|The Ointment of the Magdalene (Le parfum de Madeleine). James Tissot, c. 1900|
Our Gospel message comes to us today from John the 12th chapter, beginning at the 1st verse.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (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.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8, NRSV)
All mighty God, we thank you for your word and the way that you in it revealed to us who you are and what you've done for us in Christ. Now as we open that word we pray that your spirit may be present, that all thoughts of worry or distraction may be removed and that the Spirit will allow us to hear your voice. And so, oh God, fill us with your spirit through the reading and proclamation of your word this day. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.
“Extravagant Love - What Does it Cost You?”
The couple enjoyed dinner parties and they hosted them often. It was a chance for them to be together in their creativity. They put a great deal of time into planning the menu, shopping for the food, and preparing the various dishes. The table was very carefully set with their best dishes, flatware and linens. The centerpiece was often created from the flowers and shrubs that grew in their yard. The wines were chosen after much discussion and with great care.
Many of their friends thought all this preparation was unnecessary and even a waste of time. But for them it was an important ritual that enhanced and enriched the gatherings but more importantly their own relationship. It brought out the best in them, individually and as a couple. They looked forward to the days they spent together preparing for a dinner party.
This story is like today’s gospel in that some people see a story of extravagant love; while others only see a story of foolish waste. Today’s gospel is one of the most interesting stories in the New Testament. Every gospel writer includes their version of the story. In John’s version, it is sandwiched in between some (not all) of the religious leaders planning to arrest Jesus and put him and Lazarus to death and then Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem by the welcoming crowds with palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” You also remember that in chapter eleven Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Now, in chapter twelve, Lazarus, Martha and Mary throw a party for Jesus and his disciples—probably out of their deep appreciation for the raising of Lazarus back to life.
It is a most unusual story—in fact it is a radical story because Mary, in a surprising way, takes center stage. In those days, it was unheard of for a woman to act like Mary. Women were not to be on center stage—especially in the presence of men! Not only does Mary crash this dinner party by taking center stage, but she does a most radical thing—she cracks open the seal of this jar containing very expensive perfume and proceeds to pour it all over Jesus’ feet. But she doesn’t stop there! She goes on to wipe his feet with her long locks of hair.
Can’t you hear the other eyewitnesses self-righteously criticize Mary, saying things like: “She has no respect for herself, for Jesus, or for us! How dare you Mary—dishonoring Jesus like that! It is a violation of our laws for a woman to touch a man in public—especially a rabbi!—like Mary has just done. Who does she think she is anyways!?” And then there was Judas, who complained about Mary so recklessly wasting that pound of perfume, which could have been sold for almost a year’s wages and the proceeds given to the poor. Complaints, complaints, complaints, and more complaints! People totally misunderstanding the motives, the reasons behind Mary’s spontaneous action. People looking for a reason to be offended and all-too-easily finding it. As the adage goes: “You see and find whatever you are looking for.”
I wonder, what we see and find in this story of Jesus being anointed by Mary? Do we only see the surface meaning of the story—or do we dig deeper to see and find something of the eternal meaning of this story? Let’s take a look at the story again and explore some of the deeper meanings in it.
First of all, Mary’s action of anointing and wiping Jesus’ feet in public was an act of loving extravagance, of spontaneous generosity. Webster’s dictionary defines extravagance like this: “Spending more money than one can afford, or spending foolishly, carelessly or wastefully; using too much of anything involving expense; going beyond what is reasonable, justified or normal; exaggerated, overemphatic.” Mary’s deep love and gratitude for Jesus was not expressed by carefully planned and calculated actions of expression. Hers is a love that is full-to-overflowing with spontaneous, unmeasured giving towards Jesus in response to all that he had done for her and her family. Her loving extravagance and spontaneous generosity towards Jesus was an act of sacrificial giving. Mary was not content with convenient “minimal requirements,” or half-hearted gesturing; she went all out; by anointing Jesus with all of the perfume; nearly a whole year’s wages worth; she symbolically was giving herself completely in loving service of Jesus. Her loving, sacrificial example of serving Jesus in this way teaches us that we cannot fix a price on unconditional love; in true love there is no such thing as waste; true love moves us to act with extravagance and generosity, like Mary.
