A sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent; Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8, Psalm 126
You know the story of Jesus’ feet being anointed. In one form or another, it is in all four Gospels. In John, the background is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Grateful, Martha and Mary have Jesus over for dinner. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with a full jar of expensive spikenard, a fragrant lard, and wipes them with her hair. ‘Wipes’ is the same verb John uses to describe Jesus wiping off his disciples’ feet at the foot washing (Harrelson). Mary acts from the same true love; that Jesus will act from (Hoezee). Her anointing Jesus is her version of Martha’s confession “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27, Gaventa and Petersen). Judas objects, he wonders out loud why the money spent to buy the spikenard wasn’t used to feed the poor. If we can hear that, without prejudice, because we’ve heard the story before, we might think his has a point; it is a realistic, practical, sensible question (Rice). Bruce Epperly writes that he was struck by
how simply unexpected most of the actions of this scene were. It was unexpected that someone would use such a costly amount of perfume to clean someone’s feet (Epperly).
So, I wondered what else in this story is unexpected.
On Monday, a colleague of mine blogged how his parish had acquired some spikenard essential oil so that we could smell what that dining room smelled like the evening that Mary anointed Jesus.
[They]bought a small bottle of nard oil, and poured it into a small dish, and I swear to you, I can still smell that … awful stink to this day (Pankey).
I was surprised by the difference between their experience and the biblical account. So I texted my colleague who chalked it up to a cultural difference; possibly connected with the once a month bathing routine. Then I looked up ‘fragrance.’ Webster’s simple definition is: “having a pleasant and usually sweet smell.” However, lengthy the synonym discussion uses terms like aromatic, odorous, has a strong, distinctive smell whether pleasant or unpleasant (Webster’s). Well, that explains that, but something was still nagging at me, so I read the story one more time.
On this reading the last verse jumped off the page: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8).
After Judas’ criticism of Mary’s action, John tells us Juda’s character is shady, that he is a thief. Judas is feigning concern for the poor. Jesus’ response commends Mary’s act, and seems to speak directly to Judas, quoting Deuteronomy “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (Deut. 15:11).
All the cross-reference verses refer to the advantages of giving to the poor. Isaiah wrote:
Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? …. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house (Isaiah 58:5).
Jesus’ quote comes from the definition of Sabbath. Deuteronomy connects keeping Sabbath to the celebration of Israel’s God, who frees slaves, and a wide range of circumstances, including economic debt, which could drive someone into slavery. It notes the release from debit every seven years. It pays special attention to the lenders’
cold calculation and hard-hearted stinginess [that] are the polar opposites of the joy and freedom celebrated in the Sabbath. The proper Israelite response … emulates God’s response. …. any others risk becoming an oppressor, … against whom the oppressed … “cry out” as the Israelites … did against the Egyptians (Gaventa and Petersen).
Judas is not speaking from his concern for poor; he is using the poor to level criticism at Mary with disingenuousness moral indignation (Rice).
This is one of the places where we should be very clear what Jesus is saying to whom. Jesus is not justifying poverty. Poverty is not God’s will. Jesus is on the side of the impoverished and oppressed. Jesus is not validating poverty Jesus is eradicating poverty (PérezÁlvarez). A collage of verses around Jesus’ quote that goes:
Do not entertain a mean thought. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so. Open your hand to the poor and needy. Remember that you were a slave.
reveals what it means to think of your community as “brothers and sisters” (Harrelson).
I want to touch on the valid point, Judas disingenuously makes, about using the money that bought the spikenard to feed the poor. It gets presented as an either or duality. Actually, we need both the practical, feeding the hungry and the extravagant, anointing Jesus; we need the sensible and the mystic (Epperly). As Paul argues, we need all the vast variety of gifts we have been given (1 Corinthians 12). They enable us to complement each other in our singular work in continuing Christ’s ministry. We never need faux righteousness and justice derived from a sham concern for the poor; or the propagation of a contrived sense of fear of immigrants, or another faith tradition, or trade treaties, or the impoverished, or whoever the sinister ‘they’ may be.
As this prescribed time of introspection moves into its last weeks, as we continue our self-examination, reading and meditating on God’s word may we find the will to reject the temptation to act with meagre care born out of false pretenses and find the grace to give what simple gifts we have from love that reflects the love between Jesus and God.
Ellingsen, Mark. 13 3 2016+. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifth Sunday in Lent –. 13 3 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 12:1-8. 13 3 2016.
Lewis, Karoline. Simultaneous Smells. 13 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lose, David. Lent 5 C: The Unexpected God. 13 3 2016.
Pankey, Steve. The power of nard. 7 3 2016.
PérezÁlvarez, Eliseo. Commentary on John 12:1-8. 13 3 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Rice, Whitney. “Gestures Made of Love, Lent 5(C) – 2016.” 13 3 2016. Sermons that Work.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.