Scriptures for the Fifth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
In this season of lent, we’ve been invited to journey with Jesus to the very heart of God. We began with Jesus in the wilderness, a time of fasting and spiritual preparation for his earthly ministry. In that time, we remembered with Jesus how God’s people, once enslaved in Egypt, had their own wilderness experience – and we learn along with them that God longs to bless and provide, sending them mana, bread from heaven, and quenching their thirst by creating a stream from a rock in the desert. Next, we found ourselves with Jesus at the end of his earthly ministry, as he is about to enter Jerusalem for the last time, knowing that certain death lies ahead. And we catch a glimpse of God’s heart of tenderness and mercy, like a mother who longs to gather and embrace her children, protecting them and even willing to sacrifice her own life in order to save her children. We listened to stories Jesus told, like the parable of the fig tree that seemed to be a waste of space, and learned how God is like the gardener, wanting to give us time and nourishment and second chances, helping us grow and bear spiritual fruit. And we heard the parable of prodigal son, and learned how God is like the good father, always looking and waiting for the first opportunity to welcome back the ones who have wandered away.
What we will learn about the heart of God today? What does it mean that God is about to do a new thing?
Today, we are with Jesus in the home of some of his closest friends, just six days before Passover, before Jesus himself becomes the sacrificial Lamb. He’s staying in Bethany with Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Bethany is located just outside of Jerusalem, and was an easy walking distance away. It seems that the home of these friends is precisely where Jesus stays whenever he makes the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Now you remember Mary and Martha; once before when Jesus visited them, we witness a sibling spat between them. Mary spends time sitting at the feet of Jesus, hanging on his every word, listening as a disciple would to learn what she can from this great Teacher. Martha, however, is busy with other things. Too busy to sit and listen. And she complains that Mary is leaving her with all the ‘work.’ But Jesus invites Martha to consider how Mary’s choice to sit and listen is the better choice.
And recently, Jesus has been called by these sisters to come quickly because their brother Lazarus is dying. Jesus has his reasons, though, for taking his time. And by the time he finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. When Jesus is confronted by Martha and Mary, who both blame him in their grief for not being there to save their brother, he is moved to tears. And then he demonstrates the resurrecting power of God, bringing Lazarus back to life. This event was witnessed by many. And word spread all over Jerusalem and the hillsides of Judea. In fact, word traveled quickly to the Pharisees and chief priests who began to fear that miracles like this will amass such a following that Rome will think that Jesus is mounting a national revolution and will destroy their temple in retaliation. They’ve been trying to squash out Jesus’ ministry for some time now, but after this, they are afraid. They’re afraid of Rome’s retaliation, they’re afraid of losing control of their own power over their religion and the people who used to come to them for answers. And so they decide that Jesus must die.
Knowing this, Jesus even goes into hiding for a few weeks, withdrawing once again to camp out in the wilderness. But six days before Passover, he returns to the home of his friends. By now, Jesus’ closest followers are aware of the threat against Jesus. But they are hoping, and some even expecting, that Jesus – their long-awaited Messiah – will ultimately stand up to these threats, and free Israel from its Roman occupation. Remember that among Jesus’ disciples were at least a couple of zealots – extremists who wanted a military takeover of Rome. Over these past three years, Jesus has been trying to show them what God’s kingdom will be like – one where all people are welcomed, healed, liberated, restored, fed. He’s been trying to show them the merciful, tender heart of God. And even now, some of them still don’t get it.
But one who does get it sits again at Jesus’ feet. We can only imagine how grateful, how surprised beyond her wildest imagination, Mary must have felt that Jesus brought her brother back to life. And we can only imagine the conflict at knowing that this miraculous act is the very act that signed Jesus’ warrant for arrest and execution. Mary has received a gift so extravagant that it will cost Jesus his very life. How do you say ‘Thank you’ for a gift so precious? How do you convey your deeply, heartfelt gratitude? Mary wanted to offer Jesus something extravagant and meaningful in return. Maybe she decided that if his gift to her ultimately does end in Jesus’ death, that the least she could do is attend to his body afterward. So she buys the most expensive nard, or myrrh, she can find. It cost three hundred denarii, or about a year’s wages. But for some reason, she decides not to save it for after Jesus’ death. It was customary in those days for the host of the home, or for their servant if they had one, to wash the feet of their guests as a sign of hospitality. And so Mary decides, as she washes the feet of Jesus, to go ahead and lavish on him this precious gift, to show him while he’s still with her, the depth of her love, adoration and gratitude for what he’s done.
