The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 7, 2019
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:1-3)
+ + +
You will not believe the story of how I spent my Thursday evening. I have been waiting all weekend to tell you about this—it’s crazy, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. So last week I got a call from my friend Martha—the one in catering that lives in West Hartford. She’s the friend whose brother was so sick—what’s his name, starts with an “L”—the doctors say he actually died… I don’t know how he made it out of the ICU! Anyway, he’s back up and around now. And that’s what I was trying to tell you! So Martha called and invited me to dinner on Thursday—all the way up to West Hartford. And there at dinner was that brother of hers! He looked totally normal, as if nothing had ever happened! It was totally amazing—even slightly creepy. He was sitting about three seats down from me—and he looked just fine! So this dinner party was for some guy called Josh— Martha’s sister Mary always talks about him, hangs on his every word. You might have heard of him, the one that comes from way out somewhere near Derby—he was at their last dinner party where Martha ran around in a frenzy and Mary just sat there listening to him talk. I think he’s some sort of a rabbi or something. Well, there we were, having a nice dinner, and—this is the crazy part—after the soup, Mary just left the table. No explanation. It was particularly strange because, you know, she never helps in the kitchen. And suddenly she bursts in with this huge bottle of perfume—I recognized the label—it’s Joy, you know, that Jean Patou fragrance—except it’s the real perfume, not the watered down stuff—and I had NEVER seen a bottle that big! I thought for a minute maybe she’d gone down to the city to buy it--but it was such a big bottle, they must have had it specially ordered—seriously, it was a whole pint of the stuff! I was stunned—it must have cost almost everything Martha made last year! And the strangeness doesn’t stop there—she went over and poured all of it on that Josh guy’s feet! She just moved everyone out of the way and actually got down on the floor and poured it all over his feet right there in the dining room—weird, right? But wow, it smelled so good—and then, and this was even weirder—she wiped it off with her hair. WITH HER HAIR. Martha and that brother of hers were just watching and smiling. I was so creeped out! Some guy I didn’t know at the other end of the table was moaning about what a waste it was. He was right—they could have given that money away, not just poured it out on the ground like that. Most people just sat there staring—it was SO UNCOMFORTABLE! I’m telling you, I just poured another glass of wine and watched it all happen. And that Josh guy was totally cool with it—he just 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.” (John 12.7-8) How weird is that? What is he talking about, his burial? SO creepy. And seriously, the guy at the end of the table was right—it was a total waste.
Now, that conversation is clearly a work of fiction, right? But how would people at dinner with Mary and Martha and Lazarus have understood what happened that evening? How would they have reacted to the incredible scene the gospel writer describes for us? It really is a strange scene, isn’t it? Strange enough that it makes it, with very few differences, into all of the four canonical gospels. It is a story full of emotion—a story that provokes reaction—that makes us, well, it makes me, feel something.
I wonder how you react to this story? What would you say if someone came into your dining room and did something like this to a friend? How would you feel if you were the person that this happened to—someone washing your feet with costly perfumed oil? How would you feel if you were the person making this gift, this offering? Where do you find yourself in the story? What’s going on here? Just what is happening?
I must confess to you, as you can probably tell from the earlier narrative, that I am not entirely comfortable with this story. It’s too intimate—too close for comfort. Don’t touch my feet, I’d want to say if this happened to me. Stop it, get away! The very action of anointing in and of itself draws attention—both to the recipient but also to the one who offers—to Jesus and also to Mary. I find myself, like Judas, annoyed—annoyed at the sheer audacity of the action, the inconvenience to the other dinner guests, the presumed intimacy of the whole thing, and the wastefulness of it all.
I wonder, am I the only one who feels this way? Surely not. After all, Judas points out that they could have sold the perfumed oil for 300 denari. Now if a denarius is maybe a day’s wage for a common laborer, then the sum is significant—almost a whole year’s pay for some people. The perfumed oil is nard—a fragrance extracted from the spikenard plant, which would have been imported at great cost from the foothills of the Himalayas. This was an extravagant gesture to be sure—an incredible waste of money, Judas says. And he’s not wrong, is he? That gift could have been sold to give money to the poor!
