Have you ever received a gift that changed your life? These types of gifts do not have to be extravagant; perhaps it was a kind word when you needed one the most. Perhaps it was a card in the mail that came at just the right moment and brightened your day. Maybe a friend stopped by your house or popped into your office just to say hello. Gifts come in all shapes and sizes, and our response to those gifts vary depending on the impact they may or may not have on us. In the Gospel passage from John, we see a reaction to a gift that is also a sign of things to come.
We have to back up a little in the story. In the previous chapter, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. We learn that Lazarus and Jesus knew each other, although we do not know how, and we also learn that Lazarus has two sisters, Mary and Martha. Mary is the doer, and Martha is the planner and the dreamer. Jesus got word that his friend Lazarus has died and he sets off to Bethany. Upon his arrival, he is scolded by Mary, “If you had been here he would not have died.” Jesus takes this in stride because he knows he is about to raise Lazarus. Jesus waited four days to prove that Lazarus was, in fact, dead. The implication is no one could survive being in a tomb for four days. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and all is well, or so we think.
The raising of Lazarus is the one incident that turns the tables on Jesus. Although the authorities, both religious and secular are worried about Jesus and his growing popularity, it was the raising of Lazarus that got their attention and made them nervous. Perhaps Jesus is who he truly says he is and if so, we will lose power. To preserve our control, we will have to kill him. They were willing to compromise their morals, looking past certain things, to get what they wanted. They did not care who that had to hurt along the way to get what they wanted as long as they get it.
So now Jesus returns to Bethany, and it is six days before the Passover, Jesus last Passover on earth. He is at the home of his friends when Mary approaches and anoints the feet of Jesus with Nard. If you read my “from the pastor” column this week in the email, you would learn that nard was costly and it only came from a plant that grows in the Himalayan Mountains of India and China. Mary uses this on the feet of Jesus and wipes of the excess with her hair. Judas objects, Jesus rebukes, and the meal goes on. So let’s unpack all of what is going on here.
This story also appears in Matthew and Luke, but in those stories, it is another Mary that does, Mary Magdalen who has a storied and uncertain past in the Gospels. What we do know is that she was welcomed by Jesus and forgiven of whatever it was she had done in her past, and that forgiveness was very public. As a way of thanking Jesus, she anointed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.
Just as an aside, the washing of feet was common when guests came to the house. The roads were dusty, and one wore sandals, so one’s feet were often dirty. A basin and a jug of water were kept by the door to wash one’s feet before entering a home. In larger homes, a servant would be dispatched for this task, the lowest member of the household.
In the “From the pastor” article I have already mentioned, I pointed out that anointing is part of the ritual of the coronation of kings and queens. Oil is placed on the head, in biblical times it was poured on the head and ran down but in modern society that is too messy so it is merely placed on the forehead of the one who is to be king. But in this story, Mary does not anoint the head of Jesus and thus proclaiming him King, she anoints his feet, a sign of what is to come, his death. Mary is not signifying that Jesus is to be crowned the king; she is preparing Jesus for his eventual burial.
Then we have the objection of Judas. His opposition can be perceived as two-fold one, he objects for economic reasons. That perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii, a year’s wages for some. But there is also another possibility, Judas objected because he was not ready to hear the truth, the truth of Jesus death. Judas, like the other 11, have been with Jesus since the beginning and now he is coming to the realization that he is going to lose his friend and he does not want to hear it. We all know that ultimately Judas becomes the betrayer of Jesus but let’s set that aside for a moment and think of Judas as one who is about to lose a very close friend, perhaps the only person in his life that has ever accepted him.
Jesus knows he is coming to his end and he has become bolder in his ministry and in the things that he is saying and very soon, he will ride into Jerusalem and the most provocative way he can and be proclaimed King by those around him. The authorities cannot let this happen, so they are plotting against him.
But what we see today, in this tender, personal moment between Jesus and his friends is a model for Christian discipleship. The Christian disciple is neither Mary nor Judas but a little bit of both. In Mary, she is performing an act of adoration and gratitude for the gift she has received, the gift of the life of her brother but also the gift of life, spiritual life. She does this in a silent way that draws us into the story and into her story, but the attention is not on her but on the one she is anointing.
In Judas, we see God plan being worked out. In the eventual betrayal of Jesus by Judas, Judas is serving God’s purpose, and if the mission of Jesus was to save the lost, surely no one in the Gospel is more lost than Judas even if that is what Judas is called by God to do. If Jesus the Good Shepard can go to any length to save the one, is Judas beyond the grasp of God’s saving power? Are there those that Jesus is not able to love and to save? Is there a limit to the reach of the saving arm of Jesus? I do not believe so.
Jesus risked it all to show us the way. Jesus knew that by raising Lazarus from the dead, and all of the other things he did and said, would eventually lead to his death, his willing death. He died so that we might live. He came to show us the way of love and forgiveness, and I believe that this love and forgiveness includes the one who betrayed him.
Jesus love is so open and so vast that it includes even those who reject him. The love of Jesus is so open and so full that he can forgive you and me and welcome us into his loving embrace. If there is one thing, we learn from this story today it is whether we anoint his feet in adoration or reject him he still loves us.
I try and spend a little time each day reading scripture. I find great consolation and comfort in the words I read. There are those, professing to be Christian, who would like us to think that God does not love us. Perhaps it’s due to a theological or political open we hold that differs from theirs. Maybe it is because of who we love or the way we chose to live our lives. But the other day I came across a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and it reminded we, once again, just how deep, and wide the love of God truly is:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39
If you remember nothing of what I said today or any other day, please remember and know this, God loves you and cares for you just as you are.