The spicy, earthy aroma of the myrrh would have filled the room. And Mary goes beyond merely anointing Jesus with the perfume, but uses her own hair to wipe his feet in a scene so tender and so intimate we’re almost embarrassed to imagine. Think of the disciples in the room while this happened. John’s gospel tells us that one disciple in particular was quite vocal about his disapproval of this gesture. Judas tries to shame Mary for this act, calling attention to the extravagant cost of the perfume, money that could have been spent to help the poor. And just so we’re not fooled by this act of protest, John goes ahead and lets us know that Judas isn’t really concerned with the poor, but rather with his own greed; as the treasurer of the group, he had started helping himself to the money pot, skimming from the top – a little here, a little there. And if three hundred denarii had been added, well just think of how much he could have gotten away with! But Jesus tells him, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
Jesus’ answer has unfortunately been misquoted and taken out of context for generations as a way to justify NOT helping the poor. But Jesus, as he so often does, is quoting scripture – this time it is part of the code of conduct, or law, that Moses gave the Israelites just before they crossed into the promised land. This was part of a classic passage in Deuteronomy which focused on God’s goal of there one day being a society where everyone has what they need, and there are no poor. Sounds like one of those kingdom goals Jesus was constantly teaching us about. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 commands,
“7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”
It goes on in verse 11 to say, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
Open-handed generosity vs. tight-fisted selfishness. Can you see the contrast in this story? Are you starting to catch a glimpse of the heart of God?
Jesus chooses to act in a way that puts his own life at risk by bringing Lazarus back from the dead. Mary chooses to pour out every drop of the costliest perfume to show her adoration and gratitude for Jesus. And John’s gospel tells us that Jesus himself is God’s costliest gift – the gift of God’s own Son. Jesus was sent into a world that did not request him, yet he acts entirely for its benefit. And soon, Jesus will lay down his life for his people (John 10:17–18), not because he is asked to do so, but because he chooses to give himself.
As we think of our own journey of discipleship, we may find at times that we resemble Mary, willing to perform extravagant acts of generosity and service, willing to unashamedly show our devotion and worship of God. But we may also find at times that we are more like Judas, willing to judge and shame others so that we don’t look as bad in comparison; wanting to hold back and keep the ‘best things’ for ourselves, for our own agenda, or to suit our own desires. But the extravagant love of God willingly goes to the cross and lays down his life for both Mary and for Judas.
God loves us so much that God sends streams in the desert to parch our dry and thirsty souls. God loves us so much that God sent Jesus to show us love that heals, restores, feeds, nourishes, and ultimately gives his own life for us. And as disciples who are called to take up our own cross and follow the way of Jesus, we are called to love just as extravagantly.
We are on the edge of holy week. When Jesus leaves the sanctuary of his friend’s home the next day, we will be taken up in a whirlwind of emotions – from the praises of “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, to the intimacy of communion on Maundy Thursday, to the cruel shouts of “Crucify Him” on Good Friday. And then we’ll wait for the dawn of resurrection and new life on Easter.
God’s extravagant love is about to do a new thing. It’s about to sprout up like the crocuses and daffodils. Like streams in the dry desert. Will you recognize it?
PRAYER: God of new things, like Judas, we like to complain about your generous ways, rather than living in your grace. We believe the poor will always be with us, so we justify ourselves in ignoring them. In our memories, we see a perceived golden past, so we close our eyes to the new things you are doing in our midst. We are so enamored with our achievements that we are not willing to throw them away in order to follow Jesus. Forgive us, Restoring God, and help us to notice the kingdom springing forth in our midst. By your grace, may our fears turn to faith, our seeds of grief produce a bumper crop of joy, and our tears turn into torrents of tenderness as we journey with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, to Jerusalem.