What is the most precious thing you own? For me it would probably be a toss-up between my phone and my laptop. I would find it hard to cope without either one. First I think: my laptop. That’s the most precious thing I own. I wouldn’t be able to work, to create, without it. But then I think: but what if I lost my phone? I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere new ever again, and never make it on time to an appointment. And, given that I use the daily reading on Pray-As-You-Go, it would have a lamentable effect on my devotional life.
I wonder if it would depend on the situation? What would I give up for someone else? How far would I be prepared to go for someone I loved? Would I give up my iPhone? A kidney? My life?
The Gospel story is more dramatic than my twenty-first century, first world problems. It shows us two possible reactions to Jesus, and invites us to look behind the curtain, to wonder what we would do, and, more importantly, why we would do it.
Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus coming to Bethany, six days before Passover. But the way the lectionary works means that we don’t quite have the whole story. So let’s zoom out briefly to see the broader picture.
In the previous chapter, we also find Jesus in Bethany. But he’s not there for a party. Instead he comes into a scene of disaster. Lazarus, he who Jesus loves, is dead. People weeping. Mourners roaming the town. The sisters both meet Jesus in their characteristic ways: Martha seems sensible, has it all together, engages in a slightly reproachful conversation with Jesus, and then goes and fetches Mary, who throws herself weeping at Jesus’ feet. They go to the tomb, where he has been dead for four days. They worry about the bad smell when Jesus has them roll back the stone. And then Jesus calls “Lazarus, come out!” And he does.
This astonishing sign has, it is fair to say, a mixed response. Many of Martha and Mary’s friends believe in him. But oddly, some don’t. In fact they must have been horrified by it, because they immediately run off and grass him up to the authorities, who, inexplicably, decide to have him killed. Jesus gets out of Dodge and holes up at a mountain town with a clear view of the approaches. And waits. Waits for his time.
I suspect I would have stayed there for quite a long time, waiting for the whole thing to blow over, or perhaps embark on a preaching tour of somewhere a bit safer. However, Jesus doesn’t choose safety. Rather, six days before Passover, he begins the journey back to Jerusalem, and passes through Bethany.
This time, the scene is entirely different. Instead of weeping, we see a civilised dinner party. Lazarus, rather than dead in his tomb, is reclining at table with everyone else. Martha, inevitably, is serving.
So far so middle class. We’ve all been to parties like that, where everyone is politely playing by the rules. Pleased to see each other, but within reasonable boundaries. Religion, sex, and politics strictly off the table, which, in my experience, mainly leaves house prices and what’s hot on Netflix.
Then, suddenly, Mary makes a complete spectacle of herself. She bursts in to the room, throws herself at Jesus’ feet (again), and then washes them with incredibly expensive perfume, filling the whole house with its scent. And then she lets down her hair, and wipes his feet clean.
It is an absolutely astonishing scene.
We live in a culture that is, globally speaking, unusually relaxed about contact between the sexes. Many of us have both male and female friends. When I was at uni there was a whole bunch of us, all boys and girls together, and no-one particularly going out with anyone else. I remember my mother querying it, seeing it as a bit odd. We’re also a culture that’s pretty relaxed about a degree of physical contact across genders. All that hugging and air-kissing, which feels very sophisticated and Mediterranean to us, would have been baffling, and probably shocking to people of Jesus’ time. Even now if you spend time in the Middle East, you will see men very touchy feely with each other, and women walking sedately arm in arm. But you don’t see men and women touching each other. Indeed in some parts of the world that would lead to severe punishment. Even being out in public with a woman you aren’t responsible for is illegal in some countries.
It might seem a bit anachronistic to directly compare 1st Century Palestine with the current Middle East, but it was probably pretty similar in a lot of ways. This was, after all, the culture that gave us the “bleeding Pharisees”, so-called because of their habit of closing their eyes rather than see a pretty girl, and hence running into walls and injuring themselves.
For a woman, a single woman, to anoint a man’s feet with oil and then to wipe them dry with her hair would have been incredibly shocking.
Even in our culture it would have been shocking. Picture the scene: you have a little group of friends around to meet a distinguished visitor from out of town – perhaps you’re billeting a travelling theology academic. Then, suddenly, the rather histrionic daughter of the house comes bursting in, and throws herself at the feet of your guest, and begins to remove his shoes. Then, as the bewildered man protests feebly, she pours the most expensive perfume in the house over his feet and then your daughter, normally so fastidious, starts wiping the sticky, fragrant mess off with her hair.
It’s just not normal is it? At the very least, you might demand some sort of explanation from your errant daughter as she glares triumphantly, albeit stickily, at you while the theologian squirms awkwardly in his seat.
Of course, Judas’ response is very shocking. He was, according to John, a thief who would steal from the common purse.
Actually, can I tell you something interesting about the text? The word the NRSV we translates as “purse” (γλωσσόκομον) clearly contains the word “tongue” (γλωσσό). This is, apparently, because originally people needed something to carry the tongues of woodwind instruments about in – that is, the reeds and mouthpieces. Only later did people start putting money in it. I find that oddly encouraging. And I guess it makes sense – humans were making music a long time before we got around to inventing money.
