Mary is a very common name in the world. Who do you imagine when you think of a Mary? Perhaps you imagine someone you know named Mary. The Marys I know are generally very sweet people. In fact, we have one friend, Mary, who we have all agreed is perfect. She just delivered her 8th child. Only Mary could do that, because she has the perfect disposition, perfect family. And we love her.
Many of us, when children, were taught to imitate Mary, Mary the mother of God, that is. Gentle Mary meek and mild, perfectly obedient. It was usually the girls who were taught that, I must say, although I know many men for whom Mary is important in their devotion.
In our Gospel reading today, we have another Mary who we are to imitate. Even if you don’t have long hair.
It’s a relatively short reading compared to what we have been reading through Lent, but it is powerful.
If you look before chapter 12, to chapter 11, you will see the reason we find Jesus in Bethany. He has received word that his dear friend, Lazarus, is dying. Jesus goes to Bethany, comforts Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha. He orders the stone to be rolled away from the tomb, then orders Lazarus to come out. Lazarus, still wrapped in his burial clothes, walks out of the tomb, and Jesus commands the people to unwrap the cloths and let him go.
And so, here, in chapter 12, we are celebrating Lazarus’s recovery with a dinner party.
John doesn’t share Mary’s motivation with us, but following along in John’s gospel with the climax coming very close, we can take a guess. From the beginning of John’s gospel, we know who Jesus is and what will happen. Everything in John’s gospel is leading to the triumphant entry into Jerusalem (which we mark next week on Palm Sunday), where he will die.
Mary gets up and takes a pound of perfume. Now, you can imagine a pound of butter, right? And how much perfume does one usually use? A drop or a spray. She has a pound of perfume made of nard, an essence imported to her across India and Africa from the Himalayas. Probably a life’s supply, perhaps inherited, can’t exactly go down to the corner market to get some more. And she pours the entire contents onto Jesus’ feet. Can you imagine the fragrance? It would be overpowering. Overpowering in two ways. First, you could not exclude yourself from this sacred, shocking, perhaps shameful thing. The fragrance has enveloped you, surrounded you and everyone around you. You are in the embrace of this moment. Second is the overpowering memory of the last time this nard was used, when women anointed Lazarus’s body for burial. The body that Jesus’ raised from the dead. The extravagance of this act has no bounds. And it is bestowed on one who is at his most vulnerable. Jesus, Mary’s dear friend who has loved her and her family, laughed at their table and wiped away their tears, has come to them in this final dinner apart from his disciples. She has to do something!
We don’t read Mary’s motivation, but John is very clear about Judas’s. We probably don’t know a lot of boys named Judas, at least here in Canada. Just like there is no question in John’s gospel where Jesus is headed, there is no question about Judas’s loyalties. He is the ultimate villain. He is a thief, taking from the very poor he is defending here. And he will be the ultimate betrayer. He would have preferred to have this nard sold for three hundred denarii (a year’s wage) for a higher profit for his pilfering. We, the readers, are asked to compare the two reactions to Jesus-Mary and Judas; the extravagant and the thrifty.
We recall from last week’s gospel the comparison we were asked to make, the two brothers. The younger who comes home, falls on his knees and is fully restored. But then there is the jealous older brother, who has been faithful to his father all these years and is shamed.
Judas is in the same position. His reasoning makes sense. If the poor are to be our first priority, then there is no place for such wasteful extravagance. But Judas is so caught up in his own selfish need, he can’t even participate in this beautiful moment of gratitude, love and devotion. And that is his sin. And can so easily be ours. We get so caught in the tasks and rules of being Christian community, we can lose sight of the presence we are here to enjoy, the presence of one another, the presence of God.
We can get caught in the trap when following the most noble of paths. But the question is, did you love extravagantly? We are to feed, clothe, care for, but ultimately, we are to love the vulnerable most most extravagantly. When we consider who we are to minister to, we go to who is most vulnerable. Who was vulnerable at this dinner party? Jesus. Where is Jesus today? In those who are vulnerable.
Tony Campolo has been an evangelical pastor and motivational speaker for about thirty years now. He was spiritual advisor to President Bill Clinton during the scandal with Monica Lewinsky. A few years ago he was on CBC Newsworld’s The Hour with George Stromboloupolous. He is trying to pull his church away from its obsession with politics and back to what he calls “the red letters” or the sayings of Jesus as written in the gospels. He said, “On (judgment day) he’s not gonna ask you theological questions—its not gonna be virgin births? Strongly agree, agree, disagree…here’s what its gonna be. 25th chapter of Matthew. I was hungry, did you feed me? I was naked, did you clothe me? I was sick, did you take care of me? I was an alien, did you take me in? What you fail to do to the least of these you fail to do to me, because I’M NOT UP IN THE SKY SOMEWHERE … I’M WAITING TO BE LOVED IN PEOPLE WHO HURT
I’m waiting to be loved in people who hurt
Loved as Mary loved Jesus that night at the table. Extravagantly. Reverently.
Our reading ends with that strange saying, “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Makes you shake your head and say, “Hey, wait a second, what did you…mean…?” and then he’s gone.
Sometimes the need of someone at hand is more urgent than the need someplace else. Judas could only see his own needs, his own mission, so to speak. “All Mary could see was all the love that was needed right here, for this man.” Ultimately, we are called to love extravagantly, to love Jesus in those who are vulnerable.
In John’s gospel, the women are the examples of how the church is to be. We are to be Marys; this Mary with her hair falling around her shoulders, touching the feet of her Messiah. We will recall this on Maundy Thursday with the washing of the feet, a solemn act of recalling our vocation, to serve one another and especially those who have no one to serve them.
Let us love one another and the world around us as we are loved, extravagantly.