An Act of Sacrificial Love
5th Sunday of Lent
John 12: 1-8
There’s much that is recorded in John’s Gospel that is not as it first appears to be, much that is mysterious, ambiguous, unsettling. Our reading from John 12 however, opens with Jesus attending a meal, and what could be more straightforward than that?
Indeed, while there were a lot of strange and wonderful things about Jesus, one very ordinary thing about Him was that He had to eat! And while he was able to speak in a way that others couldn’t speak and pray in a way that got results others didn’t get and perform miracles in a way that others just couldn’t, it appears that when it came to eating and drinking, He was exactly like the rest of us.
Even so, with Jesus you come to expect the unexpected, and the presence of Lazarus at the table with Jesus that night should serve as a tip-off that nothing could remain stable for too long with Jesus in the room.
Lazarus, you may remember, had been dead only a few days earlier - so dead in fact that when Jesus asked for the stone to be rolled back from the tomb, the ever-practical Martha said, "but Lord, he stinketh!" (King James Version). Now it appears he stinketh no more but instead has a hearty appetite and is sitting at the table with the family.
And you will remember, the reaction of the religious authorities to this amazing miracle? Did they hold a party in Jesus’ honour? Did they organise a ceremony and give Him the key to the city? Did they proclaim a day of prayer and thanksgiving for the wonderful new things that God was doing in their midst? Of course not. Rather, we are told, it was the Lazarus incident that made them resolve to kill Jesus.
We have walked this path before, but I suspect that there may still be some of us who find it hard to believe that the religious establishment could get in a murderous rage over the wonderful gift of new life to Lazarus. After all, isn’t that what we religious people are on about - healing, forgiveness and new life?
Religion is ‘the opiate of the masses’, as Karl Marx put it. It keeps people in their place and helps them to transfer any frustrations they might have with the government to their inward struggles with guilt and sin.
You can’t have charismatic preachers like Jesus moving about and functioning completely outside of the accepted religious rules, destabilising society and challenging the accepted order by preaching on hillsides and raising dead people.
We look for a quiet, peaceful life, with predictability and order, where nothing can be lost that is not insured, and where every mishap is balanced by an appropriate form of compensation, where people know who they are and where they belong, where lepers stay in their lovely leper colonies that we built for them, and where Aunt Sally, as much as we all loved her, stays in the ground where we put her!
The role of religion in society now is to provide stability and comfort in an often chaotic world, but not the religion Jesus practiced. He is not quite the ‘Prince of Peace’ that we might have thought He was, for every time He enters a scene, there is always ensuing conflict. It doesn’t take long at this dinner party before the chaos breaks out. This time through the actions of Mary, pouring the perfume Nard which was a ludicrously expensive jar of perfume usually saved to be used at your funeral, over Jesus’ feet, and then wiping His feet with her hair.
In the house of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, we see Mary’s strange yet wonderful act at the table, where there was a bizarre blend of friendship and love, life and death with the erotic and the domestic.
Suddenly Judas says, "Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor", and we perk up, because that is probably what we might have said.
What are we doing, spending all this money on a church restoration project, when there are still thousands dying each day of starvation, and when the young people of our own area are still in such great need of support?
If only life were that simple, but things are not always as they appear. Judas, who seems to care about the poor, doesn’t really care at all, whereas Jesus, who appears somewhat nonchalant in His response, "The poor you will always have with you", we know he really does care.
It is easy to misunderstand Mary’s act as it can be interpreted in a number of ways. At one level she is simply washing and perfuming Jesus’ feet, but at another level, Jesus tells us, she is in fact preparing Him for His burial.
I could conclude this sermon with a simple "and the moral of this story is ..." ending. That would not be doing justice to the mysterious nature of this event.
Jesus said, "you will not always have me with you", telling of his impending death and resurrection. But what does that mean to us who have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight? For surely he is always with us. A fact that is built into almost every sermon I preach.
There is one thing that is totally unambiguous in this story - one thing that is entirely obvious and not open to interpretation, and that is found, not in the words but in the actions of Mary, which were unambiguously an act of love.
Mary loved Jesus, and as she throws herself at the feet of Jesus, washes, perfumes and massages him, we see clearly just how much she loves Him. She broke the bottle, no intention of putting the stopper back and saving some for later. She emptied all she had on his feet - unselfconsciously, perhaps even shamelessly, for a woman to let her hair down in public was scandalous.
Mary pours herself out in sacrificial love for Jesus, just as He prepares to pour Himself out for her and for us on the cross. Her act anticipates His act. Her love is a foreshadowing of His love.
While the words of those who sat around that table are open to interpretation, her love is unambiguous. She showed it with her generosity, with hands and with her hair.
It is probably a myth, but I remember being told of a vicar who took the offertory plate one Sunday morning, held it up and prayed "regardless of what we say about you, this is what we truly think of you. Amen."
I don’t know if that is true, but what is true is that it is acts of love and devotion, rather than mere words, that show where our heart truly is. We know the heart of this woman through her act of love, just as we know the heart of Christ through His cross. Which begs the question what about our heart?
I end with the words of Jesus – Where your treasure is there will your heart be.