DECISIVE DAYS IN THE LIFE OF CHRIST (6)
THE DAY HE DEFENDED EXTRAVAGANCE
SCRIPTURE: JOHN 12: 1-11
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
Extravagance is the subject of our Gospel lesson for this morning. John tells us that Mary poured out a very expensive ointment of Jesus’ feet. Judas reprimands her for being so wasteful, and then Jesus reprimands Judas by saying. “Let her alone. What she has done was for my burial.” The message is clear: there are times when economy and frugality are in order, however there are times when something extravagant is the order of the day.
With this story from the Gospel of John, we consider yet another decisive day in the life of our Lord: the day he defended extravagance.
While all four Gospels record this incident, they tell it differently. Matthew and Mark agree with some of the details. They say the incident took place in the house of Simon, the leper, and the woman was a stranger. Luke, on the other hand, says that it happened in the home of a Pharisee, and the woman was a prostitute who had her sins forgiven.
Then John comes along and offers a third version. He says it was in the home of Mary and Martha, and that it was Mary, his hostess, who poured the ointment on Jesus’ feet.
Jesus had been to Mary and Martha’s home at least twice before. The previous visit was raising Lazarus, their brother. This is not only a pivotal point in life of Jesus; it is also the turning point in the Gospel of John. John tells us that it was after the raising of Lazarus that the authorities began to plot to do away with Jesus.
Jesus bringing Lazarus from the dead sealed his own death. It is the final straw for the authorities. They said that if the word gets out about Lazarus, the crowds would believe Jesus and that would mean trouble for the Pharisees.
Up until this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has been a hunted man; a fugitive so to speak. But the opening of the twelfth chapter of John begins by telling us that Jesus came out of hiding going to Bethany, and to the home of Mary and Martha.
Only everything is different now. The last he was there, it was a time of celebrating for raising of Lazarus. This time they were anticipating a tragedy—the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus.
Perhaps it was obvious to Mary when Jesus walked into the house. Maybe she sensed that he was carrying a terrible burden. Why doesn’t anybody else notice it? Nobody even mentions it. We often do the same thing. We are at some gathering and we know someone is going through an ordeal, but no one mentions it. We talk about the weather, politics, or the economy. We talk about everything except the one thing that is on everybody’s mind.
We do not know how it all came about, but maybe toward the end of the evening. Mary got up from the table, and returned with the costly ointment and anointed the feet of Jesus. She wiped his feet with her hair. “And the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” It was an extravagant gesture.
The ointment was called nard and it smelled like perfume. It was very expensive. Its primary use was that of covering the body before burial. Anointing someone was not out of the ordinary. Anointing the head of someone was quite common. But to use such a costly ointment to anoint someone’s feet seemed to be an outlandish expression of extravagance.
At least that is the way Judas felt. He was convinced that her action was out of line, and protested that it would have been better for her to sell the nard and give the money to the poor.
Jesus responds with a curious response, “Let her alone. The poor you will always have with you, but you dot always have me.” Mary knew what she was and she knew full well what all was involved, and as a result, she did something most extravagant.
Mary’s action is a model for us. It is as though she is saying, do not miss those moments when some extravagant gesture of love is the only appropriate response. There are times when it is wise to plan carefully, but there are also times when we need to act impulsively.
Some may be troubled by what Jesus said to Judas, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” This was not a calloused disregard of the poor on the part of Jesus. No one had a more loving concern for the poor than our Lord. What Jesus was saying to Judas was: do not stop here from responding. The poor you will always have. In other words, there will always be reasons for not responding to some significant moment. Judas, “leave her alone. Her extravagant gesture is an act of love and gratitude.
There is a story about an elderly man who came into a cathedral each day and knelt in prayer in front of the large stained glass window. He prayed with his eyes moving from pane to pane as his lips moved silently. The man was poorly dressed and gaunt. Each day, rain or shine, he would come and spend some time before the beauty of the window.
When this elderly man died he left a small bequest to the church stipulating that his meager gift be used for the upkeep and repair of that great stained glass window. When the trustees learned of the bequest, there was some grumbling of the appropriateness of the gift. One trustee felt that the church would have better served if the gift had been given to the organ fund as the organ needed to be replaced.
Another trustee complained that giving it for the stained glass window was all right, but the childcare center is what could have used the funds. One trustee objected, asking why people give to such things as the upkeep of the window where there we so many homeless people who could benefit from such a gift.
Finally, one of the trustees asked the pastor who had left the money. The pastor shared the name with them, but no one recognized the name of the donor.
Do you wonder about the man who gave the money? Why do you suppose he gave his “extravagant” gift to the upkeep of a stained glass window when there are so many other hurting needs? I do not have the answer, but I can wonder. Maybe this was a man who had lost just about everything. But what kept him going was his faith that was nurtured daily by the beauty of the stained glass window.
Why didn’t Mary give to the poor instead of lavishing that expensive nard on Jesus? Because she had no regard for the poor? I doubt that. I rather suspect that Mary poured out that expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet because she was so grateful for the fact that Jesus, out of love, would be dying for people like her
Mary’s anointing the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume was a gesture of extravagant love. Jesus was at a critical moment in his life. He knew he was going to Jerusalem and his death was imminent.
It must have been important for him to know there were persons around who understood what he was about to do. And there was someone! It was Mary who stepped forward and anointed his feet.
The perfume or nard was used in anointing the body for burial. She was using her own ointment, which was to be used in preparing her body for burial! By anointing the feet of Jesus, Mary was acknowledging Jesus as the anointed One: the “Messiah”.
She knew who Jesus was. Her act was an outlandish expression of extravagance because she realized that what Jesus was about to experience with his death upon the cross was also an outlandish expression of extravagance.
This incident raises a critical question at this juncture of our own Lenten journey. What will be our lavish, extravagant response to the love of Christ? Our Wesleyan tradition has always taught that the most effective way that we can show our love of God and Christ is in the love and caring of one another. Where love is real its extravagance considers no sacrifice too great.
That master story telling, O. Henry, wrote a powerful story of sacrificial love between a man and a woman. In The Gift of the Magi, he tells of Della and Jim, who longed to give each other a Christmas gift. They were poor and there was no way to come up with the money for the gifts.
All the money Della had was $1.87. But out of her love for Jim, she sold her beautiful brown hair, which had taken years to grow. With the $20.00 she received from the sale of her hair, she bought a platinum chain to hold the pocket watch Jim inherited from his father.
When they came to exchange gifts, Della gave him his watch chain, only to discover that he sold the watch in order to buy her a set of combs for her lovely hair. Each had given to the other all that they had to give.
Where love is real it is extravagant. And where love is genuine it will sell all that it has in order to give to another.
This incident was indeed a decisive day in the life of Jesus, for you see, he left Mary and Martha, and went to Jerusalem. And that is another sermon and decisive day. That decisive day is what we call “Palm Sunday.”
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH