Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
March 17, 2013, Lent 5
Scripture: John 12:1-11
Listen to Podcast
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God
“Reflections in the Window: Honoring Christ”
Who doesn’t love a good dinner party? The chance to gather with friends, enjoy delicious food and tell stories should not be missed.
When I was in high school my friends and I used to have dinner parties. Every couple of months one of us would host a dinner party. They started as potluck dinners with board games afterwards, but they quickly evolved into formal affairs. Invitations were passed out secretly in the school cafeteria during lunch and the preparations began. The host family provided the entire meal. The meal was served on the good china with the fancy silver in the formal dining room. The teenage guests all came dressed up in our best outfits to fit the theme suggested on the invitation. It was fun to dress up and eat exquisite food prepared by our friends and their parents. And the parents really enjoyed the experience too. While they didn’t dine with us, they loved helping to serve us and listen to our conversations from the kitchen; probably laughing at our clumsy dinner conversations. I remember everyone was so anxious about those first dinner parties. We worried about using the right forks and spoons; the hosts stressed if the salt and pepper shakers weren’t on the table, or if they forgot something.
As I have grown and matured, and especially since I have had children, I have relaxed my need to have everything absolutely perfect when we host a dinner party. While we want things to be nice and comfortable for our guests I am firm believer that grace abounds. But having said that, if someone walked in, broke open a bottle of aromatic ointment and started rubbing another guest’s feet I am pretty sure I would be startled.
This is exactly what happened at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Mary, moved by love for Christ, interrupts the dinner party by breaking open a jar of perfume made from nard and anointing Jesus’ feet. I want to cut Mary a bit of slack for this social faux pas because she and her sister had just been wrapped up in the depths of despair. Their brother, Lazarus, had been dead and in the tomb for FOUR days.
Before he died, they had tried to get Jesus to come, but he just couldn’t make it. So Mary and Martha buried their brother and were in deep grief for him. But then Jesus showed up and called Lazarus out of the clutches of death. With the stench of death still around him, Lazarus walks out of the cave in which they had laid him to rest back into relationship with his sisters. Overjoyed by his presence, but also very aware of the huge crowd grumbling around them, Mary and Martha take Jesus and his disciples back to their home in Bethany.
This is the scene depicted in our window. A dinner party thrown to celebrate the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection, a dinner party to remove Jesus from the angry eyes of the Pharisees who had begun to plot Jesus’ death.
If you survey the window from the top down, you can take in the whole scene. We have Martha serving, as she always does. There she is, top left hand side of the window, bringing food to the table in the basket on top of her head. And there are two of the disciples at the table, probably trying to find out from Lazarus what it was like to be dead. “Was there a bright light? What did the Holy Throne look like?” And there on the left behind Jesus is the newly resurrected Lazarus, the one with the blue shirt to match his sister Mary’s. And then we have Jesus with his feet extended to Mary. This is where, in my opinion, our artist got the details a bit wrong.
The text tells us “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”
But in our window we see Mary’s hair is still safely covered and appropriate. In the text we see that Mary’s gratitude and love for Christ have led her to forget the acceptable social conventions of the day. It would have been highly inappropriate for a respectable woman to let her hair down in the company of a roomful of men, but that doesn’t stop Mary. Jesus has just brought her brother back to life, he has just pulled Lazarus from the clutches of death. In light of this extravagant act of grace Mary is moved to care for Jesus. Like everyone else in the house, she is aware that this miracle has caused quite a stir among the Jewish leadership, it has focused attention on Christ in ways that will lead to serious repercussions.
In this act of resurrection she recognizes in Christ, what she has known all along, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God who has come to extend God’s justice and reconciliation. Moved by this truth, Mary needs to respond with her own act of extravagance, so she goes to fetch the finest ointment to anoint him, to set him apart, to mark him for God’s work in the world.
Susan Hylen, a Professor of New Testament at Emory University tells us that “anointing with oil or perfume had many purposes in antiquity. For kings and priests, anointing meant consecration for a specific purpose. The sick were anointed as a ritual of healing and the dead were anointed for burial.”
So Mary enters the room with a pound of costly perfume, she unwraps her hair and stands before Jesus. In that moment she could have moved around the back of Jesus to anoint his head, a prophetic act signifying him as King. But instead, in the Gospel of John, Mary sits on the floor and anoints his feet, a part of the ritual of preparation for death and burial, and then wipes his feet with her hair.
Nothing about this act fits the social norms. It is an extravagant act of devotion in response to a gift of life that is too big for words. It is an extravagant act of gratitude that highlights the hidden priorities and intentions of everyone else in the room, especially Judas.
He wants to know why Mary is allowed to waste this expensive gift on Jesus’ feet when it could have been sold and used for the poor. The text tells us that this is not really why Judas wants to sell the perfume, but Jesus doesn’t allow the conversation to go any further. “Leave her alone,” Jesus says to him. “She is preparing me for the day of my burial.”
But in our window, this portion of the story is ignored. The artist has Mary’s hair safely tucked away, safely tied back and covered and Lazarus, if present at all, plays no significant part of the rendering of this story. My interpretation: the artist was uncomfortable with the extravagance and intimacy of Mary’s gift so he downplayed the awkwardness of that moment.
Anointing Jesus feet and drying them with her hair. Imagine the posture needed for such an act. Mary would have needed to be bent over the feet of the Messiah; crouched close enough to wrap her hair around his feet to absorb the excess ointment.
What would it have been like to be the other disciples around the table that day? What would it have been like to be Martha or Lazarus, to see their sister in such a position before Christ? What would it have been like to witness such extravagant gratitude?
Our window sums up our reaction pretty well. Not one person other than Christ is actually looking at the blessing taking place on the floor. We don’t know what to do with such expressions. When we are confronted with such exuberance we usually ignore it like the other disciples or attack it like Judas. When Jesus addresses Judas, I wonder if he is also addressing those of us who are pulling back from such unconventional and excessive outpourings of faith, love and service?
Like Mary and Martha we too have received an amazing gift of restored life, of resurrection and new beginnings. We too have been recipients of the extravagant grace of God working in our lives. How do we respond? How do we honor Christ among us? Are we like Martha, busy trying to get the table set and the people fed? Are we like Lazarus, simply sitting at the table with Christ? Are we like the other disciples, unsure of what to say or do? Are we like Judas, trying to find ways to keep what has been given for ourselves? Or are we like Mary? At the feet of Jesus, trying to honor the gift in our midst by extravagantly pouring out all that we have at our disposal?
We have come to that time of the church year. The talk of crucifixion is in the air. The Pharisees are plotting and Judas has a plan in mind. The crowds are gathering for the Passover feast. As we look forward to the gift of resurrection we know is coming how do we respond? What posture do we take? What gifts are we pouring out for the sake of Christ?
Let us pour forth our gifts that they may be a bouquet of joy that honors Christ and helps the world know of the extravagant gift so freely given for you…
So freely given for me…
So freely given for all of God’s children everywhere.