“Love Poured Out” Colchester Federated Church, April 7, 2019. (John 12:1-8) Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today’s Gospel story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet is one of extravagance.  Extravagant generosity and love.  In fact, Mary’s generosity is so over the top it apparently made other people (like Judas) uncomfortable.  Mary takes costly perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her own hair.  Nard is a perfumed ointment that was imported from the Himalayas.  And it really did cost a whole year’s worth of wages. 

Can we truly imagine this?  Mary probably had this ointment in her house for years, saving it for a special occasion.  She realized that it was during this dinner for Jesus, six days before Passover, that the best stuff around needed to be used.

Professor Stephen Shoemaker makes the case that Mary acts as the ideal disciple in this story.  Her energies, even as she confronts Jesus’ death, are not tied up in fear that we all may feel in the face of death.  Understandable fear.  Instead, Mary stares Jesus’ impending death in the face and lovingly anoints his feet.  In so doing, she prepares his body, his mind, and his spirit for his burial that is too soon to come. 

Mary seems at peace the entire time she performs this loving act.  People are over at the family’s home for dinner.  Her brother Lazarus (whom Jesus raised from the dead) is present alongside their sister Martha who was serving their guests.   In Shoemaker’s words, “She could comprehend and accept what Peter and the other disciples could not: the death of their master and Messiah.”[1]  Mary gets it.  She knows that the time to act is now.  That there is no time like the present to show just how much Jesus means to her and to give him courage in the face of his upcoming trials and tribulations.

We see this empowerment of those we love in the face of death today particularly in holistic medicine and hospice care.  Patients can get massage therapy or Reiki among other mind/body/spirit treatments as they near the end of life.  Palliative Care units are made to look and feel like home.  That unit was known on the main campus of the Cleveland Clinic for having the most comfortable chairs because they wanted that hospital unit to soothe your soul as much as possible.  In thinking of today’s story specifically, we even had special anointing balms we chaplains could use to help patients cope spiritually—mint to help with nausea, lavender to calm the mind, and vanilla to help people relax and fall asleep.  Our sense of smell is incredibly strong and certain scents are used by holistic healers even in hospitals to help people cope.  In these modern, loving practices of caring for one’s whole self we see that we have the power to offer an alternative to fear in the face of death and suffering.  We do this by paying attention to the whole person in front of us. 

Mary gives Jesus the over-the-top gift of anointing him with the best ointment to prepare him for death.  John tells us that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”[2]  So in effect, Mary is ministering to the entire household here.  Because everyone would be able to smell this comforting scent.  Her brother Lazarus.  Her sister Martha.  Jesus.  The disciples.  Yes, even Judas who complains about this act of extravagance.  Anyone who was present in that home would have seen and smelled love being poured out from one compassionate person to another.  Mary seized the moment to act, pouring out love especially for her teacher and friend.

This whole story reminds me of advice from writer Regina Brett.  Brett was diagnosed with breast cancer at 41 and resolved to live every day to the fullest after her cancer treatment.  Brett writes, “Cancer taught me to stop saving things for a special occasion, because every day is special.”  She advises her readers to burn the candles.  Use the nice sheets.  Open the box of pearls and put them on.  Use the fireplace.  Crack open the bath oil beads before they shrivel up in that bowl on the back of the toilet.  And she doesn’t just focus on using up material items.  As a writer, Regina Brett has taken to heart the advice of fellow writer Annie Dillard to use all your good material now.  Brett writes, “Don’t save an anecdote, paragraph, quote, beginning or ending for some better novel or poem or short story you plan to write sometime in the future.  The fact that you want to use it means you should.  It takes an act of faith.  You have to trust that once you use up the good stuff, more good stuff will appear.  The well will fill back up.”[3]

Can’t we do this in our own lives?  Isn’t this advice in the spirit of what Mary does when she anoints (with that costly nard) Jesus’ feet and dries them with her own hair?  Use up the good stuff now and trust, have deep and abiding faith that more good stuff will appear.  Paint the picture you always wanted to paint, begin that project you’ve been dreaming of forever, write that book that’s on your heart, save up, make plans, and travel to that destination you’ve always wanted to go.  Say and do kind and loving things for the people who mean the most to you today.  Actually, say and do kind and loving things as much as possible because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for any of us.  Use up the good stuff, the best stuff.  Not because we always want to, but because we need to in order to keep our wells full of Christ’s compassion.  Closing ourselves off from the source of our lives isn’t going to help us pour our love into this world.

