IF LOVING YOU IS WRONG, I DON’T WANT TO BE RIGHT
Whitewood/Lead, April 3, 2022
Many of you are probably familiar with O. Henry’s Christmas love story called “The Gift of the Magi.” It’s a story is about a young couple named Della and Jim who are very much in love, but they are very poor. Each of them has one precious possession. Della has beautiful long hair, and Jim has a gold watch that he received from his father. On the day before Christmas, Della had exactly $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. And yet she wanted to express her love for him, that she sold her beautiful hair for $20.00 with which she used the money to buy a gold chain for Jim’s watch. When Jim came home that night and saw Della’s shaved head, he was speechless as he handed her the gift he bought for her – a set of expensive tortoise-shell combs with jeweled edges for her beautiful hair. Yes, he sold his watch to buy them for her. Each had given the other the most precious gift he or she had to give. This is a story of love so deep and so extravagant that it does not hold back or count the cost. A love that might seem irrational to others.
The passage I read from John’s gospel, is the story of a similar outpouring of extravagant love. Mary’s act shows us what devotion and love for God looks like. And question for us this morning is; do we really appreciate what He has done for us, and what He has given us? Do we have Mary’s sense of gratitude and love for Jesus?
Our lesson begins this morning in (vs 1) saying; “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazurus, whom he had raised from the dead.” Today, we have Jesus and his disciples heading to the home of his old friends Mary, Martha and Lazurus, where he will spend the last week of his life; before he enters the holy city for the last time. “He loved them;” John tells us in (ch. 11:5). John doesn’t tell us why – but they did call him Lord, therefore they knew who he was, and yet they were not his followers; they were his friends; therefore, it is not surprising that Jesus would stop by before entering Jerusalem – for a “last supper” (so to speak), with them, his good friends – and to say good-bye.
Yes, it was just days before today’s reading in; (chapter 11) that Jesus had worked a miracle at their house. He had been across the river when Mary and Martha sent an urgent note to him saying; “Lord, he whom you love, is ill.” And, so, much to his disciple’s horror – because they knew that Jews were looking to stone him; Jesus announced they would be returning to Judea. After waiting 2 days, and knowing full well, it was too late (Lazurus was dead); when he arrived in Bethany, Jesus met inconsolable Martha on the road. Through grief-stricken emotions she said; “If you’d been here, he wouldn’t have died. Where were you? Don’t you care? How could you let this happen? What took you so long?” Jesus asked her; “Do you believe in the resurrection?” “Yes,” she said, “yes – of course, we believe in resurrection at the end of days – but, how does that help us now?” Now, at the tomb of Lazurus, Jesus too wept for his dead friend. Then he roared so loud at death that he scared death away – and much to the sisters dismay Jesus commanded the tomb be opened; (but he had been dead for 4 days, and at this point Martha said he stunk), but Jesus called his friend Lazurus to come out. Miracle of miracles, Lazauus came stumbling from his tomb, trailing his shroud behind him like a used cocoon. Alive again. This family had witnessed their own miracle of resurrection. Their weeping had been turned into shouts of joy. What was dead was restored to life.
So, this is the back story leading up to today’s text – where it is the Saturday before Good Friday, and we have Jesus once again back in Bethany, even though the temple posse is hot on his trail. You see, by raising Lazurus from the dead, he has graduated from being considered just a “manageable nuisance” – to being a “serious threat.” At the end of chapter 11:53 John says; “So from that day on they planned to put him to death. 54Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews. Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and they were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? Surely, he will not come to the festival, will he?” So, at this point; as you can imagine, tensions are high among his followers – they all know that there is no chance Pilate was going to ignore them during the up-coming Passover festival. They know it is time for Jesus to disappear before he leads them all their untimely deaths.
His days are numbered, and he knows it. When he arrives at his friends’ house in Bethany, they can see it on his face. So, they take him in and take care of him and his friends, and they enjoy a meal together. Having lived through their own Easter experience, this was cause for gratitude and a joyous celebration of love and life. The connection between this household and Jesus was love. Today, in Chapter 12, Lazurus is no longer dead. He’s actually up and eating, as a matter of fact. Martha is (as always) serving; (bless her), and Mary has her heart set on being where she always is; at Jesus’ feet. Mary, with an expensive vial of ointment in her hands, makes her move. Without speaking — and before anyone can wrap their minds around what exactly is happening, she breaks open the neck of the jar, and Jesus’s feet are drenched. The smell of spikenard fills the room. The stench of death is now replaced with the strong scent of celebration. And then, as everyone in the room watches her, she does 4 forbidden things in a row.
First, she loosens her hair in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does. Then she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which is also a “no-no.” (The head, maybe–people do that to kings–but not the feet.) Then she touches him, rubbing the oil in until it cannot be absorbed – (a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet is also never done, not even among friends). And finally, she wipes the excess perfume off with her hair–totally inexplicable. All in all, it is unheard of. Yet she acts like it’s appropriate — like no one is watching. But they are.
