Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sermon, Lent 5C, John 12:1-8

Today’s gospel is a perfect follow-up to last week’s gospel.  Today we hear the story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany.  Like last week when we heard about an act of generous, abundant love and self-righteous judgment, today we also have a story about an act of generous, abundant love and an act of self-righteous piety.

The anointing of Jesus is recorded in all four gospels; but, as you might expect, they don’t all agree on the details.  Matthew, Mark & John place it just before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Matthew and Mark have him at a leper’s house and the woman anoints his head.  Luke places it at a Pharisee’s house and it is a sinful woman who does the anointing.  Both Luke and John have her anoint his feet, rather than his head.  In Matthew, Mark and John, there are people concerned with the cost of the ointment.  Similarities and differences abound.  But since our gospel is taken from John, and this isn’t a lecture on comparative gospel theology, I’ll stay focused on our gospel reading from John.

John places the story at the home of Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha, and the man whom Jesus raised from the dead.  This short passage is packed with information and foreshadowing.  It takes place at a dinner with friends, looking forward to the Last Supper.  Martha serves the dinner, foreshadowing Jesus’ words that whoever serves him will be honored by the Father.  Jesus is anointed by Mary, prefiguring his own death and postmortem anointing.  Judas complains about not giving money to the poor; and at the Last Supper, the disciples thought Jesus sent Judas to give money to the poor.

With all of this foreshadowing, it’s no wonder this passage is our final gospel before Holy Week.  In fact, John is used all three years at this point because of the way the selected passages point to the Last Supper, betrayal and death.  But besides being a good precursor to Holy Week, today’s gospel is, as I said, an excellent follow-up to last week’s gospel.

For those of you who forgot to set your clocks forward last week and missed service, last week’s gospel was the story of the prodigal son.  I pointed out that that story really isn’t about the prodigal son, but that it’s about a generous father and a self-righteous brother.  That story is about a father who welcomes notorious sinners into his house, showers them with love, and works to include them in the family through his generosity.  And it is about a self-righteous brother who can’t stand the thought of allowing notorious sinners into his house, who focuses on the judgment and punishment of those sinners, and who refuses to live together with people whom he deems irredeemable.  That story, I said, offers us a choice of which side we choose to be on – the side of generous, abundant love, or the side of self-righteous judgment that strives to keep people out rather than let them in.

Today’s gospel passage is an excellent follow-up to that gospel from last week because here again we see an act of generous, abundant love contrasted with an image of self-righteous judgment.  Mary buys an expensive perfume and uses it to anoint the feet of Jesus.  I don’t want to spend time focusing on the theological implications of this act; instead, I want to focus on the act of selfless, generous love exhibited by Mary.

It is in the previous chapter that we are introduced to Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  And we are told of the love these four people, including Jesus, had for each other.  Jesus exhibits his love by raising Lazarus from the dead.  Martha exhibits her love by proclaiming Jesus as Messiah.  And now we see Mary exhibit her love by anointing Jesus with costly perfume.

Who among us has not done something out of love simply for the sake of love?  Whether it be an unknown sacrifice for a child, giving up a personal desire in deference for another, or, like Mary, the purchase of a gift for someone we love greatly.  I’d imagine we’ve all done it at one point or another.  And today, Mary does it for Jesus.

In Mary we see that love has no shame.  In Mary we see that love is unconcerned with cost.  In Mary we see that love compels us to pour out ourselves for those whom we love.  And maybe most importantly, in Mary we are shown that our love is to be given to others so completely that its presence can be detected by everyone around us.

Contrast her selfless act of generous love with the self-righteous act of judgment against her.  Judas ridicules her for purchasing the perfume in the first place.  He seems to think that she should have sold it for a profit and then that money given to the poor.

First of all, I don’t think he was addressing Mary.  It is sufficiently general in tone so that it appears he is trying to manipulate those around him to be against her.  It’s a classic, “We could have done something worthwhile, if only she hadn’t been so foolish;” when in reality, the person making that statement actually has, or had, no intention of doing anything worthwhile in the first place.

Judas also attempts to vilify her by turning her generous act into a selfish one.  He makes a false equivalence between a generous act and a financial transaction.  In other words, he takes the position that everything we do must be run through the ledger sheet first to determine if we can afford it.

There is risk in acting from a position of generous, abundant love.  Whether it is the risk of spending money we don’t have, the possibility of losing members, the possibility of losing financial backing, or of being seen as irresponsible, acting from a position of generous, abundant love is risky business.  It would be much safer if we set up barriers defining who can and can’t be allowed in, or that they behave exactly as we demand, or that we allow the budget to determine what we do.

These two stories – the story of the generous father and the self-righteous brother, and the story of Mary’s generous gift of abundant love and Judas’ selfish desires – give us two possibilities of how the church can act in the world.  I am convinced that, although some people see it as risky behavior, Jesus is calling us to act with generous, abundant love, welcoming those people whom we deem notorious sinners into our house where we worry less about the cost of love and more about rejoicing for those who were dead and have come to life, those who were lost and have been found.  After all, isn’t this risky behavior of a generous love that makes the transition from death to life the whole point of Easter?



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