her hair. The whole house is filled with the beautiful fragrance.
But Judas instantly objects to what Mary has done. This expensive perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus rebukes Judas and marvels at what a lovely thing Mary has done. The poor will always be with us, Jesus says, but he will not. He knows the end is coming soon, but Mary's act of gratitude and love has touched Jesus deeply. It's as if she has anointed him for his burial. In just a few days, Jesus will be washing the feet of his disciples, hours before his arrest and death.
Why did Mary do this? Why did she use her costly perfume to anoint Jesus' feet? Was the perfume given to her as a gift or did she save her money for years to buy it? Whatever the case, Mary gives it away in an act of extravagant generosity, maybe because she knew what lay ahead for Jesus, maybe because she and Martha are so grateful to Jesus for raising their brother Lazarus from the dead. Jesus gave them back their beloved brother. How do you thank someone for that?
What Mary did was also an act of worship, of honoring Jesus and giving the most treasured thing she had. She gave it to Jesus freely, without wanting to save it for herself. It was a selfless act. And Jesus saw that. He saw her generosity and rebuked those who criticized her. Anointing Jesus' feet foreshadows Jesus washing the disciples' feet at the Last Supper as an example of servant ministry.
What Mary is reflecting by her generous gift is the abundant generosity of God. God gives us more than we deserve, more than we ask for. How could Mary not give as generously to Jesus when she had the opportunity?
Although Judas has been with Jesus for three years, he still does not understand who Jesus is. Maybe he thinks Jesus has gone too far. He doesn't get it. But Mary gets it. She knows who Jesus is, that he is the Messiah. She knows what she is doing and who she is doing it for. It is an extravagant act of devotion.
Judas' argument that the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor might have had a little more credence if it were not for the rumor that Judas, as the group's treasurer, was taking the money that was intended for the poor and putting it in his own pocket.
Throughout the history of the church, there has always been discussion and conflict about how much to spend on the church and its buildings, and how much to give away to those in need. We always have opportunities to give to the poor. They will always be with us, Jesus says, maybe because he knows the inherent greed in people who want to put personal or corporate profit before those in need, so the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
What church that is serious about outreach and discipleship does not struggle with the tension between money spent in beautiful acts of worship and money spent on behalf of the poor? Some have criticized the building of the National Cathedral at great expense, when that money could have gone to help those in need. But I know that whenever I go into the National Cathedral, that the beauty and magnificence of the place takes my breath away and I am filled with the presence of God. Historic churches like St. John's need a lot of repairs which cost money, but think of all who have come closer to God in this intimate space over the last 160 years, and all who will continue to find God in this place.
I think Jesus was saying that worship comes first. Mary was, in her own way, worshipping Jesus when she anointed his feet. It is out of worship and love of God that we then minister to those in need. When we worship God first, ministering to others becomes second nature. It is living out our faith. It's how we act out our faith and our love of God.
It is interesting to note that this story is different in the other gospels. In Mark and Matthew, the story takes place in the home of Simon the leper, not Lazarus, Mary and Martha. In Mark and Matthew, the woman who does the anointing is not named. In Luke, it is Mary who was a sinner, perhaps a prostitute. She anoints his head, like one would anoint a king, rather than his feet from one who is a servant and is preparing him beforehand for his burial. In Matthew and Mark, it is the disciples who object to wasting the perfume, not Judas. John's gospel portrays Judas as moving from light to darkness as he is coming close to his betrayal of Jesus.
Mary understands who Jesus is and she is with him until the end, unlike the disciples. She may have been one of the women who sat at the foot of the cross as Jesus was crucified. She anoints his feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair. She is filled with gratitude for Jesus and for what he has done for her family. Her generosity is abundant as God's generosity is abundant.
How can we thank God for all that God has given to us? Thank you doesn't quite seem to be enough when we consider that God has given us our very lives, everything we have and everything we are. How do we thank God for God's abundance? By recognizing what God has given us, by seeing God's hand at work in the world around us, being surrounded by the love of others in our lives.
If we could follow Mary's example and live with an "attitude of gratitude", wouldn't our lives and the lives of those around us be better? We could then give with gratitude, and not hold onto our money and possessions so tightly. We could open ourselves up to receive God's love and then pass that along to others. When we are grateful, life is fuller. When we are grateful for what we have, we are better able to give to others with a grateful heart. When we are grateful, we can become more loving and follow the ways of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.