This fifth Sunday in Lent leading us to Palm Sunday, mentions five persons — Jesus, his host family for dinner, namely sisters Martha and Mary, their brother Lazarus — whom Jesus recently raised from the dead, and Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
Right in the middle of the Gospel is Mary.
Historians and theologians have debated for centuries whether this Mary of Bethany was or was not the same person so prominently mentioned in scripture as Mary Magdalene. A recent paper explored that topic, as did the pastors who gathered a couple weeks ago for the monthly text study. We heard both theories. We do know from John that this Mary was sister to Martha as well as Lazarus whom Jesus raised. There are many theories about Mary. But all of the debates miss the point though, of the Gospel lesson. Instead of focusing on Mary’s identity or vocation, let’s examine just how her loving, generous act was perceived by Jesus as well as by Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would ultimately betray his lord.
What did she do? She blew the equivalent of a year’s worth of wages on “pure nard” a perfume. This was indeed an extravagant act. With it, she washed and anointed his feet. Usually water would have been used, and the action was not one of a homeowner, but rather done by a servant. On top of that, to wipe the perfume, instead of a towel to wipe it dry, she loosened her hair. That action was something that was usually only done in front of a husband or children, certainly not among non-family members. Touching a man in public was likewise a taboo.
We can see parallels here with Jesus’ actions at the last supper. Jesus dining with close friends, spending one last meal with them in a private setting. Jesus fulfilling the role of servant, washing his disciples’ feet–an act of love and caring shortly before he would suffer humiliation, torture, and death on the cross.
Mary’s gift and actions also reflected honor, love, and her foresight of what was to come. She was a true disciple and follower. Here she was dining with her brother, the one Jesus raised–the one who was living proof that death didn’t have the last word. Mary acknowledged what Jesus was about to do by anointing his feet, as in preparation for his death and burial. When people were crucified, usually the bodies were left on the cross by the Romans. They were not allowed to be taken down and prepared for burial. The Romans allowed the birds to pick at the bodies. A crucified person on a cross was a visible symbol to discourage the person’s followers in continuing the cause or beliefs. Denying them a proper burial was a stark reminder and warning that they too could suffer the same fate.
As far as the year’s wages going for perfume, we too might cringe at the thought of this extravagant act. And Judas asked the question: why wasn’t the money given to the poor? It could have done a lot of people a great deal of good. On the surface, it’s a fair question and makes sense. But the Gospel spells out though for us Judas’ true motive. We know he was the treasurer among the disciples, and our text tells us that he took for his own use regularly from the coffers. Judas wasn’t motivated by concern for the poor-he saw a year’s wages as another opportunity to steal money.
As Professor Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary points out, we have two polar opposites: Mary displaying her true discipleship and love versus Judas with his false discipleship. Lavish devotion vs. critical stinginess. Discipleship vs. discipline.
Another feature of our text to reflect on is the aroma the perfume produced, filling the entire house with its fragrance. The sense of smell is a powerful one. I invite each of you to think of a memorable one in your own life. It might be an aroma from the kitchen, the oven where delicious meals were created by beloved family members. For those from a rural background, the smells could be more earthy, more those from life on the farm.
In our Gospel, Mary’s gift filled the house with a wonderful fragrance that created a pleasant environment for good friends to enjoy a last meal together. Mary’s gift represented, according to Luther Seminary Professor Adam Copland, lavish living in the present. I wonder if that’s a bit questionable to you too. Perhaps troubling or unclear to you also is the last statement in our Gospel, Jesus’ remark that implies a lack of caring for the poor. It translates “8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Theologians reference a passage from Deuteronomy 15:11 “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” Copeland also writes that that this passage is indeed a call to action, not an acceptance of the plight of the poor. For the fact that there will always be people in need. We too are called to support worthy causes. For indeed, in our global economy, our neighbor isn’t just down the block or in the same county.
Perhaps our text this morning serves a couple purposes.
Perhaps it’s a reminder of Holy Week and the torment, suffering, and death of our Lord Jesus, God’s gift of his only son that we might be saved.
And perhaps it’s a call to action on our part, that we too seek to be extravagant in how we share the gifts from God in our lives.