By Rev. Jennifer Christenson
For Christus Lutheran Church, Greenville, Wis.
March 17, 2013
5th Sunday of Lent - John 12:1-8 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%2012:1-8&version=NIV
There is something both achingly beautiful and dreadfully uncomfortable about today’s gospel reading. On the one hand, Mary’s gesture, tender, extravagant, intimate, is beautiful. It is a gorgeous display of gratitude and devotion. On the other hand, it is that very same tenderness, extravagance, and intimacy that can make us, as well as those who witnessed her display, terribly, terribly uncomfortable.
I wonder if in part that’s why Judas had the reaction he did. Yes, the gospel-writer John tells us it was because Judas was ticked that he wasn’t going to get to embezzle any funds from the sale of the perfume, but that may also be just adding more details to the villainy of Judas to make him look as bad as possible. Kind of like the over-the-top portrayals of villains in films, where they not only do bad things to the hero of the story, but also are mean to little kids and puppies whenever the opportunity arises.
Judas may have been speaking not only from that place of greed, but also from a place of profound dis-ease with what he had just witnessed.
His and our discomfort aside, could anyone blame Mary for what she did? After all, Jesus was the guy who had wept alongside her and her sister Martha outside the tomb of their brother, Lazarus. Jesus was the guy who then, in a loud voice, proclaimed, “Lazarus, come out!!” and Lazarus, four-days-dead, probably already encased in the terrible stench of death Lazarus, he came out of that tomb. Walking, breathing, alive again. And now, here Lazarus was, sitting across the table from her, enjoying dinner, listening to Jesus, and above all, alive, alive, alive.
After receiving such a tremendous gift of unexpected, unbelievable grace, could you blame Mary for taking the best of what she had and dumping it all over the feet of the man, the Son of Man, the Lamb of God, the miracle worker who had made it happen?
As tender as this scene is, though, we must not forget the where and the when of when it took place. All is not peace and light and gentleness in the world of Jesus, Lazarus, Martha, Mary and the disciples. Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead had dramatically heightened the opposition against him. There were now active plots to take him out, to take his life, so much so that for a time after raising Lazarus Jesus had, out of necessity, kept a very low profile. His coming back to Bethany, the scene of the crime of bringing life out of death, was a dangerous and risky move, and surely everyone there in the room knew it. The situation had disintegrated to the point that, poor Lazarus, who had already been through so much, even he would soon be the target of an assassination plot, given that he was after all walking, talking confirmation of Jesus’ tremendous power.
Mary was no doubt aware of this tension and risk and fear. And perhaps that, too, is what motivated her to do what she did. Jesus was clearly heading to Jerusalem, and at the time of the Passover no less. Surely that meant that the conflict between him and the powers that be was going to come to a head in some way. And surely Jesus wasn’t going to fare well when that happened. So Mary gave him an extravagant gift in preparation of whatever was ahead, a reminder of gratitude, love, devotion; a reminder whose fragrance would stay with him in the dreadful days to come, perhaps even wafting up to him as he strained in agony on the cross.
An extravagant gift of grace, given to prepare Jesus to give his own extravagant gift of grace to and for the world, in just a few short days. One wonders, Mary, what did you know, or was it just a coincidentally timed passionate act of gratitude?
Beautiful and uncomfortable - truly isn’t that what the season of Lent, and especially the days of Holy Week, which are fast approaching, are for us?
On the one hand, the story of Jesus’ willing death on the cross for the sake of this fallen and messy world, is achingly beautiful. To hear, to know, to believe that God loved this world, as broken as it is, and loved humankind, as sinful, as unfaithful, as ungrateful as we can be, enough to make the ultimate sacrifice, to allow his one and only Son to undergo a painful, humiliating death, is awe-inspiring and humbling and lovely. It’s enough to make us tremble, enough to make us weep, enough, maybe even to make us, like Mary of Bethany, give the best we have to offer in return. To pour out our jars of outrageously expensive perfume in the form of offerings and tithes, in the form of acts of kindness, in the form of tending to the vulnerable, and caring for those the world has forgotten all about.
On the other hand, beautiful as it is, it’s also an uncomfortable story. For one, it raises a lot of sticky questions…why did Jesus have to die, couldn’t there have been another way to redeem us and all creation? What if Judas hadn’t been so evil and hadn’t betrayed Jesus? Would someone else have taken his place, or would the story have gone differently? Had we been there, would we have run away just like the disciples did, or would we have stood strong and steadfast? Would we have been among the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” or would we have stood silent or not been aware of what was going on at all?
The Passion story, the story we tell in Holy Week, raises uncomfortable questions, and it is uncomfortable too because, well, displays of extravagance often are. Surely Mary’s display that evening in Bethany made many who were present squirm a bit in their seats. The expense of the perfume aside, it had to have been strange and somewhat off-putting to see her kneeling down and wiping Jesus’ feet with her own hair. Judas is the only one who said anything, but I wonder if Martha, and Lazarus, and Peter and anyone else who was there didn’t also have their own unspoken objections too.
Likewise, what is the cross of Christ but an extravagant display of grace, mercy, compassion, this time on people who know, deep down in the cores of their being, that they don’t deserve it? Just as Mary and Martha could truly have never repaid Jesus for the gift of having their brother restored to life, and Lazarus himself could never repay Jesus for the gift of his life given back to him, so we know that there is no way for us to repay Jesus, to repay God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the gift of life, the gift of forgiveness, the gift of eternal life that’s poured out on us through Jesus’ saving death.
And that’s uncomfortable. It’s always uncomfortable to get a gift you know you can’t reciprocate and that you know you don’t really deserve. We certainly feel gratitude, but there’s also a hint of guilt, and maybe even resentment. Maybe that’s Judas’ problem too – he knows in even witnessing the abundant miracles Jesus has performed thus far, the water into wine, the feeding of the 5000, the healing of a man blind from birth, and now the raising of Lazarus – he knows even in witnessing these things that he’s received a gift he can never repay. So, in his case, he rebels. He accuses Mary of squandering a precious gift that could have done so much more good. And in the end, he betrays Jesus, one final attempt to push away the compassion, grace and love Jesus had to offer him and all of us.
Stories of extravagant grace, whether it is a woman pouring out a precious bottle of perfume on her Savior’s feet, and wiping it off with her hair, or it is God’s only Son, that same Savior, pouring out his precious blood for the sake of many – are beautiful and uncomfortable. And, that makes them the perfect stories for us to consider and ponder and wonder over as we approach Jesus’ final days before the tragedy and triumph of the cross.
They are perfect because they remind us that this Christian life we live, is always at the same time one of beauty and discomfort. It’s one of beauty in that we are blessed to live as people who are called and claimed and forgiven and resurrected by God. It’s one of discomfort because we know we don’t deserve any of that, that our hearts are sinful, that we are more like Judas than we’d care to admit, that unlike Mary of Bethany, we often cling to, rather than share the best we have to offer.
And yet, in a weird coincidence, or paradox, what makes us uncomfortable is precisely what makes this story so beautiful. No, we don’t deserve this gift of grace, but yes, God in Christ Jesus gives it to us anyway. No we can’t repay God in Christ Jesus, but Jesus knew that and went ahead with the cross, the death, anyway.
In one extravagant, tender, intimate gesture, Jesus gave up his life for us, for you, for all people. As this season of Lent draws to a close, may that extravagant gift inspire us to extravagant, Mary of Bethany-style living – each of us pouring out the best we have for the sake of the other in gratitude for what we’ve been given. That truly, would be a thing of beauty.