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Lent 5C Sermon
John 12: 1-8
7, 2019


Sermon Archives


John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

What was Mary thinking? On how many levels do Mary’s actions in this story defy human logic! First of all, she is a Jewish woman in the first century, and she is publicly kneeling at the feet of a man instead of helping her sister prepare and serve a meal! It’s not the first time- Jesus visited their home once before and Martha complained that she had to do all the work while her sister sat at Jesus’ feet listening to him. Those two events illustrate how Mary’s priorities are in a different place than the rest of society! Her time is spent doing something unproductive and her money is spent on something extravagant and unnecessary! This perfume made of pure nard cost 300 denarii, about one year’s wages for a laborer during Jesus’ time. That is a lot of money! Probably $20,000 to $30,000 in today’s terms.

So, what was Mary thinking? With the work that she should have been helping with, the staggering cost and amount of the nard, and the social faux pas of kneeling at Jesus’ feet, she certainly was not concerned with political correctness! What is her motivation? John reveals Judas’ motivation – he is a thief and he wanted to pad the purse so he could skim more off the top. But Mary? John makes no comments about why she acts so strangely.
I personally think that Mary’s motivation is her brother Lazarus, a character in this story who says nothing. He just sits there in the middle of this gathering of people doing who knows what. He probably didn’t feel quite up to being very active. The previous chapter of John’s gospel tells the story of Lazarus’ death, and Jesus raising him from his tomb. I can just picture Martha – ever the domestic goddess – wondering aloud with her sister how they can thank Jesus for returning their brother to them. She might have suggested having a dinner and inviting their friends. Mary is on board, but doesn’t quite see herself helping to carry out the dinner plans. She has ulterior motives.

So the event comes to be – we are not sure how involved Mary was in preparing the dinner, but as we scan the horizon, we see Jesus and his disciples are there; we do not know if there are others, but we do see Lazarus. Oh, poor Lazarus! Only a few days ago he was dead! Some Biblical scholars have reminded us of the effect being dead in a tomb four days would have had on his body – certainly the natural process of decomposition had begun, because as the Bible says, “Already there was a stench!”

I would suggest that in this detail, we are on the right track to figuring out Mary’s motivation. Imagine guests preparing to leave because the odor that was lingering in the air (originating from Lazarus) was ruining their appetite! Martha’s dinner party and celebration for the resuscitation of their brother was in danger of falling apart because of their brother himself! Mary then produces this container of Nard. She uses it on Jesus, and this oriental spice is so pungent and effective that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Imagine being one of the disciples, feeling relieved when she broke open the container and the odor of decay and death are immediately overcome with the floral bouquet of sweetness and life? It was only Judas who wanted to wallow in the essence of death. His mind was not on the life giving power of Jesus; his mind was only on the financial gain that was his in this position of treasurer.

So, part of Mary’s motivation might have been to do her part to make her guests more comfortable by providing a perfume that would overcome the odors emanating from their guest of honor, by no fault of his own. But I think that Lazarus is behind Mary’s extravagance for another reason. Mary loved her brother. When he was dead, she joined her sister Martha in weeping and telling Jesus that if he would have been there earlier, their brother would not have died. Imagine Mary’s joy and gratitude at seeing her brother come out of the tomb! She could not help but go all out to thank Jesus for what he had done in giving her brother back to her to enjoy, if only for a little while longer. She must have realized that he would still die, eventually, but that she was given a gift, and should make the most of the time they had with him now. There was no cost too great to show her gratitude to Jesus. Maybe she was not a good cook or housekeeper … maybe she did what she could do to express her gratitude.

So this all happens in Bethany just before Jesus rides in to Jerusalem on a donkey on the day we will celebrate next week, Palm Sunday – the beginning of Holy Week. In John 13, we read that immediately after entering Jerusalem, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Hearing that story, we cannot help but think of what Mary does for Jesus only a few days earlier. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair. Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and wipes them with a towel. Peter protests about having his feet washed; Judas protests about the costs of the perfume that Mary is using. And it all has to do with feet – that part of the body with which most of us are very uncomfortable! The similarities in these stories are too many to be mere coincidence. It is all part of the narrative of Jesus teaching his followers to let go. Letting go is probably the key motivation in spirituality, and for many of us, it is a very difficult lesson to learn.

At age 35, author Philip Simmons was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It was a shock, but it also forced him to look at his life afresh. Before his death 10 years later, Simmons wrote this: For me, knowing that my days are numbered has meant the chance to ask with new urgency the sorts of questions most of us avoid: everything from “What’s my life’s true purpose?” to “Should I reorganize my closets?” What I’ve learned from asking them is that a fuller consciousness of my own mortality has been my best guide to being more fully alive.

I pray that one day soon I will somehow receive that gift of a fuller consciousness of my own mortality. I seem to want to guard the purse and count the cost more than break open the jar and take in the floral fragrance of the nard. I seem to want to take care of my self more than wash or anoint the feet of others around me. If you are like me, you would also confess that you deny death at every turn and grasp on to things that falsely promise abundant life.

What was Mary thinking? She was probably thinking that she would thank Jesus in an elaborate way by sitting at his feet, using the expensive perfume that she had been saving up for a special occasion, and help everyone there enjoy the celebration as well. I truly believe that in this moment, she was the first follower to accept that Jesus was going to die, and that she had an obligation to anoint him for that death. To accept death is to live with a profound sense of freedom: freedom from the things of this life that don’t really matter – fame, material possessions, and even (finally) our own bodies; and freedom to live fully in the present – to act according to our highest nature.

I want to close by quoting Father Richard Rohr who wrote a devotion on this very subject this past Thursday: Only when we accept our present condition can we set aside fear and discover the love and compassion that are our highest human endowments. And out of our compassion we deal justly with those about us. Not just on our good days, not just when it’s convenient, but everywhere and at all times we are free to act according to that which is highest in us. And in such action, we find peace.
Thanks be to God for Mary, this sister of Lazarus, who accepts the death of Jesus and was freed to show love to him in a different and elaborate way. She models for us the good news of life in God’s Kingdom. Amen.