Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8
Have a few dollars burning a hole in your pocket and need some ideas about how to spend your excess funds? Perhaps you can be inspired by Hong Kong real estate magnate who spent 16.7 million dollars for two crane-shaped antique incense burners, which symbolize longevity in China. Or how about a $3,200,000 Diamond Dog Collar for your beloved canine that sports 18K white gold, platinum, and a crocodile leather collar? Or can you imagine spending $330,000 for two white truffles, “grand champions,” in the truffle world but entirely unusable for culinary concerns. I guess it’s a truffle thing. Still out of your price range? How about a $34,000 computer mouse, with White Austrian strass and covered with Swarovski crystals. OK, OK, let’s just go with Gold plated staples for $175. That should add a bit of bling to your reports. It’s all in the detail folks.
Without question our gospel story details the most extravagant gift Jesus received in his lifetime. We find Jesus at the home of Lazarus, whom he had just raised from the dead, along with his sisters Martha and Mary. Jesus is a frequent visitor to this Bethany home. As we recall from the gospel of Luke, Martha was busy serving as she does in today’s lesson, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. Today Mary still sits at Jesus’ feet, but engages in acts that unfolds one of the most touching dramas in Jesus’ life before his passion and death.
At some point in the meal, Mary takes a pound of costly perfume made from pure nard; a fragrant, imported oil from a root found in the Himalayan Mountains. She liberally anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them dry with her hair. The smell of the perfume fills the entire house.
To the eyes untrained by the love of Christ, this is a scandalous act. Judas the thief demands to know why this costly item was not sold and the proceeds given to the poor? He determines that this perfume could fetch 300 denarii, almost a year’s worth of wages; anywhere from $14,000 to $24,000 in today’s market. A vintage 16 ounces of Chanel No. 5 eau de cologne at $509 on eBay seems like a paltry sum compared to the perfume Mary acquired.
How did they do it? Were they a well to do family? Was this some sort of family inheritance? We just don’t know their economic circumstances. Further, Martha and Lazarus are especially quiet in this story, as if they agree with Mary’s act and supporting her and the implications of what she does. Jesus’ disciples are the ones who raise the criticism, here and in the other gospels.
Equally outrageous as the anointing of Jesus feet with this priceless perfume, is Mary’s act of drying his feet with her hair. Cleaning feet was an act left to servants. In the patriarchal culture of the New Testament, respectable women knew to keep their hair bound and covered, even with unrelated guests in their own home. Mary’s act of wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair was scandalous, had the air of the erotic to it to an untrained, unschooled eye. Yet Mary had learned well from Jesus, who taught about the scandalous nature of God's love, who withholds nothing from us.
This Jesus, who at Cana of Galilee turned the water in six stone jars into the finest wine for a wedding feast. This Jesus who brazenly met and talked with a scorned Samaritan woman at the well, turning her the first Samaritan evangelist. This Jesus who healed a royal official’s son with just a word, and a paralyzed man on the Sabbath. This Jesus who feeds the five thousand out of compassion and walks on water in the midst of a storm. This Jesus who healed a man born blind and raised Lazarus from the dead. This Jesus, at whose feet Mary’s sat and learned from. She learned how to give 100 percent of herself, as Jesus did. She is generous, like Jesus is generous.
So the week before Jesus’ death, without ever saying a word, Mary gives what she can. It is a costly gift. It is costly not just in that she uses up a commodity that could support her family in a time of need. It is costly in that she puts her reputation, and her family’s, on the line with no thought of herself.
It is costly in that in taking a stance, she opens herself up to the criticism of the inner group, other disciples who do not understand her actions. In Matthew and Mark, all the disciples are indignant, self-righteous. They call her act a “waste.” They question this act of giving, and her spiritual judgment in not selling this perfume to help the poor, instead of using it to anoint Jesus. Surely some local, cheap variety would suffice? Where are your priorities Mary?
So Mary, in this great sacrifice of herself and her perfume, reveals herself a true and faithful disciple. The verses before and after this passage of John, chapter 12, speak of the plotting of the chief priests and Pharisees to kill Jesus once and for all. Jesus is drawing close to the end of his life, betrayed into the hands of the enemies by Judas, who is the most critical of Mary. It is silent Mary, who sits at the Master’s feet, who seems to understand it all and take it all in. She has heard his prophecies about his betrayal, suffering and death. She feels it too drawing near. She cannot stop it. However there is something she can do.
When Jesus is present, she can express love. Without words. She can make Jesus feel loved before he must face all the rejection and suffering that lies ahead. She can anoint him while he is still alive, not dead as is customary, so he knows that she understands. He is the Anointed One. She can anoint him, just like Kings and prophets are anointed, but instead of anointing Jesus’ head, she anoints his feet, perhaps with Isaiah 52:7 in mind:
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!"
It is a bold act to anoint Jesus’ feet, acting as a servant, anointing the feet of the One who brings Good News. Mary puts it all on the line. It is most revealing that it is only in this gospel, John’s gospel, do we have the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the last supper. His act is also met with misunderstanding and indignation. So Jesus emulates the faithful disciple Mary, and the costly gift continues to be given. The costly gift Jesus gives -- his very life -- is reinforced and affirmed by the costly gift of Mary.
So Mary, the one without words, fills the room with the aroma of beautiful perfume. It comes on the heels of the reminder of the stench of Lazarus’ decaying body before it was raised. It comes in the midst of the stench of betrayal, denial, and plotting to kill. It comes in the face of the stench of Jesus’ torture and death on the cross. Mary reminds us that love has an aroma that is ultimately irresistible to those who can sense it.
The Apostle Paul would later pick up on this in his second letter to the Corinthians: But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing… And who is adequate for these things? (2 Cor. 214-16)
So as we approach Holy Week, it is Mary’s quiet but bold example that guides us. Are we willing to give the costly gift? Not the item in our possession, the priceless heirloom that cost thousands of dollars. Are we willing to give the costly gift of ourselves to the Lord? Can we anoint him with our sacrificial acts of kindness? Can we fill our space with the aroma of forgiveness and selfless love? Are we willing to say the scandalous and act scandalously for love, peace, righteousness and justice? Through this we pass on the costly gift, the life-giving gift, first bestowed on us in Jesus Christ, God’s son.
This past week, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, was among 24 other faith based organizations that filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of the current administration’s November 2014 executive actions on immigration.
The amicus brief, also known as a “friend of the court” brief, supports the administration’s appeal of a previous injunction blocking the programs’ ability to keep families and communities together. Should the injunction be lifted, more than five million people would be granted relief from potential deportation and granted the ability to travel and work legally in the U.S. The amicus brief details the disservice that the injunction poses to immigrant communities and the public at-large by keeping individuals and families in fear of deportation, hesitant to report crimes, and prohibited from seeking educational and employment opportunities. “Every day that the U.S. Congress refuses to address comprehensive immigration reform is another day at risk for millions of immigrant families,” said the Reverend Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). “The relief … will at least abate that risk for 4.5 million of our brothers and sisters.”
This is an example of a costly gift we can participate in and pass on. Let us find it out at our Annual Meeting today what costly gifts this congregation possesses and can share. Find your gift – our gift-- your costly gift and pass it on. Anoint the feet of the suffering. Fight the stench of injustice and suffering and fill the space with the aroma of our love. Let us be scandalous in love and service – the most precious anointing we can give the Lord in thanksgiving for all he has done for us. Amen.