John is quick to point out that Judas isn’t actually concerned with where the money goes; he keeps the group’s pooled money—he’s the treasurer—and he’s apparently skimming from it. We will later learn that this is the same Judas that for thirty pieces of silver—just a tenth—a mere fraction of the value of this perfume—for those thirty pieces of silver Judas gives Jesus up to be arrested, tried, and crucified. So Judas’s motives are suspect, aren’t they. Nevertheless, even if Judas weren’t a thief, why wouldn’t we be concerned about this great waste of money? That’s only rational, right? Only appropriate.
But that’s not what Jesus says, is it? He says “Leave her alone… You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” What’s this about, Jesus? Wouldn’t Jesus be thrifty? Wouldn’t he want the poor to have this money?
What is it about Mary’s gesture that we are to learn from? What is it that Jesus recognizes in her action, in this extravagant gesture?
Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, in his commentary on John points out that Mary is responding out of gratitude—her action is a response to Jesus’s love for her and her family. After all, Jesus is friends with them—he has dined at their table; he has wept at his friend Lazarus’s death; he has raised Lazarus back to life from death. Mary has experienced Jesus’s love, and it has transformed her. She responds out of this love, from a place of gratitude.
What’s more, Varnier points out, Mary probably realizes that Jesus is in danger—that in that act of raising Lazarus has crossed the line. The religious and political leadership hear of this resurrection of Lazarus, and that’s it. They call for Jesus’s arrest. And indeed, Mary’s action is like an anointing of king—but it is also like an embalming. The contrast with the stench of the dead Lazarus and the beautiful fragrance of this perfume is striking—but the foreshadowing is not lost on us nor likely on the crowd. Jesus himself says, “you do not always have me.” The triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate next Sunday, Palm Sunday, comes just the day after this dinner party, and just as soon as we’ve heard those shouts of praise, we will hear the gospel of the Passion—the story of what comes next—the trial and execution of Jesus. Mary knows that, in raising Lazarus, Jesus has poured out his very self—he has offered his own life. She knows he will die.
And Mary responds to this great love that Jesus has shown her and her family; she is changed by it. She responds in gratitude—and suddenly keeping that costly gift, even for Jesus’ burial, seems foolish. She pours it out immediately, then and there at dinner, not worried about how uncomfortable or strange it seems or about the cost to her and her family—she pours it out as an offering. She pours out herself—her love—in wasteful joyful abandon. She showers the very feet of Jesus with this beautiful fragrance, with this anointing of her own gratitude and love, in an act of worship and praise and adoration.
Because she knows Jesus’ love, Mary learns how to love. Everything she can offer in that moment she gives—not holding back, not holding on, not protecting herself or making excuses or avoiding, but rather embracing Jesus in that moment—giving him all she can offer, pouring out herself, her own love, as a fragrant offering of thanksgiving.
Friends, this is what we are building to this Lent—this wasteful abandonment of self, this loving union with God. Every story we have heard, every moment of Lent—the story of Jesus’ own temptation, the image of Jesus gathering the people of Jerusalem to himself as a hen gathers a brood under her wings, the parable of the fig tree, the parable of the man who had two sons—the story of the prodigal father, as the Rector calls it—all of these stories are about our relationship with God. All of them are about a God who draws us to himself again and again in love. In this season of self-examination, a season of repentance, we take time to figure out what it is that is separating us from God, to look honestly at the things that impair our relationship with God—and to change them—to enter into relationship more fully with God—to turn our hearts to God and to love him.
But that’s too much, Judas says. It’s a waste! Nothing is ever wasted when poured out for God. For brothers and sisters, if we give our whole selves, the entirety of our time, our skill, our prayers, our focus, and yes, our money, and our love—if we give it all to Jesus, don’t you think that the poor will be fed? That the naked will be clothed? That those in prison will be visited with justice and mercy? If we give God the tools, if we give God ourselves, God can use them—God can use us—to heal relationships in this world—and to build relationships in the next.
But we have to take that step—to enter into this strange and wondrous story of God’s love. For just like Mary, we are loved by Jesus. He has chosen us. And now it’s our turn to run in joyful abandon to his feet—to really get up close and personal—to tell him of our love—and to live that love in the world.
+ + +
 I am grateful to Angus Trumble, formerly Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art, for the analysis of the significance and value of nard.
 Jean Varnier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004.
A version of this sermon was preached previously in 2013 at Grace Church in New York.