Fifth Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
What would you say is the worst (or to gently say most challenging) part of reading scripture? Its boring, right? Part of our struggle to engage with Holy Scripture is that we don’t find it stimulating, first of all, let alone relevant and helpful. But what if we began to see scripture not only as the foundation of our life and faith, but as a riveting drama? So, let me set the scene.
It is six days before Jesus will be handed over and crucified in Jerusalem. And he is in Bethany, which means, variously, “house of affliction” or “house of prayer.” And he is sitting with some old friends, Martha and her sister Mary, in their home. And who else is there? Well, Lazarus, right? The guy who just one chapter back in John’s Gospel was raised from the dead by Jesus. And here he sits, at table with everyone else. And his resurrection from death has inspired some (who wouldn’t be inspired, right?) but it has also solidified the ruling authorities against him, too; the die is cast: Jesus must die.
And amidst this grand drama, Mary, the sister who in Luke’s Gospel had listened so intently to Jesus that her sister Martha complained she wasn’t helping, bursts onto the scene, pours a truly huge amount of perfumed anointment onto Jesus’ feet, and begins to methodically, lovingly, wipe the anointment off her with hair. If she had the hair of Rapunzel it wouldn’t be enough to wipe up all this oil but, here she is doing it. And John tells us, the aroma filled the entire house. I’ll bet it did!! And her action is not without controversy. Others might have thought, “Wow, Mary, why so much, why this, what are you doing” but Judas speaks about the poor, and waste, and appropriateness out loud. And Jesus counters with the value of what Mary has done and that she is not only acting but understanding that Jesus’ time among them is almost done. And Mary, oblivious to the men’s arguing, methodically continues with her impossible task: wiping, touching and loving the feet, the person, the sense of Jesus. Can’t you perceive that something electric, different is happening here? This is not a stodgy, musty for the ages, not relevant kind of story. The Gospel conveys that a) Jesus is about to suffer and die for the love of all. b) God is about to do a new thing in the history of our salvation for the love of all c) finally, Mary acts as Jesus commands, as He lived, as He died, as He presents Himself to us still: in overwhelming, reckless, and intimate love that has no filters, no boundaries. No matter where the story of God with God’s people takes us, it is, first and last, a story of love. God, in Christ, has done a new thing, to our great good: He has taken off the cap, the constraints, the Law and broken Himself in a final act of love that He calls us into, too.
What I want to turn to is the action of Mary, as she anoints Jesus with this huge quantity of rich ointment. John tells us, after she does this “the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Isn’t that how love works, really, particularly the love of God in Christ? When it is shared, it fills whatever space it occupies: a room, a house, the space of the human heart. Mary’s courageous act is filled with impulse and intimacy. And she, as a 1st century woman, did not have free leave to touch a man, particularly a teacher or rabbi. But she comes and attends to Jesus because that is what love, in that moment, demands. And her love is not flaccid, or measured, or tempered by who Jesus is or who is around. She pours it out in the form of this thick ointment and seals the loving act with her own (certainly now perfume-soaked) hair.
And she immediately gets push back from Judas, held too much down by earthly demands. And he has a point, right? This is way too much anointing for one person and the money used for the perfume could have been better spend caring for the poor. But Jesus reminds Judas, all the disciples, and us: hold onto Jesus and pour out our love on Him because everything else we do, say, or think about will flow from that place of love. If we love Jesus, our Lord, with all of our hearts, minds, and souls, and do it courageously, regardless of the cost, the ridicule, then our love, like the ointment of Mary, will never, ever be wasted. Then, with the love of Christ flowing through us, anointing us, we can attend to the poor, the sick, the unloved…without ceasing. Mary, in her way, had received the overwhelming love of Christ’s grace, blessing, and knew Him to be the Lord of her life and Savior. She was known by Christ and wanted to know him. She had been loved by him and, therefore, I would like to think, had the strength to love Him in return.
There is a kind of love that the well-worn word agape embodies. It is a love that is not predicated on being loved back, getting anything back, it is love that gushes from one to another – friend, family, lover, and foe alike – in a way that is life-giving, restorative, and redemptive. Agape has most often been used to characterize Christ-centered love because it is a love that is bound in grace and endless possibility. It is a love that is courageous enough to enter a male-dominated 1st century world and empty out love upon Jesus himself (see Mary). It is a love that can be given to those that resist us and point out all the reasons our love is wrong (see Judas), and allows us to receive the love of the one that we claim as Lord (see Jesus). We don’t mind loving the underdog, because sometimes that is exactly where God wants us.
Our lives are grounded in many things, material and emotional. Paul talks about his prior life as a religious elitist, a Hebrew among Hebrews, a person of power, privilege and respectability. A persecutor of the Church of Christ, a murderer of Jesus’ disciples. And yet, he says, I have been found by and in the love and grace of Jesus and now I count all that came before as nothing. I have found the unsurpassed grace and saving love of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord, Paul says. I have made it my own and I continue to move forward, without standing still, toward the prize of being fully known by the God of my life.
Paul’s words may mean little to us; but they should. What are the things that we stand on? What has moved us in this life, I mean really made us think we had found something of unrivaled value? Can it be that nothing in our lives, no matter how wonderful, can compare to knowing that Jesus Christ is our Lord, the One who loved us when we struggled to know love, and the One who died for us, even when we were unsure of who He was or might be to us? What drove Mary to pour so lavishly this expensive perfume onto the feet of a prophet and teacher who was about to be crucified? Love, I think, and the realization that Jesus was not just any man, not just any rabbi but Lord, Son of God, the future of the human race. And the scent of her love filled the entire house. The love of Jesus can fill us like nothing we have ever known. This Lenten season encourages us to be still and know that God is God. But it is not about austerity or solemnity but about allowing us the space to be filled with the knowledge of a love that is bigger and brighter than anything we could ever hope to know: the agape love of the One who died and rose again, and commanded us to share the love that is given to us. First, we must live to receive it.