But, I digress. Back to Judas. He asks:
Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (12:5)
John leaves us in no doubt as to Judas’s motives:
(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) (12:6)
And, of course, given the tragic, ironic, role Judas is shortly about to play in the whole drama, we might feel that John is probably correct about his motives. And, of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that someone that someone made private advantage out of spending someone else’s money for the poor. And it wouldn’t be the last time either.
However, and while I don’t approve of going behind the text as a general rule, I find a little bit of resonance there. If it really was as expensive as John says, surely it would have helped a lot of people? There does seem something wasteful, profligate, uneconomic about it. And rhetorically, Judas would need to make a strong case for getting his paws on the money. So let’s at least acknowledge it as a reasonable point of view. The poor do need helping, especially in radically unjust societies like first century Palestine.
What else is going on here?
Jesus responds in two parts.
Jesus said, “Leave her 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.” 12:7-8
Let’s briefly address the second point before moving on to the first.
Jesus is, of course, not saying that we should not do anything for the poor. He isn’t prophesying, he’s more likely to have been riffing off Deuteronomy 15:11
Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’
Of course we should help the poor: Scripture is full of admonitions to do just that.
But I’m not sure that’s really what’s going on here. It reminds me of another text – that of the rich young man. He wanted to know what the secret to eternal life was, and Jesus told him to sell all that he had, give the money to the poor, and come and follow him. The man, famously, went away sad because he had many possessions.
This is often thought of as being encouragement to do heroic things to help the poor, and while I’m not saying it isn’t, I think that isn’t the point exactly. Jesus tells the man to sell his belongings and to follow him. This is one of a number of call stories – like Peter, James, and John leaving their nets to follow Jesus.
The point isn’t exactly the money, except insofar as it is a barrier to the main event, which is following Jesus.
The key to understanding what is going on in this scene for me is what Jesus says first: “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
Mary is caught up into Jesus’ story. Mary is anointing Jesus’ body in preparation for his death. The nard that, presumably, she bought for her brother’s body is used for Jesus’. Discipleship is our little story being grafted into God’s big story, and in Mary’s prophetic act she plays a key role.
And it is, by the way, what we are about to do in our communion shortly. Like Mary and Martha and Lazarus and all the rest of Jesus’ friends, we are going to eat with Jesus, making our little stories part of his continuing story.
Jesus is knowingly on his way to the cross. He knows it is his time, he knows where he is going and what he is going to do.
Mary is caught up in the central things, the things which will rock the world. The things which change one’s soul. The things that can change you into the sort of person who actually could sell all they had and give the money to the poor.
It’s easy to say: very hard to actually do. Even Judas can say it, and, who knows, think he means it. At least when he’s saying it. But the true test of who you are is not what you say you believe, but how you actually live. It’s easy to say you believe in God – but harder to live a life where you put your trust completely in God. Hard even to imagine what that might be like, let alone to desire it.
But that is what Jesus does: he puts his complete and utter trust in God. This doesn’t mean that he is always completely cheerful about it – the Garden of Gethsemane where he wept and asked God to show him another way through; his great cry upon the cross of “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” show that there is something more than a feeling of confidence at play here. It’s a complete life orientation, beneath the surface play of emotions.
Mary and Martha show us two aspects of discipleship. Both are important. The poor really do need to be helped. Dinners need organising. I’ve very glad that the communion elements are organised for me and there is a system working behind the scenes to make sure things are being done in a timely way to make the centre work. And so on.
But it is our basic orientation that I’m concerned with here. What is it that makes us want to do the hard work of committees and setting up the room, and pouring the wine and juice into their appropriate cups, and so on and so on? What is at the heart of this?
Mary’s lavish act was part of Jesus’ preparation for his death and resurrection.
How do we prepare ourselves to be part of Jesus’ ongoing story, collaborators with him in his mission in the world?
The key, I think, might be worship. We orient ourselves to God’s mission by orienting ourselves to God. We do that, like Mary, by giving what is most precious to God. Judas’s words were sensible enough, but his heart wasn’t in it. Mary’s actions weren’t remotely sensible, but her heart was in the right place. It’s not so much what we do as why we do it, and worship is a key part of getting our “whys” into the correct order.
Mary gave something precious – the nard, worth a year’s salary. But the most important thing she brought was herself.
At the beginning of this sermon I asked what my most precious possession was, and couldn’t decide between my iPhone and my laptop. But, of course, my most precious possession is in fact myself.
In worship, we bring our whole selves to God. To the God who pours herself out for us. And in that act, to the extent that we really are worshipping, to the extent that we really are bringing our sinful, complicated, hesitant selves to God, we allow God to transform our hearts into the sort of people who really would sell our most precious possession and give the money to the poor, because our heart is fixed on Jesus.
Sermon preached at Glen Iris Road Uniting Church on John 12:1-8 on 7/4/2019