by Pastor Cherie Johnson
For the past five weeks we have been traveling with Jesus from the day he was driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Traveling through Galilee and Judea as he teaches and heals people, as he shares the Good News that God is reaching out to them in love for renewal and restoration, offering abundant life. There are banquets and parties. Jesus is talking of celebrations. He is getting such a following that the leaders and power brokers are getting nervous. People are warning of death threats, but Jesus continues on. In today’s Scripture passage, Jesus is in Bethany, practically at Jerusalem’s gate, at another dinner. It is a celebration in his honor after he has raised Lazarus from the dead.
Lazarus is the brother of Martha and Mary, yes that Martha and Mary where at another dinner, Martha complained to Jesus about having to do all the work while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to what Jesus had to say with the rest of the disciples. Jesus had a special relationship with this family, staying with them numerous times.
Jesus was at the Jordan River when word came to him that Lazarus was very sick. By now, he had healed many sick people and even brought back several people from the dead (cf. Lk 7:11-17, Lk 9:49-56). It wasn’t a question of whether he could heal Lazarus, but he delayed two days until after Lazarus died before beginning his journey to Bethany. When he arrived, Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb at least four days. Then he raised Lazarus from the dead. He said that he waited so long, so that people would believe. And believe they did. So many people wanted to see him that he needed to withdraw to a more secluded area, but Passover was coming, and he needed to make his last trip to Jerusalem. He went to stay with his good friends, just outside the city. Of course they had to have a party!
John 12:1-8 NIV
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages. ” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
This whole family seems to have had a special relationship with Jesus. They were not among the disciples that traveled with Jesus, but he stayed with them several times. When Lazarus was dying, the sisters sent Jesus the message, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:3). Martha felt quite comfortable to speak to Jesus in her rather direct way, whether it was calling out her sister, Mary, for leaving her to do all the work or almost challenging him for coming too late to save her brother from death (little did she know then). However, in that exchange it is clear that she is a follower of Jesus and knows that he is the Christ, the Son of God (cf. John 11:21-27). But, it is also clear that Jesus had an especially close relationship with Mary.
At another dinner, Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, like the rest of the disciples, listening and absorbing all the things he had to say. This was not customary for women to do at the time. Martha was right about one thing. Mary was not where she would have been expected to be, helping Martha serve the food. Rather than sending Mary away, Jesus not only allows it, but insists, that she stay and invites Martha to join them (cf. Lk 10:38-42). After Lazarus dies, when Jesus sees Martha, he gives her comforting words and reassurance that Lazarus will live, but when he sees the grief of Mary and her weeping, Jesus also weeps (cf. John 11-17-35). Mary is shameless in her devotion to Jesus, and it is quite clear that he is moved by that devotion. He never rebukes her for being too emotional or doing something that was inappropriate for a woman.
Today, it is a special celebration, Jesus is surrounded by friends who love him. There is great food. People are lounging, enjoying themselves, laughing, talking. Lazarus, so recently brought back from the dead, is there enjoying it as much as anyone. The whole party was on account of the love and gratitude that they had for Jesus. Then, Mary breaks out the perfume, and its scent fills the air. Don’t think of it as the overwhelming smell when someone might have put on too much perfume, but the scent of beautiful flowers in a garden, the scent of extravagant love. This is a picture of heaven on earth. Jesus experiences his last moment of safety and an overwhelming feeling of love before entering the danger of Jerusalem. We are getting very close to what we celebrate as Palm Sunday, as Jesus experiences a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on his way to crucifixion. Mary may not have known this, but Jesus did.
In this room we have a movement from renewed life … to loving gratitude … to death through betrayal, but accepted because of love … to bring forth new life through the resurrection and the new creation. All the people are playing their parts, but the only one who can see the whole thing is Jesus.
We have renewed life with Lazarus in the room. We have Martha showing her love by doing what she does best, hosting an excellent party. Then, Mary once again demonstrates her shameless devotion and extravagant love by giving everything she has to Jesus. Mary is one that holds nothing back. She doesn’t care how things look, sitting at the feet of Jesus, weeping before Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, and now giving Jesus this gift of perfume and wiping his feet with her hair.
This is contrasted immediately with Judas Iscariot, one of the inner twelve traveling with Jesus, in a position of great trust as the holder of the moneybag (though the gospel writer makes sure that we have a fuller picture of this man). What he says sounds quite reasonable. After all, the perfume was worth a lot of money. Bethany was a poor area; the word “bethany” meaning “the house of the poor.” There was plenty that could have been done with the money. Yet, with this fuller description of his character, he sounds sanctimonious and self-righteous while attempting to sabotage the gesture of extravagant love by Mary. Could he have communicated his stewardship concern in a way that did not attempt to discredit the gesture? The question is who is the more faithful disciple? While Judas has more direct contact with Jesus, Mary has learned more. She has learned to give as God gives.
