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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
Expensive Oil For His Feet

Lent 5     John 12:1-8

(The lectionary does not use the similar story from Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-38, and it seems wise to study and weave these synoptic parallels into the sermon from John’s text.)

The gospel story for today was very famous in the early church, and we find four accounts of this same story recorded in our four gospels. Each of the four versions of this story is slightly different, but we can learn something from each of the four versions. It is difficult to harmonize all the details, but a reader senses that it is the same story. Basically, there seems to be two versions of the same story: the one found in the synoptic gospels and the second version of the same story found in the Gospel of John. The structure of the story is the same in all the gospels; it is the details that are different.

The story for today is a classic. It is a famous one. Christians have loved this story throughout the centuries.

The essential features or structure of the story are this:  The incident happened right before the Passover, near Jerusalem, in the little village of Bethany right outside of Jerusalem. This incident happened in a home apparently owned by a Simon in three of our gospels.  A particular woman, who is unnamed in three of our gospels, takes a pound of expensive perfume that was valued at three hundred denarii; that is, three hundred days work. This was very expensive perfume; you would have to work for a year in order to earn enough money to purchase this expensive and extravagant perfume. This woman takes this exorbitantly expensive perfume, lets down the tightly wrapped bun of her hair, wrapped around her head, and she lets her hair fall and begins to wash the feet of Jesus. She is weeping, kissing Jesus’ feet, anointing his feet with the perfume as a gesture of deepest love, drying his feet with her long, falling hair. In the middle of this tender, emotionally riveting scene, there is a spoilsport, someone who wants to spoil the mood. In the gospel for today from John, the spoilsport is Judas, the keeper of the money purse who grumbles, “This gesture of this woman is a real waste of money. This expensive perfume could have been sold and given to the poor.” Jesus defends the woman and says, “Leave the woman alone. The poor you will always have with you. She is preparing me for my burial by anointing my body with oil” The memory of this story will be told and retold of her throughout history.

That is the story. That is the essential flow and structure of a story. It is a story of a woman in a home near Jerusalem, at Jesus’ last Passover, just before his death, wetting his feet with her tears, taking a jar of enormously expensive perfume and lovingly anointing his feet with that oil, to prepare his body for burial. And there was someone present to try to spoil her gift by suggesting she give it to the poor.

Let us pause for a moment and specifically examine some of the characters in this Biblical scene for today.

In the version of the gospel story for today from St. John, we hear that the certain woman was named Mary, and she was the sister of Martha and Lazarus. We know this family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus from other stories in the Bible. We know the Mary and Martha story, how Martha was so busy in the kitchen, preparing for her special guest Jesus and how her sister Mary sat out in the living room, kneeling and listening to the words and wisdom of Jesus. In that story, Jesus belittled Martha for her frenetic activity and busyness in her kitchen and praised Mary that she had chosen the better part of sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his words and wisdom.

In the story for today, we see the same pattern continues. Jesus had once again come to a home in Bethany and Martha was busy preparing the evening dinner. She then served Jesus, her brother and sister. Let us pause and speak a good word for the Marthas of life, who do the work, who prepare the meals, who change the diapers, who do so much work around the house and elsewhere. I have heard more than one woman, exhausted by all the work from home and employment, say, “What I need is a good wife, someone to do all the work,” and other women nod positively in agreement. A few Sundays ago, I quoted Proverbs 31, on Mother’s Day, and Proverbs 31 is eloquent in describing an ideal wife, an ideal mother, an ideal woman.  In the glowing proverb that describes an ideal wife or mother, the truth slips out when the author of Proverbs 31 says that this ideal woman “feeds her servant girls daily.” And more than one overworked woman has declared, “I would be more ideal also if I had some servants to do all the work.” So we are aware that Martha is again present in this story, and the story say simply that she prepared the food. We are most grateful for the Marthas of life, who work so diligently, often in thankless tasks.

The second person we meet in the Gospel of John’s version of the story is Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. In the previous chapter, Lazarus has been raised from the dead. The whole of chapter eleven of John focuses on the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We have heard that Jesus and Lazarus were deepest friends, that Jesus’ grief was emotional and profound, that Jesus wept not with a few tears but that his emotions “snorted like a horse,” so the Greek language says. Some people, caught by grief, weep not a few tears but sob almost uncontrollably, and Jesus sobbed when he heard that his friend Lazarus had died. When Jesus raised his good friend, Lazarus, from the dead, the crowds began to follow Jesus even more and the Pharisees, who plotted Jesus’ death, also began plotting to do away with Lazarus.

