True knowledge of God calls for a wholehearted response. (Listen.)
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 story, that’s exactly what Mary does.
Jesus is visiting Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, whom he had recently raised out of death. 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.
Other accounts tell us that the disciples are shocked; but here, only Judas speaks out. “Why wasn’t this perfume 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 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, plant a small forest. 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. In that time and place, without a brother and without husbands, they had no way to live—no income, no social security, no access to the workforce, nothing.
When Jesus finally travelled to Bethany, he was met by Martha, Mary’s sister. She said to Jesus, “If you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” They talked, then Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who trust me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts me will never die. Do you trust 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, leaving love aside, if my only source of income 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 recline 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. Jesus gave Mary her life back, and her extravagant response makes perfect sense.
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 or who have been harmed by religious leaders and institutions, it can be difficult to see how following Jesus actually gives us life, let alone the sort of life that leads to the overwhelming 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 practical ways.
Like Judas, we can also see that Mary’s act was shockingly sensual. If I knelt down during a 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 hear the fear of sensuality and sexuality which pervades the church. Mary’s act is so intimate, so utterly outrageous, that Judas cannot even name it, 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 exhibiting good morals and spouting words of 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 in our culture, we equate ‘knowing’ with information. Thus if we have memorised the right Bible verses and listened to the right sermons and learned the right things, we think we know Jesus: because we know about him.
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 has the right knowledge: he’s the perfect Pharisee who memorised the law and carried it out.
But Paul wants more. He wants to experience Christ, so that he might also experience resurrection. Paul is not seeking eternal life here, some magical get-out-of-death free card. Instead, he is seeking a radical coming alive, an awakening from the sleepwalking existence that is normal life. Being good, right and proper got him only so far; there’s a fullness of life and love and grace which has eluded him. But he sees that he will experience this fullness at the point of deepest intimacy with Christ’s poverty and suffering, shame, death and resurrection: so this is what Paul longs for.
It is this form of knowing and coming alive that Mary displays. She’s not speaking the right words; she’s not committing to daily quiet time; she’s not engaged in correct religious observance; and her outrageous action—letting her hair down in public, leaning over Jesus’ reclining body with her breasts gently swaying, caressing 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 gently stroking with her hair. She has experienced him as the source of all life, and she is so grateful that she pours everything into him: her costly perfume, the last shreds of her dignity, her tender caresses.
She can afford to, because in God’s economy, the economy that Mary already knows and 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, she organises an impromptu picnic for thousands, and feeds the birds with the leftovers. The perfume Mary pours out on Jesus wafts sweetly through the centuries, anointing people and communities so that the ever-present poor are fed. In God’s economy, even the dead are brought to life and sit in joyful communion at the table.
And it’s because of this abundance, this never-ending supply of God’s extravagant and eternal and life-giving spirit, that we are raised out of death and into God’s life: a life of gratitude, of loving, of belonging; a life of wholeheartedly participating in God’s passionate concern for the world.
Mary knows this abundance; she responds by giving up a fortune and her dignity as she anoints her poor and soon-to-be-suffering saviour. The apostle Paul yearns for it, and in his letter to the Philippians, he writes that, for the sake of Christ, he has gladly lost everything. Isaac Watts experiences it, and in his classic hymn 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.
And I wonder: Do you know God’s infinitely generous and loving and life-giving abundance? And would you offer up the “whole realm of nature” in grateful response? Would you gladly lose everything for the sake of Christ? Would you spend a year’s wages? Would you bow down and caress the cracked and smelly feet of Jesus?
And if you don’t yet know the love which triggers such extravagant response, as we look to Easter I wonder: Are you willing to enter into Christ’s suffering and death in order to experience it? Ω
Reflect: On the questions above, or: In this story, with whom do you most resonate: The reckless, even wanton, woman, Mary? The sensible disciple, Judas? The one being anointed, Jesus? Or could you be the precious oil being poured out as a gift?
A reflection on John 12:1-8 and Philippians 3:4b-14 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 3 April 2022 (Year C Lent 5) © Sanctuary 2022. An earlier version was first preached as The Scent of Gratitude, 2019. Image by Julia Stankova (2009).
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