Secondly, Mary’s extravagance and generosity is a prophetic act of courage and deep understanding. It is an act of courage precisely because it was so radical, so out of the ordinary, going far beyond the acceptable customs of that day. In a man’s world, it required a tremendous amount of courage on Mary’s part to crash that dinner party and anoint Jesus’ feet. Women were supposed to be unseen and unheard; their place was in the kitchen, behind the scenes, almost never on center stage; only rarely in positions or roles of power, influence and leadership. In doing what she did, Mary had the courage to express who she really was; to be her true self as a faithful disciple of Jesus. Sometimes we too might be inspired by Mary to have the courage to step beyond the confining, and stifling boundaries of the traditional customs of our day in order to express who we really are and to be our true selves in order to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
Mary’s extravagant and generous anointing of Jesus’ feet was also a prophetic act. In this act, Mary, as Jesus rightly states, done it to prepare him for his burial, which was just around the corner. Mary was given the insight to see that Jesus’ days on earth were numbered; he would soon face his own death. This was her way of preparing Jesus for that sad event. It was her way of saying good-bye to him. Yet, there may also be another prophetic meaning to Mary’s action. It may well be that Mary in doing this act is foreshadowing what Jesus himself would do with his disciples when he washed their feet. Understood in this light, we have here a prophetic act that underscores the truth of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—namely, to live a life in humble service of others. Jesus, although he was the Messiah and “true God,” revealed who he was not as a remote dictator on a throne in some luxurious palace—NO! Rather, he revealed whom he really was in humble service of others; in simple acts of washing his disciples feet and leaving this example for every would-be disciple of his to follow. So Mary is foreshadowing a true discipleship of humble service of others.
Thirdly, John commenting on Mary’s act tells us of its immediate consequence—namely, that: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” I rather like this detail of the story, because it stirs our creative imagination. I can picture, once again a variety of responses. Some folks smelling that perfume may very well have starting to sneeze or cough or wheeze because they were allergic to it. Others may simply have hated the smell of it and quickly departed in disgust. Yet others may have savored the perfume’s smell—enjoying it to the utmost. Be that as it may, I’m sure that John provides this little detail to point us to a deeper, more symbolic meaning. The perfume’s fragrance filling the house and lingering there for a while may very well be a symbol of the beauty and joy of our loving relationship with Jesus which lingers and fills our lives with fullness and meaning. The pleasant fragrance of that lingering perfume may remind us that our life in Christ is not intended to be stinky, dull or boring. Rather, it is intended to be chock-full of meaning, joy, beauty and adventure.
Another symbolic meaning of this lingering fragrance of the perfume may point us to the sweetness of deeds of loving-kindness. We never know how our acts of loving extravagance and spontaneous generosity will influence others. Some would say that such actions linger on for a long enough time to make a big difference. Who knows, our acts of loving extravagance and spontaneous generosity may even change the Church and world. You never know... especially when Christ our Savior is able to work in us, with us, and through us.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, we often find ourselves stumbling through days of frantic activity and intense confusion. May we forever respect the thoughts and works of others, seeing only good and giving only thanks. We want to understand what You did on the cross. We want to understand YOU, but it’s not easy. Regardless of what we may understand (or not), we want to lavish our love and devotion on you. In our hearts we bow before you. We pour the best of hearts on your feet and humbly wipe them with our hair. We, and the children we serve, may not understand much, but we can love you much. Help us to do that.
Teach us Good Lord; To serve you as you deserve; To give and not to count the cost; To fight and not to heed the wounds; To toil and not to seek for rest; To labor and to ask for no reward, Save that of knowing we do your will. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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1. Cited from: Emphasis, Vol. 24, No. 6, March-April 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co.), p. 37.
The Bible texts of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lessons are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA, and used by permission. Sermon contributed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson.
Mary anoints the feet of Jesus as an act of extravagant love and generosity.