But neither Martha nor Lazarus are at the center of the gospel story for today. At the center of this memorable story is Mary. From a previous incidents, we remember that Mary was complimented by Jesus for sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him. Later, after her  brother Lazarus had died, Mary rushed out to Jesus when he came to the house and pleading and weeping at Jesus’ feet, “Jesus, if you would have been here, my brother would not have died.” 

Now, we come to the scene for today and we focus on Mary. Mary, the listener.  Mary, the emotional one. Mary, the sensitive soul. May who was prone to tears. Mary took a jar of expensive perfume, valued at three hundred denarii; that is, valued at three hundred days of labor. It was expensive. She fell at Jesus’ feet as if she knew something that other people didn’t fully realize. She knew that this man was soon to die. She sensed in that moment, she wanted to do something special for Jesus. So in a radical departure from appropriate custom, she let her hair down, her hair that had been tightly braided around her head. She again started to weep. The gospel of Luke tells us that she wet his feet with her tears, wiped his feet with her hair, kissed his feet, and then anointed his feet with the expensive perfume. It was a most loving and tender gesture, so intimate, almost too intimate, making everyone in the room feel uncomfortable.

She was doing the right thing towards Jesus at the right moment. Some people have that gift: doing the right thing for someone at the right moment.  I have friends by the name of Ed and Barbara. One time, he told the story of how and he his wife were so different. His wife, Barbara, had this uncanny ability to discern the situation; she had a feel for the grandeur of the moment. Not him. Not Ed. He was much more practical, much more organized, much more active and getting the job done. He then went on to say that this story of the woman wetting Jesus’ feet with tears and perfume is an example of someone who was like his wife, who had the gift to appraise the sacredness of the moment and do the right thing in right moment. Some of you have such a gift. Mary did. Mary did the sensitive thing at the right moment, sharing her love and thanksgiving for Jesus.

What was Mary’s motivation to do this sacred act? Maybe her deep love and affection for Jesus grew from their relationship where Jesus had taught her so much about God and love. Maybe her deep affection was because Jesus had given her brother Lazarus back to her. Maybe her deep affection is that she loved Jesus and knew he was going to die very soon, and she wanted to make a last loving gesture to him. We don’t know what her motives were. Perhaps her deep affection for Jesus was grounded in all of these.

In the story, we are invited to love Jesus the same way. We sense that Mary was giving her very best to Jesus, her most sacred possession, and that we too are to give our very best to Jesus in a relationship of mutual love. I like the Christmas poem, “What can I give him, poor as I am. If I were a shepherd, I would give him a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. What shall I give him? I will give him my heart.” … As you read this story, you sense that the woman had given her heart to Jesus, and her loving gift to him to prepare him for burial was a symbol of her inner love. And we sense in this story, that we are invited to be the same kind of person, to love Jesus affectionately and intimately and give him the very best of ourselves. And when we do that, the room is filled with the smells of wonderful perfume.

The mood of this story is a bit different in Luke’s account of the same situation. In Luke’s gospel, it is no longer emotional Mary who is sensitive to tears. In Luke’s gospel, it is not Mary, the sister of Martha, but an unnamed woman who wets Jesus’ feet with tears, dries them with her hair, and covers his feet with perfume. In Luke’s version of the story, she is referred to as a sinner several times. The Bible does not say that she was a prostitute but sometimes a reader thinks she was. The motivation for her loving gesture to Jesus was that Jesus had forgiven her for her many sins. Jesus then told a parable that one man was in debt for five hundred days of labor and another man was in debt for fifty days of labor. Both debts were forgiven. Jesus asked, “Who was more appreciative? The man who was forgiven five hundred days of labor or the man who was forgiven fifty days of labor? The answer was obvious: the man who was forgiven five hundred days of labor. And Jesus continued. “This woman who sins are many has been forgiven much. Whomever has been forgiven much, loves much. Whoever has been forgiven little, loves little. Woman you sins are forgiven. Go in peace. Your faith as saved you.”

The key line is this: Whomever has been forgiven much, loves much. And the reason this unnamed woman was so generous to Jesus with her tears, her kisses of his feet, her tenderness, and anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume was that her sins were great and Jesus had forgiven her all of her many sins. She knew the degree of Jesus’ forgiveness for her imperfections and was deeply appreciative to Jesus for the magnitude of his forgiveness for her.

