April 3 2022: Love, in Pounds or Ounces (Jn 12:1-8) Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
A link to the recording is at the end of the post.
When Mary poured out the jar of costly perfume to anoint Jesus, John could remember distinctly years and years later, the house was suddenly filled with the scent. Everybody, whether they were gathered at the table or bustling around in the kitchen, suddenly smelled that sweet, musky, earthy fragrance. But even though everybody smelled the same scent, not everybody received it in the same way.
Paul wrote this, in one of his letters to the Corinthian church, “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” The message of the gospel, Paul says here, is like a strong perfume. To believers, the scent is sweet, full of life. But to those who choose to reject Christ the scent of the good news fills them with dread and revulsion; it is the scent of death.
It was like that at the dinner party in Bethany. To Mary, who had spent what amounted to a year’s worth of a working man’s wages to purchase the ointment that she poured out – all of it – the scent in that house was the scent of the most extravagant, lavish sort of love. It was the fragrance of Mary’s heart.
To Jesus, who was only a few miles and a few days away from his death in Jerusalem, it was all that and more. Added to Mary’s love was the aroma of her kindness in blessing the sacrifice he was about to make. To Jesus, the scent of the perfume was the fragrance of anointing for the burial of his body.
But to Judas, and to some of the other apostles as well, it was the scent of waste – the stink of hard-earned money down the drain. Judas tried to put a righteous face on his reaction: “She should have sold it, and donated the money to the poor!” But essentially, to the practically-minded apostles, and to the money-loving Judas, all that sweetness was just the scent of a lost opportunity.
It’s worthwhile considering who this family was that had invited Jesus and his disciples over for dinner, because they are unique in the New Testament. This dinner was apparently held at the home of a Bethany neighbor, a man called Simon the Leper. I think we can assume that Simon must have been one of the many people who had been healed by Jesus, but since leprosy is something people don’t forget in a hurry, he was still known by the disease that had afflicted him. But Lazarus and his sisters seem to have been the hosts, and we know that Jesus often stayed at the home of Lazarus and Mary and Martha, when he traveled to and from Jerusalem. They were an unusual household for the first century, a brother and two sisters, none of whom seem to have married, which was a very rare situation in that time and place.
These three are the only people we know of that Jesus knew simply as friends. Jesus called the apostles his friends, but they were chosen first as apprentices for his ministry, men in training as leaders of his future church. We know there were faithful women, too, who traveled along with Jesus and supported him from their personal wealth. But Lazarus, Mary and Martha we just know as Jesus’s friends. When Lazarus gets sick and Martha sends an urgent message for Jesus’s help, she writes, “The one you love is sick.” Except for the apostle John, there’s no other person in the New Testament that is ever referred to as “the one Jesus loves”.
Mary and Martha were on such intimate terms with Jesus that both women felt comfortable reproaching Jesus when he arrives too late to heal their brother. “If you had been here,” they both accused Jesus, “our brother wouldn’t have died.” We know that Mary and Martha were both devout, and well-versed in the teaching of the Scriptures. “I know,” Martha told Jesus confidently, “that my brother will rise again at the last day.” And we also know that Mary defied all the rules of female propriety by sitting at Jesus’s feet to learn from him instead of helping in the kitchen. Maybe that was one reason for the disciples’ reaction. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said in the middle of all the grumbling and protesting and consternation, “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in all the world, what she has done will be told in her memory.”
And we have certainly heard the story many times, of Mary and how she poured out the perfume on Jesus’s feet and wiped them with her hair. Matthew and Mark tell us that she broke the jar and poured the perfume over Jesus’s head. And John remembers for us, how the fragrance of that costly perfume filled the house.
We’ve heard the story, but what does it have to say to us? If we’re honest, it all seems very exotic and far from our experience – maybe even a little weird, to think of Mary wiping the feet of Jesus with her unbound hair. How are we, Christians in our quiet little Episcopal Church in a rural village in twenty-first century America, how are we meant to hear this story? And what does it ask of us? Because those are the questions we always need to ask when we read the Bible.
And I think the first thing we need to consider, in light of this story, is this: what is the value, to us, of our love for Jesus Christ? That’s a pretty challenging question, and I don’t ask it facetiously or lightly. What kind of a price tag would we put on our devotion to our Lord? What degree of outrage and shame are we willing to suffer to put ourselves at his feet? How much are we willing to risk in our service to him? How much are we willing to “waste”? How much love is too much? When it comes to love, is there such a thing as too much?
One of the signature ways we love and serve Jesus here at St. Philip’s Church is by feeding people. We invite our neighbors in for a home-cooked meal once a month, and when we couldn’t have people in because of Covid for a while, we learned how to pack up meals for take-out. I don’t think what we do is a particularly cost-effective thing. I’m pretty sure the local food pantries and the Community Lunch Program for Kids can get cheap or free food through the food bank and get more food to more people at a much lower cost. There is sometimes a significant amount of waste – though we do try to find homes for all the leftovers – because we never know how many people are going to come. We might cook for 50 people and only have 25 people show up to eat.
But we don’t open our Parish Hall for Community Meals so that we can get the most bang for our buck. We open our doors, we break open our hearts because that’s one of the ways that we pour out our love for Jesus Christ. There will be people who aren’t as thankful as we think they ought to be, or as needy, or as polite. But the actual truth is that none of those things make any difference at all, because there’s no price tag on love. It’s never a waste to love the people Jesus loves (which is everybody). And sure, we can learn to plan better or to organize better. But the bottom line is just to love – to love better, to love bigger, to love more and more – to love with all our hearts, and with all our minds, and with all our strength. And if we are fools, then we are fools for Christ, and that is our glory.
And it’s the same in our personal lives as well. It’s very, very easy to get caught up in measuring out our love carefully. We worry whether this person is worthy of our charity. We are afraid of that person taking advantage of us. We can certainly seek to be wise in all our dealings with other people, but one of the great messages of this story is that we don’t have to be so measured, so careful in our loving.
Hear what Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them…forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
It was the overflowing measure of extravagance that Mary used when she broke open the jar of costly perfume and poured it out in a sweet flood of love for her friend and teacher and Lord.
So, how are we meant to hear this story about Mary and her perfume? And what does it ask of us? The first answer to these questions is this: we should ask ourselves today, how does the fragrance of Mary’s offering smell to me? Am I offended by her wastefulness? Does Mary’s extravagance make me uncomfortable? Or is the scent that filled the house in Bethany on that day a sweet and lovely fragrance to me? Do I measure out my love for God, and for my brothers and sisters, carefully and anxiously, or do I seek to pour out my love with the fearless and extravagant love of Mary? Because we know, as Mary did, that Jesus was about to pour himself out for us, holding nothing back.
“Have this mind among yourselves,” Paul wrote, “which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” +