Lent 5, Year C, April 7, 2019
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
My family went to church every Sunday when I was a kid, but the first time I remember consciously hearing the story of our Gospel reading was actually from the original cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. And that’s a great show with a lot of good songs, but like all dramatizations of Scripture it takes liberties here and there. Being a good, church-going Christian child, I knew that God wanted us to give generously to those in need, and I knew that Jesus had spent a lot of time feeding the hungry and healing the sick and things like that. So I assumed that when Jesus said that there will always be poor, it must have been made up for the show. I was very surprised when my Dad explained that no, Jesus actually did say something like that, although the show elaborated it a lot. It just did not make sense to me. It didn’t fit with what else I knew of Jesus.
This passage made a lot more sense to me—or, at least, fit better within what I knew of Jesus—when I got to seminary and learned that Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15. Deuteronomy 15 talks about how God’s people are supposed to be generous to the poor always, and give without being stingy or resentful. There will always be poor, and that’s why God’s people need to be constantly generous. Not just a little bit here and there, but always generous to those in need. Most people take Jesus’ line that “there will be poor always” as an excuse not to be generous—after all, it’s not like it’s going to make a difference. But Jesus is actually quoting a Scripture passage that, if you read the whole thing, says that we should be generous precisely because there are always people in need.
That fit better with what I knew of Jesus, but it still didn’t explain why he didn’t agree with Judas that selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would be a better use of it than extravagantly anointing Jesus with it. True, Judas had selfish motives, but he also had a point about how extravagantly wasteful this whole thing is. I mean, what does Jesus need oil for? It serves no practical purpose. It does serve a couple of different symbolic purposes; as Jesus said in the reading, it’s something that they did to dead bodies, and Jesus was about to die. And also, kings and priests and prophets were commonly anointed with oil; “Messiah” literally means anointed one. The person who’s had the special oil put on them as a symbol of how chosen and precious they are to God. So Mary’s actions served as a sign both of who Jesus was and what was to come. But surely, there was less expensive oil that would have done the job, or she could have used less; spending the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars on a single action is pretty extravagant. Surely they could have found some very good quality oil that would have been less expensive, and used the rest for feeding the hungry or whatever? It just doesn’t seem like good stewardship.
The thing is, though, that abundance is a theme in the Gospel of John. In the first chapter, we are told that we have all received grace upon grace from God’s fullness. Jesus’ first act of ministry is providing 150 gallons of the best wine for the wedding at Cana. In John 10, Jesus says “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” God’s goal isn’t just that we might have enough, but that we might have more than enough. God works to provide enough so that everyone’s life might overflow with goodness. The fact that there is need and poverty isn’t because of some failure on God’s part to provide; God provides abundantly. If there is scarcity and need in the world, it is because of human sin and greed and stinginess. God provides abundantly, and calls his people to do the same.
And this anointing is abundant. It’s a pound of pure nard, imported from the Himalayas, a pungent, earthy perfume that filled the house. Like any perfume, it would have lingered, and lingered even longer than we might expect, given that water was scarce and they probably didn’t bathe often. Jesus might have carried the fragrance of that anointing with him all the way to the cross. It was an extravagant gift, an extravagant act. When Mary knelt and poured it over Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair, it was an extravagant act of worship, far beyond what could ever have been asked or expected of her. And that extravagance is kind of the point. Love overflowed in her, love of Jesus who had raised her brother from the dead, love for the God whose power was revealed in Jesus’ saving actions. That love overwhelmed her, and no rational, logical, small gift would have conveyed the enormity of what she felt. The only way to express her devotion was through an immense gift, given in a spirit of worship and service. It was not the prudent choice, but not everything is about prudence. Sometimes, it’s about abundant love. Sometimes, it’s about a leap of faith.
Yes, the money spent could have been given to the poor. But the poor are always with us; one extravagantly generous gift wouldn’t have solved anything. Mary and Martha and Lazarus were devoted followers of Jesus, so I have no doubt that they lived lives of generosity and service, giving regularly to help those in need. The fact that in this instance Mary gave such a gift to Jesus doesn’t mean she wasn’t also giving to those in need. The thing is, while God’s call to be generous is an important part of the Christian life, it is not at the heart of it. We give because of our love of God, and because we have experienced the love of God poured out in us and in our lives. That love—the grace upon grace we receive and share—is the core of the Gospel. That love is the reason God sent Jesus to minister to us, to die for us, and finally to rise from the grave for us. That love is the reason for all of God’s saving actions. That love is what created us in our mothers’ wombs, nurtured us as we grew, and has been with us every step of our lives. That love is what redeems and saves us from our own sins. That love is what heals us and makes us whole. That love is what brings us here today. And that love is what calls us to share God’s abundance with the world. As we ourselves have received grace upon grace from God’s loving arms, we are called to share that grace with others, in word and deed.
The church is not a social service agency that happens to have a worship service every week. The church is a community built around God’s love, nurtured through worship and God’s Word, which sustains us and helps us grow and sends us back out into the world to be God’s hands and feet. This last week our Lenten Bible Study focused on the fruits of the Spirit. To use that metaphor, generosity to those in need is the fruit of the spirit … and the love of God is the root. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot have the constant generosity God calls us to without being devoted to the love of God. If you try to separate generosity and love, all too often you end up like Judas: nickel-and-diming everything, and using charity as a cover for your own selfishness. Mary knew how to love beyond measure. Mary knew how to let God’s love overflow in her. Mary did not allow anything—not self-consciousness, not society’s approval, not money, not anything—get in the way of letting her show that love in word and deed. And it was extravagant, and it was amazing.
I wonder what it would be like if we loved like that. If we were willing to let the love of God overflow in us that much that sometimes—not always, not in everything—but sometimes, we let that love overflow into extravagant, abundant signs of the kingdom. If we spent more time focusing on God’s abundance than on what we lack. If we let go of our fears and anxieties and self-consciousness and put our trust in God. If we let that love and trust be the core of everything we do, not just in name only but in reality. I don’t know, but I bet amazing things would happen.