“Why Wasn’t It?”
A sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
for March 13, 2016, Fifth Sunday of Lent
John 12:1-8 and Isaiah 43:16-21
In our scripture story this morning, Jesus is visiting Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Jesus has invested in his relationship with Lazarus and his sisters. Earlier in the gospel, John tells us that Jesus received news that Lazarus was ill, but in slowing his travel Jesus arrived after Lazarus was dead and buried. We expect Lazarus’ family to ask Jesus “Why wasn’t it possible for you to get here earlier?” Instead, Martha meets Jesus and says “If you had been here, I know Lazarus would not have died.” When Jesus meets Mary in her grief, Jesus is moved to tears, and Lazarus is called out of the grave to live anew.
Now, the relationship has not only been repaired, it is flourishing. These are followers of Jesus – not part of the travelling band surrounding Jesus, but followers all the same. Lazarus and Jesus are sitting at a table chatting. Martha is in the kitchen preparing a meal. Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet and anoints them with a perfume. Why wasn’t Mary in the kitchen helping Martha? Why wasn’t Mary sitting at the table with the guys?
It was common courtesy in that desert culture to offer a guest a basin to wash their feet. In our culture, a lot of people have an aversion to feet. Similar aversions may have existed in Jesus’ culture. In wealthier households, a servant or slave would perform this task.
Mary is taking the role of servant. Her actions are described as anointing. This is the same word used to describe the priestly ceremony for crowning a king, and we should hear the echoes: Messiah is literally “the anointed one” and the Greek translation of Messiah is Christ. This is no ordinary foot washing.
Mary’s anointing is extremely intimate: she’s kneeling in front of Jesus, using her hair to spread the nard. This kind of perfume is probably more like a thick lotion: the oil from the spikenard plant was mixed into beeswax or olive oil. The Romans sometimes used this plant as palliative care, the kind of pain management used when a patient is near death. In Jewish culture, spikenard perfume was used to prepare a body for burial. Spikenard is one of those perfumes set aside for the specific events of dying and death. Mary’s act resembles the anointing of a King but she is using the ritual of burial. And John tells us that Mary’s gift filled the entire house with the perfume’s fragrance.
John then sets up a contrast. Mary, the intimate follower of Jesus is compared with Judas, one of the traveling disciples. “Why is it that you allow her to do that?” Judas’ question has barbs. Jesus is being accused of being irresponsible with money and in indulging himself with comforts few others know. “Why do you allow her to do that? The perfume she’s using on you could have been sold for a year’s salary? Why isn’t this gift turned into financial resources to help others? Why isn’t this resource given to all of us? Why isn’t this shared with the other disciples and followers? Why is this indulgence allotted for you and not everyone else?”
John is contrasting two different followers: one who does not count the cost, who is willing to take a slave’s status in service to Christ, and the other who measures everything in quantity: while John turns us against Judas with accusations of embezzlement, Judas is equally guilty of commodifying human life. What’s the dollar amount? How much of a regular paycheck does that amount represent? How many hours would it take raise that amount of money? Judas reduces everything to numbers. Judas tries to hide behind the practice Jesus uses to organize his followers: the care for the poor. But Judas misunderstood that commitment.
Judas says the money could have been given to the poor: Judas is not suggesting any kind of interaction with the poor. He has missed that the ministry to the poor is not about money but about human dignity. Judas wants to throw money at the problem but doesn’t really want to get involved. For Judas, people in need are a means to an end – it’s a good public relations strategy while it builds up the grassroots movement Jesus is starting. Judas has missed that meeting the needs of people is an end unto itself: it’s the person that is important, not the mechanics of distributing stuff.
Meanwhile, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, the place where students sit; she sits in the posture of a slave welcoming a guest into a house; her act is one of recognizing both a king and one who is dead, dead like her brother was recently.
Jesus quotes scripture to Judas to help Judas grow in a faith as a called servant: “You will always have the poor.” Ironically, this phrase is sometimes used as justification to do nothing for the poor. I’ve heard it said, “What’s the use of trying to help the poor. Even Jesus said you will always have them in your midst.” When someone uses that kind of rationale they are usually trying to also show how well they know the bible. Instead what they have done is demonstrated that they read the bible selectively and missed how scripture, especially the Christian Scriptures, quotes other scriptures.
This phrase that Jesus is quoting comes from Deuteronomy 15, which describes the obligations of having to always take care of the poor. The law states:
“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’” (Deut 15:11)
Since you will have the poor always, then open your hands to those in need. These are the rivers and highways in the desert This is the new thing Christ calls us to as we allow the old ways to depart: as Christ’s followers we are called to serve others without calculating how much money, how many hours, or how much we get in return.
Judas and Jesus; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; Isaiah and Deuteronomy: we have a lot of voices in this passages describing what values we should apply to our relationships with one another.
After worship we are going downstairs to explore some of the values that hold us together as a congregation. The Transition Team and I have no conclusions we are trying to get you to agree with. We’re not trying to get you to agree with something we already decided. This is a time for open discussion about being a congregation together, a conversation about what holds you together as a congregation, a time to share visions of how Lyonsville can thrive. I pray this will be a time like sitting at Jesus’ feet so we may better understand our faith.