A Story of Extravagance – April 7, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Have you ever done something so spontaneous and outrageous to show your affection or commitment to someone or some cause that you even surprised yourself? Sometimes we need to act in the moment, audaciously and fearlessly, or the opportunity may slip through our fingers. Often the choices and decisions we make will show us where our heart is—and where our real treasure resides.
Today we are headed to a home in the Jerusalem suburb of Bethany where Jesus is dining with his good friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus who three days prior was in the tomb but was raised back to life by Jesus.
We are standing at the threshold of the church’s annual observance of the last days in the life of Jesus—his last supper with friends, his passion and death on the cross, his burial and resurrection. It should be no surprise that the Gospel today carries the elements of the events on those last days in the life of Jesus—his raising Lazarus from the dead, his final meal with his friends and how he washed their feet, and the preparation of his dead body for burial by anointing with fragrant oil.
Aside from these prophetic examples, this is one of the most provocative stories in the Gospels. The principal character is a simple first-century woman living in an insignificant village in a country overshadowed by the rule of the Roman Empire, yet her memory has endured through two millennia. We know nothing of her birth or background except for the descriptions of her encounters with Jesus.
So here we are, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, tortured, humiliated then put to death in a way reserved for the most horrible criminals.
Everything goes as one would expect at a dinner with friends. Martha is the perfect hostess. Lazarus is chatting with the other men about his amazing return from the dead. Then along comes Mary. What she does must have made the men gasp in shock and the other women clutch their pearls.
She loosens and lets down her hair—which no respectable woman would do in the presence of a male religious leader. Then she breaks open a jar of costly perfume made of pure nard and pours every drop of it over the feet of Jesus, filling the entire home with its fragrance.
Now this wasn’t some floral, retiring cheap scent. Nard was a musky, earthy, warm and intense fragrance. There is nothing retiring about Nard and there was nothing retiring about Mary that evening in Bethany who kneels at the feet of Jesus and proceeds to wipe his glistening anointed feet with her hair.
And it is in this tender yet bold act of Mary that we get an idea of what commitment as a disciple of Jesus smells like.
Anointing another with oil has always had deep spiritual significance: sometimes it is enacted at the coronation of a monarch. In the Jewish world, it was a symbolic act announcing that the person anointed was especially favored by God. In the rite of healing every Sunday, those who participate are anointed as well.
When Mary anointed Jesus, she may have been signaling that he was the Messiah. She was also making a prophetic statement about his forthcoming anointing for burial. For this, Mark’s account of the story hints that what Mary had done would always be remembered. And so we remember her today.
Of course, as the saying goes, “there’s always a fly in the ointment,” – pardon the pun. Judas is quick to point out that nard isn’t a cheap run-of-the mill perfume. Twelve ounces is worth about a year’s wages for the average worker in the day. I expect it’s like watching someone in a restaurant open a rare Cabernet or Pinot Noir that cost a few thousand dollars.
But Mary breaks open the jar of costly nard without giving it a second thought. She is reckless with her copious use of this expensive ointment much to the chagrin of Judas who reprimands her sternly for wasting what could have been sold to care for the poor.
Jesus goes beyond the demands of social convention, recognizes the love and the need behind Mary’s act, and he tells Judas to leave her alone. His response to Judas in the final words of this passage can be haunting – the poor you will always have with you – and has been used and abused too often.
It is not meant to dismiss the obligation to care for the poor, but to remind them all of his impending death and the fact the he will not always be physically present with them as he was at the moment.
Jesus never denied the needs of the poor and here he shows us that many things are important. Jesus is also telling us that there are lives around us that need our care, compassion and attention but that the dominant forces of self-centered greed or bigotry can result in our wrongly understanding the circumstances around us. And it should not be lost on us that he was poor. He got no salary. He carried no money. He was essentially homeless.
Now, even as Mary’s actions take on prophetic overtones that point to the death and burial rites for Jesus, the Gospel today is more than a forecast of the future and more than a collection of allegories and metaphors. It is a story about huge extravagance, of breaking cultural barriers and taking huge risks in order to exercise that extravagance.
Judas just can’t cope with a leader who allows women to openly and sensually display their love for him, and he betrays Jesus. Judas probably couldn’t cope with a leader who allowed little children to approach him as equals, or who hobnobbed with people that he—as well as the Pharisees—looked upon as the dregs of the earth. Jesus did all of those things. In this brief heated exchange we find a marked contrast between Mary, the true disciple who has acted selflessly and lovingly for Jesus and Judas the pretender disciple, whom we will learn is both a thief and a traitor.
In her book Good Friday People, author Sheila Cassidy asks the question “Why did Mary do it—make a massive declaration of love by pouring a box of expensive oil over his feet and wiping it with her hair?” She notes how the Bible commentaries talk about her doing it for Jesus’ burial but does not think that makes a lot of sense. “I think Mary wanted to say,” Sheila writes, “I love you. I care that you’re lonely and afraid. I wish I could stop it happening but I know it’s got to be. So here is a sign, a sign that I know how you feel, that you are precious to me. My wasting this stuff on you is the only way I know how to make up to you for what you’re going through now.”
Mary poured out the costly, fragrant nard with no remorse whatsoever, knowing that it was but a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of God’s love emanating from the person’s whose feet she bathed. Days later he would die because of the life he lived, what he taught, what his priorities were, and how much he wanted the world to know that God was in love with us.
As you and I approach our annual remembrance of what Mary did that evening in Bethany, we might take this occasion to ask “What is our expensive commodity? Our “pound of nard?” Where might God be asking us to be extravagant with it? What does our costly commitment to Jesus smell like?
Sometimes we must act in the moment, boldly and fearlessly, or the opportunity may slip through our fingers. Often the choices and decisions we make will confirm where our hearts are—and where our treasure resides.