What would you spend a year’s wages on? A house deposit? A fancy car? A university education? How about some fabulously expensive perfume for a man about to die? In tonight’s reading, that’s exactly what Mary does. Jesus is visiting Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, whom he had recently raised from the dead. While the men are reclining at the table, Mary brings in an eye-wateringly expensive jar of perfume and uses it to anoint Jesus. And then, in the gospel according to John, she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.
The disciples are shocked—we know this from the other gospels—but in John’s account only Judas speaks out. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” he asks. For the cost of the perfume was three hundred times a day’s wage: in Australia today, about $50,000.
The gospel writer goes on to explain that Judas said this because he was a thief: he wanted the money so he could steal more from the common purse. But I reckon Judas gets a bum rap here. He’s just asking the question that the other disciples ask in Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts; and he’s asking the question that most of us would ask now. Fifty grand. That would go a long way in a homeless shelter, or with a family of asylum seekers. It would feed the hungry, heal the sick, educate the young. How on earth could it be okay for someone to spend so much on a single symbolic act?
I don’t think we can come close to understanding unless we take a step back. In the previous chapter, we are told that Lazarus was ill. Word was sent to Jesus, but although he loved the family dearly, he stayed where he was for a few days more. In his absence, Lazarus died. For Mary and Martha, this meant absolute disaster. Without their brother, without husbands, they had no way to live—no income, no access to the workforce, no protection, nothing.
When Jesus finally travelled to Bethany, he was met by Martha, Mary’s sister. She said to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They talked and then Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who put their faith in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and puts their faith in me will never die. Do you put your faith in me?” Martha, who had nursed her brother on his sickbed and had watched him die and her future die with him, looked at Jesus and said, “Yes, Lord, I trust you.” And then Jesus called Lazarus out of death, and into new life.
In tonight’s story, Jesus is back in Bethany where Lazarus is hosting a dinner on Jesus’ behalf. And I’m not sure about you, but if my husband or main source of support had died, and if a friend had turned up a few days later, walked with me to the local funeral parlour, and brought him home alive and well, able to sit at table and host a feast; and if that also meant that I wouldn’t be forced into prostitution as the only way to survive—well, I’d be pretty damn grateful! In fact, I can’t think of what I wouldn’t offer in thanksgiving. A car, a house, a bottle of $50,000 perfume wouldn’t begin to express my gratitude at having his life back, and with it, my own. Mary’s extravagance makes perfect sense to me.
But the anointing at Bethany is not just a story about something that happened to other people long ago. It is also a story for us, a story about the effect that following Jesus can have on our lives here and now. Yet for many of us who have grown up in the church, it can be difficult to see how following Jesus gives us life, let alone the sort of life that leads to the gratitude we see in Mary. When was the last time you were so grateful that you poured a year’s wages into the body of Christ, whether into the church, or into blankets or bread? Or even a month’s? Mary’s level of gratitude is indeed rare.
More easily, I think, we can recognise ourselves in Judas. Like him, we are followers of Jesus. We read the Scriptures; we listen to his teachings; we know that Jesus cares about the poor and that his followers care about the poor, also. And we also know that it is outrageous to squander so much money on a single extravagance. We know that the money could have been put to much more sensible uses, which would still have served Jesus but in much better ways.
Like Judas, we also see that Mary’s act was not only extravagant: it was shockingly sensual. If I knelt down after the service and washed some bloke’s feet with my hair, I’d be hauled before the professional standards board. So in Judas’s complaint I also hear the fear of Eros, the fear of sensuality and sex which pervades the church. Mary’s act is so intimate, so utterly outrageous, that Judas cannot even name his concern, let alone criticise it. Instead, he focusses on the money.
Poor Judas. He knows all about Jesus: and he knows that followers of Jesus care for the poor. And yet, after all this time, he still doesn’t really know Jesus. And it is in this lack of knowing that his death lies. Judas may be eating and drinking, walking and talking, even spouting Scripture—but he is dead on his feet.
