5th Sunday of Lent (Thurne and Martham)
Isaiah 43:16-21 Philippians 3 4-14 John 12 1-8
In our Old Testament reading we heard that wonderful exciting promise from God. ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Paul takes up this theme in his letter to the Philippians. ‘This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’
All of our readings set out a vision for us to live within and to aim towards. It is God’s vision for creation and our part in it. Forgetting what lies behind us, the successes and failures, deserts and valleys, who we are and where we find ourselves – Paul tells us to fix our eyes on the vision God has prepared for us, salvation in Christ and life here and now in God’s kingdom. This was Paul’s life and it was also the vision that captured Mary, the woman who had listened to Jesus and who loved him and offered herself sacrificially as his disciple.
Chanel Number 5 a little dab here, a little dab there. Ladies you know if you have something as lovely as this you don’t pour out the whole bottle at one time! But Mary did! Why?
We can’t be sure, but there’s always room for theory. Perhaps she was so overwhelmed by the presence of her Master, and it was an uncontrollable act of pure compulsion. Have you ever done something on impulse that was somewhat out of character for you? Maybe that’s what Mary did. This perfume was the most precious thing she owned, and she wanted to share it with Jesus all of it every last drop. She didn’t think of the consequences or the cost. That didn’t matter. The only thing that counted was showing her love for Jesus.
There’s a lesson in that, Mary shows us that if we’re going to give anything to Jesus at all, we need to give everything to him. You don’t reserve a small section of your heart for Jesus and keep the rest.
Personally I think she did know what she was doing. She was perhaps the only one – or one of a few – who understood that Jesus was about to go to the cross. We know that when Jesus was in Bethany, Mary sat at his feet, listening to his every word, taking in everything Jesus had to say about the kingdom of God. Maybe she was the only one who really understood because she was willing to listen to Jesus with an open heart and mind.
Imagine the scene, the men reclining around the meal table, Martha probably in the kitchen or serving the meal, Mary at the feet of Jesus. She gets up, takes a pound of pure nard, a plant used by the wealthy as a perfume, but for the more common folk it was reserved as a burial ointment to offset the odour of death. Then comes this most outrageous act having poured out the oil on his feet she began wiping them with her hair. To do that she would have let her hair down, that is the equivalent of a modern woman hitching up her skirt and revealing her thighs. We can only imagine the on-lookers reaction – has she no shame?
Martha probably thought her sister had gone too far – but it was Judas who couldn’t contain his feelings.
Jesus was still six days away from Passover, from destiny, so this would have been a symbolic act on her part. It was also a prophetic act – in those days (and even today) kings and priest were anointed as an act of consecration. In his trial which would shortly follow John will repeatedly point to Jesus’ Kingship.
Jesus’ response to Judas ‘Leave her alone' - adds an additional layer to our understanding of Mary’s actions. She has anointed his body for burial. The wording of verse 7 is somewhat awkward. The Greek literally says, “Leave her alone so that she may keep it [the perfume] for the day of my burial.” But Mary seems already to have poured out the perfume, so that the whole house is filled with its scent, I think perhaps Jesus was indicating that the “day of Jesus burial” begins now, even though he will not actually be buried for another week. Jesus has been pointing to the time of “his hour” throughout the Gospel.
Mary’s act also anticipates the same action Jesus will take when he washes his disciples’ feet and wipes them with the towel tied around his body (the same Greek root word ekmasso, is used in each case).
We could end here but there is no escaping the challenge posed by this event. Where are you, where am I in this picture?
Are you with Mary, worshipping Jesus with everything she has got, risking the wrath of her sister who is doing all the work, the men around the table, who are angry with a woman letting down her hair in public, perhaps they were jealous of her relationship with Jesus, or the sneer of the one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing?
How do we react when someone worships Jesus in a way we feel inappropriate? Maybe they lift up holy hands to the Lord – just as the Psalmist calls us to do, or even more outrageous perhaps someone dares to tap their feet, or even dance. Well it was perfectly alright for David to dance before the Lord. His wife despised him for it and look where it got her.
Or are you with the cautious, prudent, reliable Judas (as he might have seemed to the disciples at the time –John wrote all his comments about Judas with 70 years’ worth of hindsight) If you remember at the last supper when Judas went out none of the other disciples suspected him of treachery, or they would have stopped him, they probably thought he might have been going to give some money to the poor.
Put aside your natural inclination to distance yourself from Judas – can you see a bit of him when you look at yourself in the mirror? Are we quick to criticise things that are new. Do we sometimes think the church hasn’t got it right – maybe we should give money to the poor and not spend it on buildings, the share and other stuff?
Or maybe you are back in the kitchen with Martha looking on from a distance and not getting involved.
We have to return to Mary aware that Jesus is about to give his all, responding by giving her all, giving herself in a scandalous, foolish but astonishingly beautiful way.
We cannot ignore the fact that we have a choice. What new thing will God do in your heart today? Are we with Paul leaving the past and pressing on towards the goal, working to bring in the kingdom in our Benefice, as well as the heavenly call and the ultimate question: Are we prepared to give our all ? What will we pour at his feet today?