Jesus chooses to interpret this grateful gesture as one that might have been excessive but for a greater purpose than Mary would guess. She is, perhaps unknowingly, preparing his body for burial. Tension, betrayal, the subject of death has entered the room. By this time, Jesus has repeatedly told the disciples that part of his journey as Messiah would include death followed by his resurrection. He has said it subtly and directly. After one of those direct times, Peter scolds him for talking like that (cf. Mt 16:21-23). We, as readers of the Scriptures, hear it over and over again, but here in today’s passage it feels, at least to me, more real. “Leave her alone … It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). It brings to mind the actual process of preparing a body for burial, preparing Jesus’ body. The realization that Jesus is walking into all of this with his eyes wide open. In the terms of the narrative, Jesus knows that he will die in less than a week and appreciating Mary’s act of devotion all the more for it.
Jesus is prepared or preparing himself for the sacrifice that he knows is coming, his devotion, his demonstration of extravagant love, not just for Mary but for all of us. We will see him struggle with it more before the end. However, he knows that his message, his mission is too threatening to the powers that be, whether Roman or Jewish. It is too threatening whether it has to do with the selfish ambitions of individuals or merely the desperation of trying to make sure that their nation survives one more day, one more week … too desperate to be able to take the long view … feeling the need to eliminate (or kill) anything that may disturb this tenuous house of cards that they’re protecting.
Yet, his is a willing sacrifice because Jesus knows that it is the catalyst, the beginning of what will bring new life. Jesus’ mission is not to die. His mission is to be the first born of the new creation, but his death must come first. We have to have Good Friday to have Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day, the first day of the New Creation.
What is the appropriate response to such a gift? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? It means to hold nothing back. In that Mary is our example. It means being grateful for the life he gives us. Whether we call it being born again, as Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3, or becoming citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and no longer citizens of this broken world, even if we still have to live in it. We are called to have a different kind of life where we can live and show extravagant love, a life that we can appreciate now, even as we anticipate and desire a life where there will be no more tears, no more pain and suffering. It means having an extravagant love, a love for Jesus, a love for each other, and a love for the world.
And, we return to that tension of how we demonstrate that love. What is the best use of our resources?
Neil Alexander tells a story of dock workers and the people who worked on ships coming in and out of London in the mid-nineteenth century. The British Empire was at its height. It was the middle of the industrial revolution, there were raw materials and goods pouring in and out of London.
Working on the docks was a dangerous profession with the loading and unloading of ships. If people weren’t paying attention, a line could slip. A pallet could drop. In a moment of distraction someone could be injured or killed. There was no OSHA or unions to insure safety on the job. The people on the ships could be gone for months at a time or perhaps never return. There were families, widows, and orphans depending on the income, destitute if the breadwinner couldn’t work or died. There was overcrowding, poverty, and disease, the wages of rampant progress before society and laws could catch up.
In the middle of all of this were churches. You might think that they would be plain and bare bones, but no. They were beautiful buildings, decorated with art and stained glass windows. They installed fine organs and produced beautiful music. One might call this expensive perfume.
There were also soup kitchens and schools for the children sponsored by the churches. They had programs to support the widows and the destitute. They worked for justice and tried to improve the conditions for the workers and improve the system that was causing the poverty. The church took care of “the poor among you” that are always there (John 12:7).
In the dismal environment around the London docks, the only way that people would be able to experience beauty would be through the church. The only way they could experience art was through the church, the way they would hear great music. If the people were going to be covered “with God’s beauty, then the church was going to have to provide copious amounts of costly [perfume] in the midst of their desperate, needy, and seemingly hopeless neighborhood.”
What more could have been done if the churches had spent all their money on something other than this “perfume?” Then imagine what the people on the docks and their families would have missed without all of that beauty, all of that alternative learning, all of that effort to demonstrate how valuable they were. They had all of this because of the example of the extravagant love of Mary of Bethany, and others like her since, reminding us by their gifts of the extravagant love of God.
How do we do that? How do we fully give our lives to God? How do we hold nothing back? How do we live an extravagant love of God that shows our gratitude for everything that God has done for us? How do we release ourselves and our resources to join God’s work in the world around us as fully as we can? How do we show God’s extravagant love to everyone around us every day? Never forget. We are on a mission, a mission from God to show the world God’s extravagant love.