“At Jesus’ Feet”
April 7, 2019 – Lent 5 – Year C
As you listen to this message, I invite you to breath deeply and imagine the sanctuary filled with the smell of expensive perfume. With each breath you take, smell the perfume and feel Mary’s hair draped over your feet. Feel the touch of Mary’s hands on your feet, massaging in the costly oil. This is the scene in which Jesus, along with Mary, Lazarus, and Judas and presumably the remaining disciples find themselves. Join this tableau for the next 10 or so minutes.
Think of some of the homes that you walk into and are moved by the wonderful scents. Perhaps it is the smell of freshly baked bread. Or the lingering perfume from a bubble bath. The Gospel writer of John tells us that the smell of perfume filled the house. The unselfish gift Mary offered affected all who were there. Those who witnessed the exchange as well as Mary and Jesus, were deeply touched. And isn’t Jesus presence like that fragrance or aroma that fills the air. You know that Jesus had been there because his presence lingers on.
From the song in the play “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Mary sings, “I don’t know how to love him,” but she expressed her loving through the perfume. Love expressed in a gift – love revealed through the wonderful scent that pervaded the room. The sweet smell of the perfume which filled the whole house, was a sensual experience.
When Mary gave the extravagant gift of the perfumed oil to Jesus, she hadn’t necessarily thought it all through. If she had, she probably would have been more reserved, followed Judas’ advice and given the money to the poor. It is easy to be analytical and careful like Judas. Mary’s gift was impulsive – the kind of thing that would seldom get through the board of a charitable organization, or an institution, or a corporate board, or, for that matter a local church budget committee. But love is not love if it is carefully calculated.
I wonder if I have ever been that extravagant in my gift sharing. Have I ever been that extravagant when I discern my PAR contribution to the church? Have I ever been that extravagant in pouring out my love? What extravagances does this scene bring to mind for you?
The Good News Bible states, “She has done a fine and beautiful thing for me.” Jesus’ disciples probably expected him to praise them, when they protested that the ointment would have been better sold and the money given to the poor. He didn’t. Many people give generously to support used clothing stores and soup kitchens. But they wouldn’t dream of getting to know a transient personally. Many give generously to causes such as “Grandmothers for Africa”, “The David Suzuki Foundation” or any number of tremendous organizations. But we fail to engage with the grassroots of the group. We don’t attend information sessions believing we have done our part, or we know the story well. It is too easy to make compassion a principle – Jesus always made it a person.
Patrick Willson, a Presbyterian minister describes one of the most memorable grocery shopping excursions. He says, “I waited in a long check out line. Directly in front of me was an elderly gentleman refinely dressed. While we waited, we struck up a conversation. I was fascinated by the assortment of vegetables in his basket. Yes, he explained, since the death of his wife 15 years before, he had become quite a cook, though it was dreary cooking for one, most of the time.
In the line ahead of him was a young woman with a son clinging to her jeans and a infant daughter asleep in the cart. The checker rang up her shopping and pointed to the bouquet of flowers she held. The checker rang a total. The young woman looked at the total, then examined her wallet. She shook her head and handed the flowers across to the checker who laid them behind on a counter to be replaced in the market. Children in tow, the mother wheeled toward the exit.
The older gentleman moved with a swiftness that certainty betrayed his age. He motioned to the checker for the flowers, indicated that they went on his bill, and quickly caught up with the young mother. With a gesture that would have shamed Lancelot, he laid the bouquet of blossoms in her arms, bowed elegantly and returned to line with a big smile. “I hope she doesn’t think I’m a dirty old man,” he giggled, “but I so seldom have an opportunity to give anything to anyone.”
As we delve into the Gospel text, we are reminded that giving and receiving are deeply connected. Love is never one-sided, and compassion requires us to show our love in the way we act. Mary anointing Jesus feet may have been done for a lot of different reasons, but it is an act of love. Perhaps it was thanks for raising Lazarus on his last visit, perhaps she somehow knew what was coming, but she was not afraid to act because of what other’s might think. We too are called to care for one another, unconditionally, – to care for the vulnerable in our midst with compassion and love. We too need to find ways to celebrate God’s love in our lives.
Here we are, drawing close to Easter – that season of butterflies, lilies, and joy. But to get there we first have to encounter Jesus on the way to Golgatha. Jesus has just had the encounter of raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. Mary was a witness to that event. Now, she is pouring expensive oil over the feet of her friend, leader and guide. By anointing Jesus, Mary actively signals that she recognizes Jesus’ special role and relationship to God. What a moment that must have been! Just like in ancient times, Mary realized that anointing was to make a person sacred. Kings such as Solomon were anointed when they ascended the throne, indicating God’s approval. So, here we have Mary anointing Jesus just before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
By pouring oil on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair, Mary was foreshadowing the Last Supper, in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus uses this foot washing to symbolize true discipleship, in which all were called to serve one another as equals. Jesus’ friend Mary recognizes and lives out this servant model of discipleship. She pours out expensive perfume on the feet of the one who makes himself servant of all, including the poor and outcasts. Since ointments and spices and oils were usually poured on the bodies of the dead, Mary’s action hints at the crucifixion – when Jesus’ own life would be poured out on the cross.
According to theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Mary is portrayed as a true disciple in contrast to Judas, the unfaithful disciple. We heard how Judas is presented as a hypocrite who claims to be concerned with the poor, but, is more concerned with lining hi own pockets with money. Jesus responds pointing out what true discipleship is all about. Although “The poor you will always have with you,” has traditionally been seen as a justification for callous behaviour, it is actually a quote from Deuteronomy 15:11, which reads: “There will always be some Israelites who are poor and in need, and so I command you to be generous to them.” Jesus is not saying “don’t worry about the poor, there is always a lot of them around.” Instead he is saying “There are so many in need, so pour out your blessings upon them.”
As our Lenten journey moves us toward the final walk of Jesus into Jerusalem, we remember the incredible gift that Mary of Bethany poured on Jesus. It was an extravagant expression of love. It was costly, not simply in terms of financially but also because to love someone that much involves risk. But Mary’s gift reminds us that love graciously given – and love graciously received is to be our anointing.
May we once again take a moment to smell the perfumed oil. May we feel the tears that accompany the anointing. Feel Mary’s hair touching your legs and feet. Feel Mary’s hands caressing your feet. Be wrapped in this most sensuous experience. Extravagant love is poured out for you. Amen.