Isaiah 43:16-21 Psalm 126 Philippians 3:4b-14
As the season of Lent takes us closer to the death and resurrection of Jesus, today’s texts sound different and distinctive notes. The Old Testament reading and the psalm proclaim, look forward to, and pray for God’s salvation of the people. The mood is joyful. The New Testament readings are not so clear. Paul’s letter to the Philippians announces the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ, affirming his faith in the resurrection, and – with a note of warning – calling for his readers to press on with him and hold true. In the Gospel, we see Mary’s love for her Lord, but also a foreshadowing of Judas’ treachery and the death of Jesus.
The pilgrimage toward Easter has taken us almost to Palm Sunday, which is next Sunday. It is so appropriate that we come to it with a Gospel message that prompts us to think of Jesus preparing for death. Previously in John 11, we experience the death and raising of Lazarus. And it is this event that precipitates the plot against Jesus’ life. The story seems to be about the death and raising of Lazarus, but just beneath the surface we see the deeper subject – the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. Next Sunday we will hear the “Hosannas”. We know what is to happen, but the disciples do not. A similar anointing story also appears in Matthew and Mark. Matthew’s account may be dependent on Mark’s account. Most likely Mark and John are recording the same story. John’s event is different, it happens before Jesus enters Jerusalem. All the accounts speak of the anointing with nard. Nard is a fragrant ointment imported from the mountains of India. That made it very expensive. Mary has purchased the very best for Jesus. The amount that Mary used was worth a year’s wages.
Jesus’ final words, “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me,” place in tension her pure personal adoration for Jesus and her social responsibility. To acknowledge the endless needs of the poor was not unusual. Jesus’ presence among them is unique. This is not to deny our responsibility to the poor, but it alerts us to the wonder of who Mary and Martha are hosting that day.
As we revel in Mary’s devotion to Jesus, her demonstration of the devotion is breathtaking, but then we are struck with Judas’ comments and attitude. Judas’ comments would have likely been echoed by church vestries today. When an expense, a needed expense, seems extravagant. If we have that much money available, perhaps we should do the godly thing and strategize how the money might advance the work of the gospel. We could feed the hungry or house the homeless. But if we had Jesus among us today, wouldn’t we be tempted to show our love in some similar extravagant way?
Judas was the treasurer. He knew what they had and what they needed. He often dipped into the disciples’ money bag for his own use. There never was an audit. Jesus probably knew what Judas was doing, but never said or did anything about it. The message to us, is that God may not immediately do anything to stop us, because we have free will, but this doesn’t mean that God approves of our actions. There is always the possibility of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. John depicts Judas as moving from the light to the darkness (one of his big themes in his gospel).
Judas used a pious phrase to hide his true motives. But Jesus knew what was in his heart. Just as Jesus knows our hearts. Judas’ life had become a lie. He was already being pulled off the path as a follower of Jesus. He was being tempted by Satan to turn against Jesus. Jesus wasn’t who Judas expected as the Messiah. The Messiah was to return Israel to a place of power, military might and wealth. But we know that the Messiah is to be a suffering servant.
It is easy to overlook the fact that Jesus chose Judas to be his disciple. We may also forget that while Judas betrayed Jesus, all of the disciples abandoned him. The only disciple standing at the foot of the cross was John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. With the other disciples, Judas shared a persistent misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission. They all expected Jesus to make the right political moves. When he kept talking about dying, they felt varying degrees of anger, fear, and disappointment. They didn’t understand why they had been chosen if Jesus’ mission was doomed to fail.
We don’t know the exact motivation behind Judas’ betrayal. But we do know that someone had to play that role, the role of the betrayer. To have everything play out as it did, someone had to betray Jesus to the authorities. What we do know is that Judas allowed his desires to place him in a position where Satan could manipulate him. Judas accepted payment to set Jesus up to the religious leaders. He identified Jesus to the guards in the dimly lit Garden of Gethsemane.
The anointing of Jesus is more a part of John’s Gospel than in Matthew or Mark. Luke has the anointing earlier in Galilee and with a different message. John makes his message clear in several ways.
First, he has the account happening between the raising of Lazarus, the event that precipitated the decision to kill Jesus, and his entry into Jerusalem, the occasion on which Jesus announced that the hour of his death had come.
Second, the place of the anointing is Bethany, where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. According to John, Jesus knew that calling Lazarus out of the tomb meant that the Son of God would have to enter the tomb so that life would be given, not to Lazarus alone, but to the world. In his words, the Son of God would be glorified as a result of the event in Bethany. It is important to keep in mind that in John, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was from Bethany, not Galilee. The crowds were already in the city and were not followers from Galilee, and the excitement had been generated by the reports of raising Lazarus and the resulting plots against both of their lives. Bethany, the city of Lazarus, figures now into the death of Jesus.
The third signal that the anointing is a passion story is its location at Passover time. Passover is, for John, death time: the cleansing of the temple, with its prophecy of Jesus’ death is a Passover story; the feeding of the five thousand, with its message of Jesus’ life-giving death, is a Passover story, and of course, Jesus died as the Passover lamb.
The fourth indicator that the anointing points to Jesus’ death is at the banquet table itself. Not only is Lazarus there, the one whose life sets in motion the forces against Jesus, but Judas is also present. This dark intruder upon this scene of life and joy in the home of the grateful family casts the shadow of the approaching death of Jesus across the table.
And finally, there is the statement of Jesus himself to the effect that what Mary did was for “the day of my burial” – not that it was Mary’s intention to anoint Jesus for burial. Here was an act of hospitality, love and gratitude for Jesus. In John’s writings, words and deeds have meaning far beyond the intentions of those who speak and act. When Caiaphas said, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people”, he spoke politically, not realizing the greater truth of his words. We speak and act in ways we think most appropriate for the occasion. We may never know what lives are influenced, what differences are made because God takes a word spoken, a gift given, a hand extended, an effort begun, and gives it a life and a power far beyond the intention and expectation that prompted it.
So, what are we to do with our “nard”, our gifts to Jesus? Jesus declares the nature of Mary’s gift was appropriate for the moment. He knew what was to come. Even when the women went to the tomb after the crucifixion, they weren’t able to anoint Jesus’ body because he had risen. He is gracious enough to receive his anointing with gratitude. Lots of extravagant gifts are put in the air, where they soon evaporate. Our choir labors to prepare an intricate anthem and five minutes later it is gone. The teacher prepares a lesson, stands to teach and moments later the class is dismissed. Mourners provide large expensive arrangements of flowers to honor those whom they grieve. Saints donate large sums of money for our church to spend. Why do we do it? Love has its reasons.
Generosity brings us back to Jesus. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus provides a blessed abundance. At the Wedding at Cana, 180 gallons of wine, by the Sea of Galilee feeding five thousand people with food left over. There is abundance everywhere that Jesus is present. As Mary anoints him, he tells his critics that it’s okay. Generosity breeds generosity. Either we love generously, or we don’t. Either we are already providing for the poor, or we are secretly hoarding what might otherwise be shared.
We have the choice of sharing or hoarding our gifts. We are called to be followers of Jesus. Jesus shared his whole life. On this one occasion, he received an amazing display of love. He felt Mary’s love and devotion and appreciation for all that he had done for her family and so many others. He felt that appreciation as the nard dripped from his feet and the fragrance filled the house. There was love in the air. That is what we are called to do….to live fully and to love wastefully. Not to neglect the poor, but to show our love in actions, words, and responses. To be Jesus to others…to give and receive love. You can almost smell it in the air! Amen.