Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 13th, 2016
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
You know, maybe it’s that we’re in an election year—and a particularly nasty one, at that—but Judas comes off a lot like a politician in this reading. Maybe you noticed. Judas is about to betray Jesus, and he’s been dipping into the group funds; he’s as crooked as they come. But he doesn’t want to look crooked. So he accuses someone else—Mary—of wrongdoing in order to divert attention from his own crimes, and in the process make himself look pious. Can’t argue with charity, right? That always plays well. “Will someone think of those poor starving children!”
Of course, usually when a politician pulls this, they’re attacking another politician who may very well be no better. In this case, however, Judas is attacking Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, one of Jesus’ closest followers. She is a better disciple than the Disciples, and after the resurrection Jesus will make her the first apostle. (Apostle literally means “one who is sent,” and that’s the word the risen Jesus uses to send her to tell the rest of his followers that he had risen from the grave.) And here she is, showing a devotion and a love of Jesus that none of his other followers can match. Not just in words, but in deeds—she is literally putting her money where her mouth is. A few days later, Jesus will wrap a towel around his own waist, and wash the feet of his disciples, telling them that it is a sign of love and service, and that they should do the same for each other—which they don’t, at least not then. But here is Mary, washing Jesus’ feet, showing her devotion, anticipating Jesus’ words before he’s spoken them.
I wonder if it made Judas uncomfortable. He, the faithless one, is being shown what faithfulness looks like. He’s considering betraying Jesus to his death, and here Mary is showing him what he should be doing instead. I wonder if he had trouble looking her and Jesus and the rest of the disciples in the eye, or if he decided to brazen it out and make a fuss about the cost of it to distract himself.
I wonder about the other disciples, too—how uncomfortable were they? After all, Lazarus had been dead for four days, and Jesus raised him. This wasn’t a case of a coma mistaken for death—he’d started to rot. And here he is, alive and well, sharing a meal with them. More than that—the smell of the perfume Mary used filled the house. And in those days, perfume was used mostly to cover up unpleasant scents. For example, the stench of death. Dead bodies were coated with perfumed ointment to cover up the smell of rotting flesh in the time before they were buried. Remember, they don’t have embalming fluid or refrigerated morgues, and they live in the desert. Bodies start to smell pretty darn quickly. So you have to use a lot of perfume to cover it up. The smell would fill the house. You know how some smells make you think of Christmas, or other holidays? Well, this smell would make them think of death. And here they are, gathered for a meal in the house of a dead man, and the smell of perfume starts to fill the house. And Mary starts to wash Jesus’ feet, showing a care and love that they claim to have but have never been willing to put into action. And then she begins to anoint him—just like you would anoint a body for burial. Jesus has been predicting his death for a while, now, and the disciples have been trying to deny it, and here she is anointing him for burial.
I bet that was one uncomfortable meal. I imagine a silence you could cut with a knife, as the disciples hold their breath and try to ignore the meaning of what she’s doing, the love and the acknowledgment of death both. I imagine them trying to find some way to change the subject, stop her, get the perfume back into the bottle and the smell of death out of the air. I bet a couple of them agreed with Judas—yes, what an excellent way to stop her, change the subject, get them back into their comfortable habits. They’re used to charity. They like doing it, it makes them feel good, and they know that caring for the needy is something Jesus approves of. They don’t like witnessing this love Mary has shown—it points out where they fall short, and it rubs their nose in the thing they want least to acknowledge: the reality of Jesus’ coming death.
And I wonder about Mary. I wonder what gave her such clear vision, such great love, when most of the people around her were deep in denial. She had broken all social rules to join publicly in learning from a male teacher like Jesus. She had taken a risk that few people would have, to step out of the conventional role assigned to a woman and dedicate herself to learning about God and serving him. And then her brother died, and she grieved his death, and then Jesus raised him from the dead. And now here she is breaking convention, again, by showing such attention to a man she’s not related to. She’s showing her love, and she’s breaking the silence about what’s coming. They all have to know, by this point, that the authorities hate Jesus and his disciples. They all have to know that they are under suspicion, and that things are getting dangerous. They’ve been warned, by friends and relatives, by religious leaders, by Jesus himself that death is coming. And everyone else is trying to bury their heads in the sand and pretend they’re safe, but not Mary. Not Mary. Mary faces it. If Jesus is taken and executed, who knows if they’ll get his body back to bury it? This may be her only chance to anoint him. This may be her last chance to show her love and loyalty, because they could all be arrested at any moment. And so Mary seizes the moment, and acts. In normal circumstances, this would be extravagant and wasteful. But these aren’t normal circumstances.
Mary knows who Jesus is. And she knows how much the love of God means; she knows that even in the middle of a dangerous and deadly situation, God is with them. She believes in the resurrection; she’s seen it, a foretaste of it, in her brother’s rising. She knows there is death all around them, but she also knows that there is hope. And everyone else may be willing to pretend they’ll get through this without any pains, but Mary knows better, and Mary is acts on that knowledge without counting the cost, because she trusts God in Jesus Christ that their pain will not be in vain, that evil will not win, that death will not get the last word. And so she anoints Jesus here before his death, and after his death she will go to his tomb to finish this grim task, and find him risen, and he will send her out as his apostle to tell the Good News to the disciples.
Judas was a traitor, and though he wanted to stay close to Jesus, he was more concerned with covering up his own sins than with following Jesus. The disciples were better, but they purposefully closed their ears and eyes to any truth Jesus told that they didn’t want to hear, and let their fears keep them from hearing Jesus’ message about his death … and that same refusal deafened them to the hope that would be found in his resurrection. Mary listened better, and Mary let her love for Jesus be stronger than her fears. Mary let her love for Jesus guide her actions.
I wonder, which of them are we more like? Are we like Judas, aware of our guilt but trying to hide it rather than atone for it? Sometimes, I think. Sometimes, we would rather get away with our sins than repent of them; and then we attack the ones who remind us of them. Or are we like the disciples, only listening to Jesus when he tells us things we want to hear, and closing our ears when he speaks grim truths—even when that means we cannot hear the hope and new life that Jesus promises? Do we, like the disciples, stay silent when people are attacked for doing the loving—but inconvenient—thing? Or are we Mary, knowing the hurts and dangers the world keeps waiting just outside the door, but filled with the Spirit to act in love even when staying silent would be easier?
May the Holy Spirit fill us with love and courage like Mary’s, that we may see the truth and act in love and grace.