Sermon for 5th Sunday In Lent Yr C, 28/03/2004
Based on Jn 12:1-8
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
The couple enjoyed dinner parties and they hosted them often. It was a chance for them to be together in their creativity. They put a great deal of time into planning the menu, shopping for the food, and preparing the various dishes. The table was very carefully set with their best dishes, flatware and linens. The centrepiece was often created from the flowers and shrubs that grew in their yard. The wines were chosen after much discussion and with great care.
Many of their friends thought all this preparation was unnecessary and even a waste of time. But for them it was an important ritual that enhanced and enriched the gatherings but more importantly their own relationship. It brought out the best in them, individually and as a couple. They looked forward to the days they spent together preparing for a dinner party. 1
This story is like today’s gospel in that some people see a story of extravagant love; while others only see a story of foolish waste. Today’s gospel is one of the most interesting stories in the New Testament. Every gospel writer includes their version of the story. In John’s version, it is sandwiched in between some (not all) of the religious leaders planning to arrest Jesus and put him and Lazarus to death and then Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem by the welcoming crowds with palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” You also remember that in chapter eleven Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Now, in chapter twelve, Lazarus, Martha and Mary throw a party for Jesus and his disciples—probably out of their deep appreciation for the raising of Lazarus back to life.
It is a most unusual story—in fact it is a radical story because Mary, in a surprising way, takes centre stage. In those days, it was unheard of for a woman to act like Mary. Women were not to be on centre stage—especially in the presence of men! Not only does Mary crash this dinner party by taking centre stage, but she does a most radical thing—she cracks open the seal of this jar containing very expensive perfume and proceeds to pour it all over Jesus’ feet. But she doesn’t stop there! She goes on to wipe his feet with her long locks of hair.
Can’t you hear the other eyewitnesses self-righteously criticize Mary, saying things like: “She has no respect for herself, for Jesus, or for us! How dare you Mary—dishonouring Jesus like that! It is a violation of our laws for a woman to touch a man in public—especially a rabbi!—like Mary has just done. Who does she think she is anyways!?” And then there was Judas, who complained about Mary so recklessly wasting that pound of perfume, which could have been sold for almost a year’s wages and the proceeds given to the poor. Complaints, complaints, complaints, and more complaints! People totally misunderstanding the motives, the reasons behind Mary’s spontaneous action. People looking for a reason to be offended and all-too-easily finding it. As the adage goes: “You see and find whatever you are looking for.”
I wonder, what we see and find in this story of Jesus being anointed by Mary? Do we only see the surface meaning of the story—or do we dig deeper to see and find something of the eternal meaning of this story? Let’s take a look at the story again and explore some of the deeper meanings in it.
First of all, Mary’s action of anointing and wiping Jesus’ feet in public was an act of loving extravagance, of spontaneous generosity. Webster’s dictionary defines extravagance like this: “Spending more money than one can afford, or spending foolishly, carelessly or wastefully; using too much of anything involving expense; going beyond what is reasonable, justified or normal; exaggerated, overemphatic.” Mary’s deep love and gratitude for Jesus was not expressed by carefully planned and calculated actions of expression. Hers is a love that is full-to-overflowing with spontaneous, unmeasured giving towards Jesus in response to all that he had done for her and her family. Her loving extravagance and spontaneous generosity towards Jesus was an act of sacrificial giving. Mary was not content with convenient “minimal requirements,” or half-hearted gesturing; she went all out; by anointing Jesus with all of the perfume; nearly a whole year’s wages worth; she symbolically was giving herself completely in loving service of Jesus. Her loving, sacrificial example of serving Jesus in this way teaches us that we cannot fix a price on unconditional love; in true love there is no such thing as waste; true love moves us to act with extravagance and generosity, like Mary.
Secondly, Mary’s extravagance and generosity is a prophetic act of courage and deep understanding. It is an act of courage precisely because it was so radical, so out of the ordinary, going far beyond the acceptable customs of that day. In a man’s world, it required a tremendous amount of courage on Mary’s part to crash that dinner party and anoint Jesus’ feet. Women were supposed to be unseen and unheard; their place was in the kitchen, behind the scenes, almost never on centre stage; only rarely in positions or roles of power, influence and leadership. In doing what she did, Mary had the courage to express who she really was; to be her true self as a faithful disciple of Jesus. Sometimes we too might be inspired by Mary to have the courage to step beyond the confining, and stifling boundaries of the traditional customs of our day in order to express who we really are and to be our true selves in order to be faithful disciples of Jesus. In Canadian history, that is precisely what “the famous five” women (Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, and Henrietta Muir Edwards) did when they devoted their lives to obtaining the right of women to be regarded as “persons” by law, and therefore be granted the right to vote and hold positions of leadership that traditionally had been limited to men only.
Mary’s extravagant and generous anointing of Jesus’ feet was also a prophetic act. In this act, Mary, as Jesus rightly states, was done it to prepare him for his burial, which was just around the corner. Mary was given the insight to see that Jesus’ days on earth were numbered; he would soon face his own death. This was her way of preparing Jesus for that sad event. It was her way of saying good-bye to him. Yet, there may also be another prophetic meaning to Mary’s action. It may well be that Mary in doing this act is foreshadowing what Jesus himself would do with his disciples when he washed their feet. Understood in this light, we have here a prophetic act that underscores the truth of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—namely, to live a life in humble service of others. Jesus, although he was the Messiah and “true God,” revealed who he was not as a remote dictator on a throne in some luxurious palace—NO! Rather, he revealed whom he really was in humble service of others; in simple acts of washing his disciples feet and leaving this example for every would-be disciple of his to follow. So Mary is foreshadowing a true discipleship of humble service of others.
Thirdly, John commenting on Mary’s act tells us of its immediate consequence—namely, that: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” I rather like this detail of the story, because it stirs our creative imagination. I can picture, once again a variety of responses. Some folks smelling that perfume may very well have starting to sneeze or cough or wheeze because they were allergic to it. Others may simply have hated the smell of it and quickly departed in disgust. Yet others may have savoured the perfume’s smell—enjoying it to the utmost. Be that as it may, I’m sure that John provides this little detail to point us to a deeper, more symbolic meaning. The perfume’s fragrance filling the house and lingering there for a while may very well be a symbol of the beauty and joy of our loving relationship with Jesus which lingers and fills our lives with fullness and meaning. The pleasant fragrance of that lingering perfume may remind us that our life in Christ is not intended to be stinky, dull or boring. Rather, it is intended to be chock-full of meaning, joy, beauty and adventure.
Another symbolic meaning of this lingering fragrance of the perfume may point us to the sweetness of deeds of lovingkindness. We never know how our acts of loving extravagance and spontaneous generosity will influence others. Some would say that such actions linger on for a long enough time to make a big difference. Who knows, our acts of loving extravagance and spontaneous generosity may even change the Church and world. You never know… especially when Christ our Saviour is able to work in us, with us, and through us. Amen!
1 Cited from: Emphasis, Vol. 24, No. 6, March-April 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co.), p. 37.