And many of us may feel the same way. We know that our degree of sinfulness is way too much. We feel that we have been too wayward, too excessive in our sinning and imperfections, and so we are deeply appreciative of Jesus because his forgiveness towards us has been so excessive.  We can understand the woman’s feelings towards Jesus and his abundant forgiveness, because we feel the same way.

So we have briefly examined three characters in the story: Martha, Lazarus, and Mary. So now we look at the spoilsport, the person who ruins the mood of this most tender moment and self righteously declares, “This perfume was mighty expensive. Five hundred days of labor. It should be have sold and given to the poor.”

In the gospel of John, the culprit was Judas himself, Judas Iscariot, the keeper of the money bags which financed Jesus and the disciples’ travels. The culprit was Judas who loved money too much and actually sold Jesus to the Pharisees for thirty pieces of silver.

Why was it that Judas was in charge of the money for Jesus and the disciples? Was it because this was Judas’s special talent? Was this Judas’ special gift, to keep track of the money and pay all the bills? If so, this is another example where a person is talented or gifted in one particular aspect of life; and ever so slowly, there is transformation in that inner person where the gift and talent from God becomes twisted and distorted, and we abuse the gift that God has given to us. That is what happened to Judas. The power of evil got into his heart, and he began abusing the primary gifts that God had given to him.

And that can happen to us as well, in our own particular situations. We, too, have been given particular talents and abilities, and we too can go through an inner malformation and abuse the gifts that God has given us. That is what happened to Judas.

Or maybe it is more simple than that. Judas and far too many of us love money but we try to cover it up. Judas and far too many of us talk about fiscal responsibility when it is really a cover up for our own greed so that we can have more money for ourselves and our pleasures. That was Judas’ problem: greed, plain and simple. And that may be a problem for us as well.

And sometimes we are the spoilsport. We rain on other’s parades, on their special moments with God, on their special moments with family, or special moments in their lives. Rather than being sensitive to and empathizing with other people in their special moments, we may make a remark or minimize their sacred time. There are thousands of daily examples of this in our own lives. A sibling receives an award and rather than celebrating in the event, you drop in a little jab. A husband and wife demonstrate affection to each other in a tender moment, and you try to make it funny when they aren’t feeling that way at all. Someone may become deeply committed to Christ and you (or we) downplay the spiritual event. I have a lingering sour memory of a devout little lady in our congregation telling me how thrilled she was to sing in a mass choir at a Billy Graham rally here in Seattle and I made some disparaging remark about Billy Graham’s theology. In essence, I was raining her parade. Being a spoilsport about her wonderful spiritual and emotional ecstasy that the found in singing and praising Christ in a mass choir. There are many times when we play the roll of the spoilsport, spoiling a sacred and special moment of another.

The last person who is part of the story for today was Jesus himself. Jesus defended the woman. Jesus said to leave her alone, that her special affection for Jesus was good and appropriate. He said that she was preparing him for his burial, for his death, for his crucifixion on the cross. Jesus loved her giving of herself to him in an extravagant way, and Jesus also loves when we given ourselves to him as this woman did. The whole point of the story is that Jesus loved what the woman did…not that she wet his feet with tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed his feet with expensive perfume. Because all of these simple gestures were symbols that she truly loved Jesus in a deep way, and Jesus wants us to love him similarly.

I don’t know precisely what it means for you and me to love Jesus in a similar way. What does it mean for us to wet his feet with our tears, to affectionately dry his feet, to anoint his feet for burial? All of these details, although significant, are not important to our daily lives two thousand years later. That is, we do not touch Jesus’ feet; we may not cry and wet his feet with our tears; our head may be bald; and we wouldn’t throw away our annual wage by pouring some expensive perfume on a picture of a dying Christ.

That being the case, the question is still asked: how can we, in our own situation and personality and century, how can we be like that woman in the story for today? Her life had been deeply touched by Jesus, so much so that she wanted to do something precious for Jesus. Can that be possible for us? That is, can our lives be so deeply touched by the living Christ that we want to respond in some special way? Can our lives be so deeply forgiven by Christ that we want to respond in an unusual meaningful way?

Those of us who are Christians do. Each of us, having been deeply touched by Jesus, want to respond to him and give our lives to him, in such a way that we know that Christ knows that we love him and are appreciative of all that he has done for us. How do you respond to Christ so that Christ knows how you feel and appreciate all that he has done for you? Amen.

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