St Johns, Johnsonville and Holy Trinity, Ohariu
Reading: John 12:1-8
Near the beginning of his Gospel, John tells the story of a wedding where Jesus turns litres of water into the very best vintage wine. It’s a story of divine extravagance; a sign of what God would do for us. Now, as we enter the final stage of Jesus’ journey, we hear of another story of extravagance. But this time it’s directed towards Jesus.
Soon Jesus will enter Jerusalem for the last time, but first he stops off in the village of Bethany, just a couple of kilometres out of the city. Here is the house of three siblings: Mary, Martha and Lazarus. We know from John, that a very close friendship has developed between Jesus and these three – a relationship marked by deep love.
A few days earlier Jesus had worked a dramatic miracle for this family. Lazarus had been critically ill and his sisters called for his help. So he had come, knowing full well it was too late. Lazarus was so dead that he stank, so dead that Jesus stood in front of his tomb and wept for his friend. But then he’d defied the power of death and ordered Lazarus to come out and to know life again.
The raising of Lazarus has won Jesus many new followers. It’s also hardened the resolve of his enemies. He’s no longer seen as a mere nuisance – an itinerant teacher from a backwater who can be sidelined. The authorities now regard him as a very dangerous threat. As John says, “from that day on they planned to put him to death.” Jesus knows his days are numbered, and when he arrives at his friends’ house, they can see it on his face.
So here they are together, for the last time, and as friends do, they put on a dinner for Jesus. Martha, as is Martha’s way, serves. Lazarus, to whom Jesus had given a second chance at life, is sitting down sharing the meal with him. Then their sister Mary appears at table, holding a clay jar in her hands. It’s filled with costly perfume; so expensive that it’s worth close to a years’ income. Without a word, she kneels at Jesus feet and breaks open the jar, and the scent fills the room. Then, with everyone in the room watching her, she does four remarkable things; indeed, they would be regarded as bizarre – each breaking the social norms of the day. She loosens her hair in a room full of men, which no respectable woman would ever do. Then she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which certainly isn’t done. Perhaps, just perhaps on his head (but then that would suggest kingship) – only the feet of the dead are anointed. Then she touches him – a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet – yet another taboo. And to crown this bizarre behaviour, she wipes the perfume off with her hair – all totally inexplicable.
So what’s going on? The other Gospel writers tell of a similar incident. But only John identifies the woman as Mary. He’s at pains to point out that here is someone who knew Jesus well; who loved him deeply; and whom Jesus also loved. Mary holds nothing back. Her devotion, her affection, and her care – it’s there for all to see. She knows who Jesus is. She knows also his fate. She crosses social boundaries to give to him something none else can, or will – not even the men who had shared his life and followed him these past few years. Perhaps, she doesn’t fully understand what she’s doing. She just knows that she has to do it. But then, that’s the nature of love. It follows instinct. It crosses boundaries and smashes norms. And if it counts the cost, then it’s not love. Love gives it’s all, and love’s only regret is that doesn’t have more to give. Love is extravagant and excessive. But then, that’s God’s love for us. Mary has experienced it in Jesus – and it’s what we see on Calvary: a love so amazing, so divine, that it demands our soul, our life, our all.
This is all very well. But let’s get real. What about all Jesus’ teaching concerning the poor? Didn’t he keep going on about them, identifying with them? And that’s Judas’ point. Why waste this precious perfume when it could’ve been sold and the proceeds given to the poor? Fair comment. For sure, John whispers in our ear: Judas doesn’t really care about the poor; he steals from the rest of the disciples; his heart isn’t in the right place – though that doesn’t answer the question. But it leaves me wondering. There’s a bit of Judas’ attitude in me. I want to be prudent, seen to be reliable and sensible. That seems a safer option than the reckless, excessive love that Mary demonstrates. But Jesus tells them to leave Mary 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.”
Whatever anyone thought about Mary’s actions, Jesus saw it as a prophetic act. She was anointing Jesus for his burial. It was a lavish, extravagant act. This wasn’t a time for meanness and prudence, for there would be nothing mean or prudent about Jesus’ death. On the cross, the lavish generosity of God’s love would be shown. In Jesus, the extravagance of God’s love is made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God’s mercy is revealed. As the last drop of Mary’s jar was poured out, so Jesus will pour out his life for humankind. But before that happens, Jesus will gather his friends together one last time. Around another table, he will give them a new commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Mary is showing us what it is to follow Jesus, to love Jesus, to be Jesus for others. We can’t be stingy with love. It can’t be measured out in sensible, reasonable doses. It can only be poured out with extravagance. Her heart is full with love – overflowing. It’s also breaking. When our hearts are full and breaking, we don’t waste time calculating the cost. We don’t sit back like Judas and calculate the cost (though that is the way of our world – and Judas would be at home in it). We simply give, though it may seem bizarre to others. And it’s those moments that transform a person, a situation, a place, a community. A word of forgiveness, an act of generosity, a journey with those suffering, the inclusion of those rejected by others – these expressions of love, these moments of unbidden, unexpected love changes so much – a generous spirit that offers reconciliation and healing – a spirit of kindness and tenderness that offers hope and new life and speaks words of encouragement.
Mary holds nothing back. So extravagant is her act that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” She helps us see who Jesus is, and who we’re called to be. May it be, that we, in some act, some word, some commitment, fill the places where we are with the fragrance of lavish love for our Lord.