I’m tired of winter. I’m particularly tired of the weather we’ve been having the past few days or weeks—a little snow, rain, freezing rain, gray days. Gray. The snow piles that remain on the side of the streets and sidewalks are grimy. Where the snow has melted, we see all of the trash that’s accumulated over the last months, and the mud, and the dead vegetation. To make matters worse, did you know that the high temperature in Madison on March 17, 2012 was 80 degrees? It’s all very depressing.
The gloom and cold outdoors may echo in our hearts as we begin our worship this fifth Sunday of Lent in the knowledge that Holy Week begins next Sunday and the cross looms ever more ominously over our lives. There may be other things that burden our hearts this day—illness, worries, broken relationships. As I look over the congregation this morning, familiar faces remind me of the struggles some of you are going through, struggles you’ve shared with me. Other faces are new and it may be that something in your life, some pain or sorrow, has brought you here in hopes of finding some solace or comfort. With all that, on a gloomy day in March when winter just can’t seem to leave us, as Lent nears its end and we look forward with foreboding to Holy Week and all that it brings, with all of that and more on our hearts today, it’s hard to generate enthusiasm, or joy, or perhaps even a radiant smile.
Our gospel reading brings us to the very edge of Holy Week—John tells us that Passover is six days away. Now John’s dating of the events during the last days of Jesus’ life is complicated and doesn’t fit into the chronology of the Gospel of Mark, so let’s just say, this all takes place in the week before the crucifixion. It also occurs just after another momentous event—Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead.
And we might imagine that John wants us to see this dinner as a celebration of that miracle. It’s an opportunity for Lazarus’ friends and family to come together and rejoice at the wholly unexpected turn of events that transformed mourning into joy. We might also imagine that some of those in attendance were curious about what had happened. They were curious to check out Lazarus, to see what someone who had been dead for four days and brought back to life might look like.
The story itself is quite simple, a version of similar stories in the other gospels. Here the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is Mary, Lazarus’ sister. She acts with abandon and with no eye to what is respectable. To spend that much—a daily laborer’s annual wages—on perfume for Jesus was an outrageous act. Those in attendance at the dinner had to have been shocked. Even more shocking was what she did next: wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. She offended propriety and good manners. And it’s nearly impossible to interpret her wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair as anything other than an erotically-charged act.
For John’s gospel though, there are other meanings in what she does. It comes at the very end of Jesus’ public ministry—from now on, Jesus will teach only his disciples. So it’s a transitional moment in that way. And as such it looks back to the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. His first sign, when he turned water into wine at Cana was an act very much like Mary’s. To produce 120-180 gallons of wine during a party when all of the wine had already been consumed was an extravagant and profligate act. So too is Mary’s action here in spending a year’s salary on perfume, anointing Jesus with it, and wiping his feet with her hair.
It looks back in another subtle way. John makes note that the smell of the perfume filled the house. In chapter 11, when Jesus instructs them to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, Mary’s sister Martha reminds him that Lazarus has been dead four days and the stench will be overwhelming.
Mary’s actions also look ahead to what is to come. That’s obvious in one way, because Jesus explains what she does as preparing his body for burial. Less obviously, her wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair foreshadows Jesus’ own actions in the next chapter. In John’s telling, at the Last Supper, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, wiping them with the towel tied around his waist. In each case, the same Greek word for “wiped” is used. Jesus will use that act as a symbol for the service to which he calls his disciples—an example of the commandment he gave them:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Mary’s actions are the actions of someone who loved Jesus, the actions of a disciple. They stand in sharp contrast to the words of the other disciple who is given voice. In the story as told in the other gospels, the disciples raised their voices in protest. Here only Judas speaks up. John paints him in especially negative light. His stated concern for the poor is not sincere. He was in charge of the common purse and stole from it. John calls him a thief.
It’s easy to look at this story from our vantage point and join with Jesus in criticizing Judas. It may be more difficult to reflect honestly on how we might respond in a similar situation. Mary’s behavior is inappropriate, even offensive. She crosses the boundaries of what is acceptable. Imagine if one of the guests at a dinner party in which you were in attendance behaved that way! Imagine, too, your response if you knew she had spent so much money on perfume–$20,000? $30,000? How many of us would have reacted similarly to Judas: “She wasted that money! Think of how much food we could have purchased. That’s half the annual budget of our food pantry!”
Jesus’ response to Judas is often taken as an excuse by those who don’t want to provide for the neediest among us: there are always going to be poor people, no matter what we do, goes the thinking. But that’s not what is meant here. Jesus is contrasting between the continuing presence of the poor and his own departure. He’s saying in effect that there will continue to be opportunities to serve the poor, but there won’t be opportunities to tend to his needs after he is crucified and raised from the dead. He’s telling Judas and us that Mary’s actions are an appropriate way of showing her love for him. They are the actions of a true disciple.
They challenge us to think about how we respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, to be his disciple. In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks a great deal about abundant life—life lived extravagantly, bountifully in response to God’s love of us, as it flows out of our transformed lives in Christ. Jesus offers us glimpses of that abundant life when he turned water into wine, when he talked with the woman at the well and offered her living water, when he knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples. He showed it most dramatically when he laid down his life for his friends and for us: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” There’s no action more extravagant, superfluous in its love than that.
While Jesus shows the way to abundant life in John’s gospel and demonstrates what it means in his own actions, here is one of the few times in the gospel when we see someone other than Jesus offering an example of that abundant life. With no thought for consequences or propriety, with no thought of its economic implications, Mary pours a jar of expensive perfume on Jesus feet and wipes them with her hair. In that extravagant, outrageous act, we see something of what it might mean to be so full of the abundant life offered by Jesus, that we can do nothing but share it with others, to let it flow out from ourselves in acts of generosity, mercy, and charity.