Most of us are so moved by the scene that we overlook its eccentricities because the only point those matters to us, is – she loved him. But it is important that we do not confuse this account with 3 other similar accounts in the Bible–one each gospel; Matthew, Mark and Luke. Matthew and Mark, describe an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ head at the house of Simon the Leper, just days before his death. And, in Luke’s gospel; the scene happens at Simon the Pharisee’s house, much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, where Jesus is eating supper when a notorious sinner slips into the room and stands weeping over his feet, then drops to the ground to cover them with kisses before rubbing them with oil of myrrh.
Only in John’s version of the story does the woman have a name – Mary; and a relationship with Jesus. She is not a stranger, not a notorious sinner, but his long-time friend. He knows she loves him, and he loves her too. So why does she make this public demonstration, in front of all their friends? Maybe her deep love and affection for Jesus which grew as he taught her so much about God and God’s love; or because Jesus had brought her brother Lazurus back from the dead to them; or perhaps because she knew he was going to die very soon, she wanted to make a last loving gesture to him. We don’t know what her motives were. Perhaps all of these. None-the-less it’s extravagant! And Judas is quick to note she has gone overboard! Judas Iscariot (the keeper of the money purse) is in the house and he loses it. This woman has poured a stupid amount of precious oil on Jesus’ feet. And for what? He wants to know. “Why wasn’t this oil sold, and the money give to the poor” (John then makes sure the reader knows that it is not because he cares about the poor, but because he is a thief.) There is a big difference between Mary and Judas. Scholars say that the perfume was worth $10,000 in today’s currency, (which would have been a year’s wages back then). What Mary has done for Jesus she does out of love. And now we know what Judas’ gripe was about.
I think Mary wanted to demonstrate that she loved him, and that she understood, as he set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, the pain he was about to bear. She wanted to identify with him; show him compassion – in the way that he had identified with her so long ago in her own struggles. She was well aware that it was Jesus’s raising of her brother from the dead which set-into motion the final stages of his martyrdom. So, she fell at Jesus’ feet as if she knew something that other people didn’t fully realize. She knew that this man was soon to die. She sensed in that moment, that she wanted to do something special for Jesus. So, in a radical departure from appropriate custom she gave the most loving and tender gesture, so intimate, almost too intimate, that it made everyone in the room feel uncomfortable.
Anointing was usually associated with kingship and was done on the head. There is no known association of anointing someone for burial on the feet, though the body itself was oftentimes anointed after the person was already dead. But Jesus associated this anointing with His burial. He remarked in affirmation of Mary, in verse 7, Jesus says, “Leave her alone; it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” Jesus is telling Judas, “Stop annoying this woman. She alone, out of all of you, understands. She is the only one who really gets it.” Opportunity is to be seized while it is there. She gave all that was precious to her. That’s why in Matthew’s gospel Jesus said, whenever this Gospel is preached throughout the entire world, what Mary did will always be remembered. And when Jesus makes the point about the poor always being with them he is letting the disciples who stood nearby know: they will be able to care for the poor for years to come, but his time on earth is short. ”
I am all too aware, that too often, people gathered around the casket of a loved one or friend and wish that they had done things differently –– or regret they never apologized, or told them they loved them. Mary, seized the moment –– she made the grand gesture while Jesus was still alive to experience it. She did the right thing towards Jesus at the right moment. Some people have that gift: doing the right thing for someone at the right moment. Some of you have such a gift. Mary did. Mary did the compassionate thing at the right moment, sharing her love and gratitude for Jesus. It’s a beautiful story and a wonderful reminder.
In the story, we are invited to love Jesus the same way. Mary gave her very best to Jesus, her most sacred possession, and we can too. It reminds me of our Christmas hymn; In the Bleak Midwinter, in the 4th verse; “What can I give him, poor as I am. If I were a shepherd, I would give him a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. What shall I give him? I will give him my heart.”
Let us pray: Most generous God: with thankful hearts we rejoice in your goodness towards us and in the many blessings that we receive each day. In love you provide for your people’s needs and you accompany us along the way. We give you our thanks for the physical gifts that sustain us and for the added blessings which make life more joyful and full. We rejoice that you freely pour out the perfume of your love, even though we do not feel worthy to receive it. We are thankful for those who have been bountiful towards us, giving of their time, their skills and their love. As a token of our gladness, may we also bless others, being generous with all that you have bestowed. Be with us as Lent comes to an end and we prepare for Holy Week. We lift up the names of those who are sick and lonely and those who need your healing touch;
Invocation: Merciful and loving God, giver of the most expensive gift of all, help us to learn from you through the hearing of your word this morning. May we who are so adept at catering for our own wants, make ourselves more available to the needs of others. Let us live unselfishly and more sensitively, that we may spread love’s fragrance wherever the odor cynicism and despair hangs in the air. Thank you for your presence with us as we worship and praise you.
Benediction: God lovingly lavishes us as he pours out the costly gift of His grace upon us. He fills our homes and our lives with the fragrance of His love, so that we may go forth and show His glory and serve His people;