Our Gospel reading is set at a dinner party! You will remember not long before these events, Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was sick. By the time Jesus arrived at Bethany where they were, Lazarus had already died. Jesus calls him out of the tomb of death to life again.
Lazarus, Mary and Martha would have gone over the top to express their gratitude to Jesus. I well imagine the house was filled with people – likely the disciples were there, some neighbours and other friends. The house wouldn’t have been large so it filled quickly. They didn’t eat at tables and didn’t sit on chairs or couches, people just sat on the floor so they would be really up close and personal. I imagine I’d hear all kinds of conversations and laughter. Intermingled through it all would have been the delicious smells of the food - lamb stew flavoured with mint, the freshly baked bread being broken, the wine being shared.
It was a great dinner party that was interrupted by the unexpected. That interruption came in an unusual way. It was when the sweet fragrance of perfume permeated everything. It floated all through the gathering – pulling people out of their conversations, taking them away from the meals. Many would have smelled something before they saw its source. It was Mary anointing Jesus’s feet. Everyone’s focus was in that one place on that special act of love and adoration.
Then there was the awkward tension between Judas and Mary. Why did you do that? Why waste that perfume pouring it on Jesus’ feet? It could have been sold for a lot of money - a year’s wages. We could have used the money to give the poor! Immediately I think, “Judas is right!” why waste it in one action. After reflecting on it I came to realize is, the Kingdom of God provides for a deeper, more profound way of life than the simple solution based world in which Judas and we live.
If Judas’ thinking was followed, the perfume would be sold, the money distributed to the poor which would have addressed their physical needs for a time but would have done nothing to lift them from a sense of worthlessness, nothing to move them from the margins of society.
As opposed to Judas’s way, Jesus is the very embodiment of extravagant compassion, grace and love. He carried out a ministry that healed people who were lame, people who were blind, people who had leprosy all who were pushed to margins of normal daily life.
[Story of Winnipeg soup kitchen – soap not food]
Jesus crossed boundaries showing abundant welcome when he ate with tax collectors – those normally avoided by most people. Abundant grace was shown when he asked a Samaritan woman for water – Samaritans and Jews had a history of not getting along but Jesus crossed the barrier to help the woman know abundant life.
John’s Gospel is filled with signs pointing to God’s abundant grace and new life in the Kingdom of God. Like Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana – there was lots of it and it was the very best wine. Jesus shows this abundant grace and love time and time again. That abundant love and grace did far more than fix their physical needs. It gave them new beginnings and new life. Mary’s anointing of Jesus shows she is returning the love she receives from him. There is a relationship formed between them – love received and love returned.
We can learn from Mary. Lent is a spiritual time, holy week even more so a time when we reflect on and deepen our faith and our relationship with God. Jesus freely gives us daily an abundance of new life and grace. How then do we receive and return that abundance?
At this dinner party Mary anoints Jesus and he alludes to his death, alludes to his final abundant act of love for the world. We know the next stories of Jesus are his entry into Jerusalem and the journey through Holy week to his crucifixion on Good Friday. We know that Jesus will not be physically with us always. The early church created an image which reminds us that Jesus is alive but not limited to the physical. In Corinthians, for example, we hear the church being referred to as the body of Christ and individually, we are members of it – an active body alive in the world.
To fully live into that role, we need to be like Mary, to give that same devotion to Jesus and return the abundant love we received from him. We cannot reflect it back to a physical Jesus as Mary did, but we can show that abundant love to the world in need.
After Judas chastises Mary for pouring the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. Jesus defends her saying, “Leave her alone […], “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” This is not Jesus saying as long as you worship me you can ignore those in need.
Lindesy Trozzo, Associate Director of Digital Learning at Princeton Theological Seminary says there is something lost in translation here. Just as there are some 50 words for “snow” in the Inuit language and we cannot express exactly what each one means in our English language because we have fewer words for snow. The words “You always have the poor with you” were originally written in Greek. In the Greek, the words could mean, “you always have the poor with you’ – a statement of fact or “Keep the poor with you” – a command to carry out. It seems to me that this second interpretation is more in keeping with Jesus’ ministry, way of life and purpose.
That is our imperative to claim especially in this week leading to the Good Friday when everything was poured out to show God’s love for the world. We live into our responsibility as part of the body of Christ that we are mindful of the poor which is really anyone hurting because of inequality and injustice - communities oppressed because of skin colour, gender identity, religious beliefs. Individuals struggling with addiction, mental illness, homelessness…
Like the abundant fragrance of the perfume which filled that house in Bethany and drew everyone’s attention to Jesus, the Holy Spirit infuses us as the body of Christ to be disciples of Jesus. To build relationships based on love and grace with all who are on the margins – love received, love returned. Full and abundant life for everyone of us. Amen.