Now it seems that Mary had saved this costly ointment imported from the Himalayas that was worth a year’s wages for a special occasion.  If I had to guess, I bet it was sitting around her house for years because it would have taken her years to buy in the first place.  Don’t we sometimes do this too?  We save some things for some special occasion and they end up sitting around the house gathering dust for years.  But when Mary recognizes that the time has come to use up this ointment, she doesn’t hesitate to use the best stuff around.  And she does so with an open and glad heart knowing that Jesus needs this moment of compassion from her, six days before Passover when everything is about to change for him and for his followers. 

We can contrast this act with an Indian folktale about the importance of generosity which frankly echoes Judas’ reaction.  That tale begins with a poor beggar who sat in the streets of a town day after day, begging folks who walked by for rice.  One day he heard that the emperor was coming to town.  So he made sure that he went and sat on the route where the emperor would pass by.  The emperor passed him in his coach and got out.  As the beggar was beginning to hold out his bag and ask the emperor for rice or for money come to that, the emperor asked the beggar if he could have some of the beggar’s rice. 

The beggar was shocked and disappointed.  Why would the emperor possibly need rice from him?  He grudgingly counted out five grains of rice and gave them to the emperor with a bitter heart.  The emperor thanked him warmly and graciously and went on his way.  That night the beggar went to prepare his meal from the food he had collected from people throughout the day.  And he noticed that something was shining among the grains of rice in his bag—five nuggets of gold, one for each of the grains of rice the beggar gave the emperor.[4]

What if he had been more generous?  What if he had been like Mary with her costly jar of ointment (worth a whole year’s salary) and given the emperor the best that he had to give?  It’s an amazing folktale about what the lack of generosity will get us, what our lives look like when our hearts closed off from one another.  The beggar is reminiscent of Judas and his closed heart.  Judas who cannot see that Jesus needed to be ministered to in his final days.  Judas who was thinking about helping the poor on some level, which isn’t wrong.  But not thinking about helping Jesus for as long as he was with his disciples.  This lack of compassion does cost him dearly in the end.

In our Gospel story Judas doesn’t give anything to Jesus, not even his real love and devotion, the greatest gift he could give.  It’s no wonder that Judas immediately begrudges Mary’s extravagant gift.  Judas says to her, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”[5]  We’re told that he didn’t really care about giving money to the poor.  He’d steal from the box in which Jesus and his disciples kept their shared money.  Instead, Judas shows that he is deeply resentful of this over the top display of extravagance.  He is embittered by love being poured out.  And we maybe can’t help but feel bad for the guy because his heart is so closed off to the compassion of God and he just doesn’t get it. 

Judas spent years walking around with Jesus listening to his teachings, seeing all the instances of abundant love and generosity Jesus showed to everyone around him.  He saw proof time and again that Jesus was God-with-us and among us.  Yet it seems to have had no effect on Judas at all.  Judas views Mary’s action of ideal discipleship as misguided, naïve, and wasteful.  It’s a sad way to be in this life especially when he saw an alternative way right in front of his eyes.

In the end, we have a great deal to learn from Mary and from Judas on this Fifth Sunday of Lent.  This story reminds us to not allow our energies (even in the face of mortality) to be tied up in fear.  It’s a call to give far more than five grains of rice by giving the very best we have to God, the costliest ointment we may possess.  Let’s use the best stuff now to give comfort to those who need it.  And have faith that our wells will overflow with God’s love that can sustain and redeem us in the days ahead.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Stephen Shoemaker, Homiletical Perspective of John 12:1-8 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2, 143.
[2] John 12:3, NRSV.
[3] Regina Brett, God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life’s Little Detours, 98-99.

[4] Margaret Silf, Ed.  “The Emperor’s Gift,” in One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World, 87-88.
[5] John 12:5.