What does it look like to give an unexpected and extravagant gift? As Lent draws to a close and we advance to Palm Sunday and Holy Week we find ourselves in the home of Martha and Mary. Here Mary gives Jesus a gift of perfume. An anointing for what is to come and an offering of thanks for what has already occurred.
Text: John 12: 1-11
The gift was wrapped perfectly. The paper creased at the corners just so. The tape almost invisible. Even the paper that was selected perfect. A metallic sliver and blue, the way the light reflected from it indicated that there was something more to discover. Of course there was a bow, tied just so.
Unwrapping the gift was a strange ritual. You see it had been wrapped so carefully, it couldn’t’ just be ripped open. Care was required to ensure that the paper didn’t rip and after removing it all there sits the box. Looking inside the box a smile reaches your lips. Yes, this is perfect. Beyond perfect, it is the gift I had always wanted but was never comfortable asking for. Given to you by someone who knows your worth.
This is the gift that Mary has just given Jesus. Expensive perfume poured out over his feet. An odd thing to do with perfume we might think, but given the circumstances entirely fitting. There is a lot going on in our passage from John’s gospel.
However, I think we can sum it up in a single word: Extravagance.
We are in the house of Martha and Mary. A well-known place to Jesus. Lazarus has just been raised from the dead and in a week’s time Jesus will be dead. This is where we are within John’s gospel. The events of Good Friday seem to still be a ways off for us, but within our passage this morning there is no doubt that we are coming to the end.
We are in the period of the Christian year known as Lent. A time when we more commonly think of giving things up, rather than living extravagantly. Yet, we consider the gift that Mary makes and we can say nothing less than this gift, this act which she makes is extravagant.
There are multiple reasons for why she might have poured that perfume on Jesus’ feet. Lazarus has just been raised from the dead, there is no doubt the smell of the grave in the air. The perfume would overpower that smell of the grave. This is one reason why she might have poured the perfume out. But why pour it on the feet of Jesus if that was the case? Why not just pour it out into a bowl? There must be something more.
Perhaps she offered the gift of perfume as a response for the great act that Jesus has just performed. The perfume is a gift for raising Lazarus from the dead, an offering of love and a way to say thank you. It is an act of gratitude. Again, why pour the perfume on the feet of Jesus? Why not just offer him the vial?
There must be something more occurring here. Could it be that Mary sensed something that the others could not? Did Mary fear that Jesus would no longer be with them? Did she know that the end was coming and if so was the act of pour the perfume an act of preparation? Borne out of love, were her actions in some way to prepare Jesus for the grave?
I suspect that all three of these motivations might be at play, but what we can say is that Mary’s gift was extravagant and her actions were unexpected.
Yet, Mary’s actions that day are not the only unexpected things that occur are they?
We have the words of Judas, words which Jesus rebukes. Judas says, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” Now, I know that the passage then goes on to explain that Judas was a thief who stole form the common purse, but he does have a point doesn’t he?
Oh poor Judas, he always gets the short end of the stick. He’s the one who betrays Jesus and as a result we have no time for him. But is Judas right? Should the perfume not have been sold to help the poor? I mean even if Judas steals some of the money that would still be a lot of money to help the poor? Is Judas right? I know it is hard to argue with Jesus, but part of me thinks that Judas has a point here.
Perhaps a better question is this. If Jesus, and presumably the other disciples, knew that Judas was a thief who stole from the common purse why did they tolerate his presence? The disciples and Jesus pooled their money, the thirteen of them lived from one pool of money and Judas stole from it. Why didn’t they send him packing?
Now, we don’t have an answer for that question but I believe there is some serious food for thought on that question. Why does Jesus tolerate Judas? We know that the disciples were a ragtag bunch, fishermen and tax collectors. Outsiders and those viewed with distrust. Individuals described as sinners. So Judas fits in, but we don’t hear about any of the other disciples in such a negative light.
What does this tell us about Christ’s heart, his compassion? What might it tell us about ourselves as sinful people? How does it inform our own relationship with Jesus and with one another? Why does God tolerate us? I will tell you that this question about Judas has been on my mind all week. I wrote today’s sermon later in the week than I normally do because I just couldn’t shake this question.
Why is Judas in the gospels, is Judas a disciple because someone had to betray Jesus? The Pharisees and high priests all knew what Jesus looked like. He’d been in the temple enough, teaching and healing, that everyone else knew what he looked like. Did Judas really need to kiss Jesus to point out who he was? I suspect that the appearance of Jesus was well known.
I don’t believe Judas is in the gospels because story required someone to betray Jesus. I believe he is the gospels because we needed to understand what it might be like to betray Jesus. My normal reaction when I think of Judas’ betrayal is one of disgust. How could he? How broken a man was Judas that he sold out Jesus for a bag of silver?
It raises the question about my own sinfulness? Think of gangster movies, you will hear the line ‘Everyone has a price.’ We find out the Judas’ price is thirty pieces of silver. It makes me wonder what my price is. At what point do I turn my back on Jesus. Judas might have sold him out for silver, but Peter does it for shame. He denies knowing Jesus three times.
It makes you wonder if the perfume that Mary poured on the feet of Jesus had been sold and Judas had stolen some of that money. Would he have still taken the silver to betray Jesus? I don’t know, perhaps he would have. However, I believe that the presence of Judas in the gospels is there for us to take a hard look at ourselves and our commitment to Jesus.
I believe that Judas was right to say what he said. His motivations might have been off, but the words he spoke had truth to them. However, I also believe that Jesus was more correct. Jesus knows the will of God. Jesus indicates that it was intended that Mary make that expensive gift.
Mary’s gift of expensive perfume is an offer of gratitude and an anointing. A way of saying thank you for what Jesus has done for her family. The extravagance of her gratitude is inspiring and we should all be inspired by the way she gives.
In the same way she gives to God, we should also be willing to give. To assist the poor and the needy. To help our neighbours. Jesus says, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” At first these words might seem confusing, after all isn’t Jesus the one who taught us to care for the poor. Why is he advocating to ignore them now?
Remember that the life of Jesus is an example to us. The things he has taught, what he has done and what has been done to him. Our task is to discern right from wrong and follow in his way. The poor will always be with you, so show them the extravagant love that Mary has just shown to me.
Consider extravagance as a spiritual practice which requires doing something unexpected, perhaps doing something new. If you think of extravagance this way, especially with extravagant giving, you will realize that this is how God operates in our lives. That we have all been recipients of an unexpected and extravagant gift of grace. Amen.