This week's texts:
Well, this is quite a dinner party. Jesus is just days away from entering into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and so he shares a meal with his friends at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. It’s not an unfamiliar scene from his ministry, by any means. And a slightly more famous meal is just ahead. But this dinner party is simultaneously just like and just unlike every other meal this group has shared. Certainly there is a feast prepared and presented by the duteous Martha, while Mary, as usual, sits at the feet of Jesus, listening. And among them at the able sits Lazarus, whose very presence displays the power of God to bring life out of death. Death is certainly real, yes, but it is not ultimate.
In celebration of Jesus’ life and in recognition of his impending death, the story goes that Mary empties a pound of costly perfume onto his feet. This substance, nard, is totally unfamiliar to us, as we read this, but to John’s audience, it was recognizable as an exotic oil that comes from the mountains of India. Some Bible footnotes allege that this volume of nard would have cost a year’s worth of wages. This exorbitance is not meant to assert that Mary is vastly wealthy—but rather to express the extravagance of the love she knows comes from God. To anoint Jesus with such an oil is to come as close as humanly possible to expressing that love.
The God who loves us does so even more extravagantly. Does so richly and largely and unreasonably and vastly. Mary knew this. Mary gave the most she could give—emptied her purse, emptied herself—just to try to come close to expressing the same love she knew her God had for her and has for you. Mary is the first person in this whole story to live out Jesus’ commandment to love as he had loved.
Mary anoints Jesus’ body as though he is already dead. The house is filled with the sweet fragrance of this perfume, a stark contrast to the stench of death. As the house is filled with the scent, all those at the table are invited into this single act. Because Mary is the only disciple who gets it. Are we surprised? The disciples are notorious for failing to understand—Jesus has given three predictions of his death and resurrection and nobody understands what he means but Mary.
I’ve included the words of Dr. Robert Smith in a sermon I’ve preached to you before—he was a professor at PLTS before I arrived there. He wrote a book called Wounded Lord, highlighting how the Gospel According to John so beautifully expresses the complexity of Jesus’ relationships and the depth of his servant heart. About Mary, he writes that this anointing of Jesus’ feet, “celebrates the path that Jesus travels, and marks him for high kingship and an early grave. Her act is an extraordinary affirmation. She anoints the feet that are walking an ascending road, culminating in Jesus being lifted up on the cross. Mary knows and honors the way Jesus walks. She sees that way as the path to his glory, the walk of oneness with God.”
Mary’s act of service and devotion is parallel to Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, which will happen soon. Anointing him with this perfume anticipates the anointing of Jesus’ body for burial, which will happen soon. Mary sees that the time for loving and appreciating all that this man, Jesus, has done for her and for her family and for her people—that time is now.
Judas, the only other disciple mentioned by name in this scene, is preoccupied with the immediacy of Jesus’ death, as well. The much-maligned Judas, who the author wastes no time reminding us is the betrayer of Christ and is no more than a thief, can hardly ever catch a break, and this conversation is no exception. Not only are his motives questioned by that parenthetical editorializing, but in stark contrast to Mary’s love and devotion, he’s missed the point all together. Judas’ failure to understand just underscores Mary’s gesture. Judas assumes that one can either love Jesus or love the poor—it is made clear by Jesus, though, that it is not an either/or situation, but rather a both/and.
And Jesus’ words in verse 8 are often misconstrued—it is written, “You will always have the poor with you; you will not always have me.” Many readers and interpreters for centuries have used these words to assert that Jesus practically endorses poverty—the poor will never be lifted up, the oppressed will never go free. But this is far from the truth. What Jesus intends to express here is not that the poor will always be around, but rather that the disciples (and by proxy us, the future church) will always be around—it is he who will not. Jesus is justifying Mary’s deep act of extravagant love by explaining that it has not replaced her love for the poor or her commitment to continuing his work.
Judas is upset because, to him, the death of Jesus will also mark the end of this ministry and the years they have spent together. Judas cannot see that they will be the carriers of the message and that, without Jesus, they can continue on the way. Judas does not understand that there will be life after the death of Jesus. We are invited to skip over this concern of Judas’ for the poor by our dear gospel author, who points only to Judas’ obvious villainy. Jesus is attempting to mollify Judas by explaining that he and the other disciples are to continue their work with the poor after he is gone—their love for the poor need never end.
At worship on Thursday, we listened to a song called, “Surely We Can Change” by a man named David Crowder. In it, he sings about this love that God has for us in Jesus, and that Mary has just done her best to reciprocate. He says, “I don’t know what to do with a love like that. And I don’t know how to be a love like that.”
Truer words are rarely spoken. This love that God has for us is not easily expressed. It is not quiet, it is not small. It is big, and loud, and fragrant and extravagant and intoxicating and astounding and unreasonable and unusual and undignified.
David Crowder continues, “Where there is pain, let us bring grace ; Where there is suffering, bring serenity ; For those afraid , let us be brave ; Where there is misery , let us bring them relief ; and, surely, we can change something.” If we are not swayed by this gospel author’s characterization of Judas as simply pilferer, but rather we hold his same concern for how valuable the love of God can be in the life of the poor, how we can be a voice for the voiceless, and how we must not squander the grace that has been so freely given to us—we must go forward proclaiming that there is life in the midst of death, that there is light in the midst of darkness, that there is freedom from oppression.
We carry, as these disciples carried, a responsibility to continue the work of Jesus in the world. The Talmud reminds us that we need not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief, but rather do justly, now; love mercy, now; walk humbly, now. We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to abandon it.
Judas need not fear—the life of the church does not end with the life of Jesus. We begin with Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, celebrated here at this table. We prepare this table, as we do every time we gather together, to be a table where all are welcome, where all can eat and live. We are reminded that though the elements are simple—bread and wine—the love of God is extravagant. Though we are simply friends gathered around a table, the meal we share is life and light and freedom.
Thanks be to God. Amen.