In the letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” The word translated here as ‘know’ can be a trap for us, because we almost always think ‘knowing’ is about information. Thus if we have memorised our Bible stories and listened to sermons and learned the right theology, we think we know Jesus Christ.
But there are other ways of knowing. Both in Hebrew and English, ‘knowing’ can refer to sexual intimacy: to a form of communion that is beyond words; and the word can also be translated as ‘experience’. So in his letter to the Philippians, Paul is saying that he longs for intimate communion with Christ. He’s not saying that he needs to learn the right things. He already has the right knowledge: he’s a perfect Pharisee who had memorised the law and carried it out.
Instead, Paul wants more. He wants to experience Christ, so that he might also experience the resurrection from the dead. Paul is not seeking eternal life here, some magical insurance policy that means he will never die. Instead, he is seeking a radical coming alive, an awakening from the sleepwalking existence that is normal life: the existence which can speak good theology and do the right thing, yet never experience or befriend God, let alone fall in love with God and with all that God loves in this world. Awakening out of this existence into full and abundant life and love: this is what Paul longs for.
And it is this form of knowing and coming alive that Mary displays. She’s not speaking the right words; she’s not committing to her daily quiet time; she’s not engaged in the correct expressions of religious observance, and her outrageous action—kneeling on the floor, letting her hair down in public, touching the feet of her guest—make it clear she doesn’t think much of polite society. But she loves Jesus, and she knows him right down to his toenails, which she is stroking with her hair. She has already experienced him as the source of abundant life, and she is so grateful that she pours out everything into him: her costly perfume, her physical caresses, her passion.
She can afford to, because in God’s economy, the economy that Mary already knows and already lives in, there is always more than enough. The sower doesn’t just sprinkle a few seeds on the most fertile soil; instead, he throws handfuls of seed everywhere, even among the weeds and on the stony path. The teacher doesn’t send the crowd away to buy food; instead, he organises an impromptu feast for thousands, and feeds the birds with the leftovers. In this economy, even the dead are brought back to life, and sit in communion at the table.
And it’s because of this abundance, this never-ending supply of God’s extravagant and eternal generosity, that we are raised out of death and into God’s life: a life of gratitude, of loving, of belonging, of participating in God’s passionate concern for the world.
Every week we gather here to be reminded of this abundance, and to live out this experiential way of knowing. We gather around Word and Table, for it is here that we are formed into the living body of Christ. We break bread and share wine to know and be fed by the one who gives life to the world; and, when we experience this life fully and deeply and intimately, we will show the same extravagant love that Mary shows to Jesus.
In tonight’s gospel reading, Mary gives up a fortune and her dignity. In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul writes that, for the sake of Christ, he has gladly lost everything. In a classic hymn, Isaac Watts declares that: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Would you offer up the whole realm of nature? Would you spend a year’s wages? Would you kneel on the floor and wash the cracked and smelly feet of Jesus? How do you express your gratitude to the source of all life, all love, all integrity, all hope? What will you now give? Ω
Absolution: Through Christ, God has lavishly poured out grace upon grace, treating the world with a holy extravagance. So let your lives be fragrant with forgiveness as you turn to God and know: Your sins are forgiven. Thanks be to God.
Blessing: Go now, heady from the Table, redolent with the Word. And may the One who has lavishly poured out grace upon grace fill your homes and your lives with the fragrance of love, that you might reveal the glory and serve God’s beloved with reckless extravagance. For the service of worship never ends; it must be lived. We go in peace to love and serve our God, In the name of Christ, Amen.
Prayers and a reflection on John 12:1-8 and Philippians 3:4b-14 given to Sanctuary, 7 April 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Second prayer borrows lines from a prayer posted on the website of the Office of Theology, Presbyterian Church USA. http://www.pcusa.org/. Image credit: Wayne Forte, found at https://thegospelside.com/2014/04/17/real-worship-a-summons-to-the-feet-of-jesus/.
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