Sunday 7 April 2019
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Jesus is anointed with expensive perfume by a woman. Some version of this story happens in all four of the gospels, but the details are different in each gospel. Three gospel have the anointing happening at Bethany, but Luke says it happens somewhere else. Two have it at the house of Simon the leper, one at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and one at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Three have an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus, one has Mary of Bethany. Two have Jesus’s head being anointed and two have his feet being anointed. Each of the stories is a little different.
Here’s how it happens in the gospel of John, the last of the four gospels. Jesus is within a week of his death. He is on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, but before he is able to, he will be killed. On his way, he is told of the death of his friend, Lazarus. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Now, everyone is talking about him. This is unlike anything anyone has ever seen or heard of before. The authorities are up in arms. They are convinced that Jesus must die because everyone is flocking to him. And they are also determined to kill Lazarus, because his resurrection is the reason that Jesus has become so popular.
It is in this context of heightened danger that Jesus finds himself at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, in Bethany, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He will soon enter the ancient city to the riotous acclaim of the crowds. But before that, he sits down for dinner.
Martha is serving. If you know anything about Mary and Martha you’ll know that that isn’t a surprise. Martha is the sister of action, the sister of service. But the language that is used in this story has eucharistic connotations. The word for service is the word we have in English as deacon. Martha is serving as the deacon at the table of the Lord. Jesus the savior stands as the high priest, and Lazarus, the one who was saved, raised from the dead, is there at table with him.
Their sister, Mary, is the one who anoints Jesus. Anointing was a well known ritual in the ancient world. Kings and priests were anointed in preparation for their service. The dead were also anointed before burial.
But this anointing is unusual. Priests and kings were anointed on the head. Corpses were anointed on their whole bodies. But Jesus is anointed on his feet. No one really knows what this means. It wasn’t usual for anyone to be anointed on the feet. One guess is that the feet were associated with action, and so Jesus is being ordained for action.
It was, however, a custom to wash people’s feet. People mostly wore sandals, and the roads were very dirty and unsanitary. When guests came into your house, it was customary to have a slave wash their feet. It would be quite unusual for a host like Mary to wash a guest’s feet. But that is what Mary does, even wiping them with her hair, which would also have been very, very unusual. Less than a week before Jesus humbles himself to wash the feet of his disciples, Mary washes Jesus’s feet.
Mary uses a very expensive perfume to anoint Jesus. In Greek it’s called myrrh. You’ll remember myrrh as being one of the gifts Jesus received from the magi. It’s made of pure nard. It’s related to the word “faithful”. It’s myrrh made of faithful nard. And it’s worth nearly a year’s wages. Think about that. Can you imagine washing someone’s feet with a $50,000 bottle of perfume?
So why does Mary anoint Jesus? Is it to proclaim him as king? Is it to make him a priest? Is it to prepare him for burial? Yes. Christ is the King, the ruler of the universe, and his identity will soon be revealed to all. He is also the great high priest, and he is about to preside over the greatest sacrifice of all time, the sacrifice of himself in which Jesus is both priest and offering. And Jesus is being prepared for death. No one will ever get a chance to prepare his body after he is dead. He will have risen before they are able to get to him. But what Mary does prepares him beforehand. Through these ritual acts, Mary proclaims who Jesus is. She anticipates his own act of humble service. She marks the incredible, history-changing event of his death and resurrection.
It’s important to note that what Mary does is incredibly generous. Again, based on average incomes in Oregon right now, we’re talking about a $50,000 bottle of perfume here. I feel like you could buy the entire contents of a Bath and Bodyworks for less than that. She gives it for Jesus asking absolutely nothing in return. She gives an extravagant gift to Jesus. Are we as generous with our resources when it comes to Jesus and God’s Kingdom? Or are we more likely to keep the best for ourselves. Mary’s incredibly generous act is a model to us for how to use our resources for Jesus.
Judas, though, is not impressed. John makes it clear that Judos objection is motivated by greed, greed that contrasts with Mary’s generosity. But if we set aside Judas’s motives for a moment, he still asks a good question. Why should Mary have spent so much money on something as frivolous as perfume? Why so much expense for something that won’t last and makes no different to anyone? Why shouldn’t the perfume be sold and the money given to the poor? Wouldn’t that be a better use of the resources? Wouldn’t that be more in line with Jesus’s teachings, Jesus who never sought wealth or power but who always advocated for the poor and lowly?
Wouldn’t we expect Jesus to object to this kind of opulence? But he doesn’t. He does quite the opposite. And he says something that we would never expect Jesus to say. He says, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
Is Jesus really saying that there will always be poor people around, so it’s no use doing anything to help them? That’s how this verse has often been used. It’s been used to say that things will never change, the poor will always be poor, so there’s no sense in trying to change it. Just let the rich be rich and the poor be poor. It’s the way of things.
But that isn’t what Jesus is really saying. Jesus is saying that the poor will always be around and that we can help the poor anytime we feel like it. That ministry will always be available to us. But this moment, as Jesus prepares for death, this moment was something different. It was a special occasion, an occasion that merited some extra expense.
There aren’t many times when Jesus approves of extravagance. This is one. Mary does a beautifully generous thing for him. She prepares him for what is about to happen to him. She prepares him through ritual. An action that on the surface seems completely meaningless. How could perfume possibly help Jesus? But on the level of ritual and symbol this act has incredible meaning. It declares who Jesus is. It proclaims the sum of the gospel in one simple act. Humble service, saving sacrifice, glory born of suffering—it is all there. Not on the surface, but at the deeper level of the ritual.
Sometimes people complain that what we do in church is just a bunch of empty ritual. We have some bread and wine, we dump water on someone’s head, we march around with palms, we light candles. What is the point? It doesn’t actually change anything. Wouldn’t it be better to sell the communion chalice and give the money to the food bank? It’s all just empty ritual anyway.
My friends, a ritual is only as empty as we make it. Is it just water, or is it the gift of the Holy Spirit, new birth into a living hope? Is it just bread and wine, or is it the body and blood of Jesus, spiritual food to sustain us, pure grace offered from God in heaven. Is it just a candle, or is it the light of Christ, the spark of wisdom, the life that cannot be snuffed out, the light that no darkness can overcome? Is it just empty ritual? Or is it the Gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed in ways more profound than words?
For Jesus, even for the Son of God, on that night when Mary anointed his feet, as he sat at table with the one who had been raised from the dead, as Martha served, it was a ritual. But it was far from empty. It was full to overflowing with the grace and the power and the generosity of the love of God. May our eyes be opened to the grace and power and generosity of God’s love that is revealed in our worship, may we glimpse in our ritual the gift of the divine.