Feb 26 2015

Beautiful Love

John 12:1-8

“Let her be, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.”
–John 12:8

“Let her” – Jesus’ words to Judas sound like a reprimand, and, in one way, they are. But they also convey so much more. Mary has done a beautiful thing for Jesus. He and his disciples are gathered at the family home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, “Poortown”, just outside the capital. A sumptuous dinner has been prepared with Jesus in mind. Martha serves it herself, honoring her Lord and friend. Her brother Lazarus sits with Jesus at the table, their closeness giving testimony to the substance of friendship and as a sign of the life-giving power of God that keeps any ending from ever being the end of the whole story. This is also the Sabbath feast; the traditional time each week of blessing, of prayer, and of celebrating the shared dreams and hopes for God’s liberating power for God’s people. The next morning Jesus and his disciples will enter Jerusalem in spite of the threats of arrest or worse, in what we now call Palm Sunday. Imagine the mix of emotion, the anticipation and trepidation in the air.

Into the heart of this already rich scene, Mary comes to Jesus with a jar of costly perfume in her hand. That in itself is quite striking in this generous yet humble surrounding. But then she pours it out, anointing Jesus’ feet, and with everyone watching she wipes his feet carefully with her unbound hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Jesus has touched each one of their lives. They all love him, and each expresses that love in their particular way. But Mary is the one person who addresses what is presently unspoken. She knows that in entering Jerusalem, in going to the heart of religious and political power with the gospel of liberation, Jesus will enter deeply into the realm of death. There is no denying this; he has told them repeatedly.

As the fragrance of her giving fills the room, Judas Iscariot interrupts to berate her: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” What are you doing wasting a resource like that, one that could be worth a fortune, that we could translate into sustenance and blessing for many empty people?

womanLet’s not be too hard on Judas. His words indicate a couple of things to me. First, that what Jesus had said to the rich young man, “Sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and then come and follow me”, is exactly what some of those in Jesus’ movement were actually doing!! And that Judas, the treasurer, may very well have been tasked with managing this giving while helping to keep this powerful but physically unimpressive ministry on the road with limited financial resource. What Mary is doing in pouring out the ointment doesn’t fit the frame of their mission as he understands it. Imagine a ministry today that is making the gospel proclamation real and impacting many people’s lives, but where there is great anxiety over the perceived scarcity of resources rather than God’s abundance. They are deep into something great when the consistory says, “We can’t afford it.”

“Let her” – That’s the literal translation of what Jesus says. Our pew Bibles say, “Let her alone”; other translations read, “leave her alone”. In the words of Megan McKenna, “They are a command from the Master to a disciple who is out of line, who is speaking out of malice, ignorance, or blindness.”[1] Fair enough. But I’d also like to add: weariness, perplexity, even gender attitudes.

I said that Mary has done this beautiful thing for Jesus. What has she done?

Well, within a few days Jesus will endure the cross, letting go of his life in order to embrace its depth fully. He knows it and so does everyone else in the room. He’s tried to talk about it but found no willing partners among the regularly assembled disciples. But then comes Mary with her fragrant, undefended care. She will acknowledge the reality before them all. She will let him know that she has heard what he has been trying so hard to give voice to, that she has felt the depth of the struggles written all over his face and aching within his heart, that she is grateful to receive all that Jesus offers, in its fullness. (If we want to receive the fullness of Jesus, we must receive his death, too.)

I’m sure that Mary is frightened, along with everyone else. But in meeting his frailty with hers, Mary’s the one who will minister to Jesus! God knows, this fellow from Nazareth longs for someone to minister to him. His life has been such a lovely, generous, risking life; now, her act of kindness gives tender testimony to the gift of that life and also to their two lives being joined in eternity. She does for him what he will do for his disciples in only a few nights time. Life triumphs over death – even before the grave!

Mary helps prepare Jesus in anticipation of the new life to come. Dying well is part of living well. When we are able to do that, it is because we have done it together. To worship and honor the God of life is to honor and celebrate the fullness of life. When we live life frightened we don’t love so good; that’s my experience, anyway. Jesus offers us a way of life that is expressed most fully in the face of death. When we put our trust in his way, we love better.

“Let her” – In the New Testament Greek, aphes. The same verb as Jesus used when he said, “Let the little children come to me . . .” Don’t stifle the flow of grace! Don’t hinder the love-filled faith of this woman.

Jesus’ last line, “You will always have poor with you, but you will not always have me”, is passion-filled testimony to the deep meaning of these intimacies for him. He is also quoting Deuteronomy 15: “The poor will not disappear from this land. Therefore I give you this commandment, that you must be open-handed to your brother, to the needy and the poor in your land.” The ministry of Jesus Christ will always have the priority of care for the poor. Jesus is saying that every act of care for the vulnerable will be an act of care for him. And that in addition to remembering our Lord, we do well to remember Mary.

“Let her” – These are words of affirmation for Mary and celebration of the realm that she of God that she gives such gorgeous expression to. Even the strongest of our bodies is tender, and no match for the massive forces the world can muster against our humanity. Jesus’ body is every bit as fallible as Mary’s in the face of arrest, and death on the cross. But her spirit, her strong spirit and depth of soul, those are strengths of a holier order. While the disciples try to immerse themselves in wishful thinking, Mary anoints Jesus with a beautiful and soulful love. She unbinds her hair, a poetic way of expressing the unbinding of self. It is the kind of love God offers us.

Pastor Scott's Signature
[1] McKenna, M. (1999). Leave Her Alone. Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Press, pp. 229-230.
Pastor Scott’s Archived Messages