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Costly Love

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 3rd of Fourth Month, 2022

Speaker: Lyn Koehnline

Scripture: John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Artistic representation of Mary washing Jesus' feet.
Soichi Wanatabe, 2006.

I’ve always been drawn to this story. I have so many responses, it has been challenging to try to winnow them down to something cohesive. Please pray with me that the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts will be acceptable in the eyes of God.

Different versions of a story about a woman anointing Jesus with costly ointment appear in each of the four Gospels, so maybe something like this happened more than once. The word “anoint” at its most basic means, “to put oil on,” which is sometimes just part of good grooming. But it more often associated with acts of healing, consecration, or blessing. The Hebrew kings, priests and prophets were anointed as part of their initiation.

In the Gospel of Luke an unnamed woman with a bad reputation anoints Jesus’ feet and the criticism is of Jesus, who should have known better than to allow someone like her anywhere near him.

In Matthew and in Mark, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head rather this his feet. She is sometimes assumed to be Mary Magdalene, as many classical paintings and in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, when she tries to sooth Jesus with the ointment and sings, “Everything's alright, yes, everything's fine.”

As in this morning’s scripture, this woman is reprimanded by the disciples for wasting resources that could have been given to the poor. The nard, also called spikenard, was expensive because it was derived from plants that grew in the Far East and had to be imported. The aromatic oil had medicinal and cosmetic uses as well as ritual uses, in the Temple, and to prepare bodies for burial.

The telling of the story in the Gospel of John is especially powerful. It takes place near the very end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.

We’ve met this family before! Luke tells the story of Martha hosting a meal for Jesus and the disciples. She is harried trying to get food on the table for so many people and irritated that her sister Mary is not helping her at all, but just sitting there, listening, at Jesus’ feet.

Jesus commends Mary for making the higher choice, and suggests that Martha shouldn’t fuss so much. But Jesus and his buddies still eat the food that Martha has laid out, and we never hear anything about the disciples helping with the dishes afterwards.

I lean towards being a Martha myself and I’ve always thought she got a bum rap. We need Marthas and Marys, perspiration and inspiration. I just pray that I will know when it’s the right time to let my inner Martha, or my inner Mary, take the lead.

The next story about this family is in John Chapter 11, immediately preceding this this morning’s scripture. The raising of Lazarus from the dead is the climax of all Jesus’s miracles, and that the one that pushes the Jewish authorities over the edge.

Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus had fallen gravely ill. The sisters sent word to Jesus, begging him to come to Bethany and heal their brother. But Jesus did not hurry and he arrived too late. By the time he got to their home, Lazarus had been dead and in his tomb for four days.

When Jesus asks her, it is Martha, previously typecast as a drudge, who makes her powerful declaration of faith, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:27)

When Jesus is seen doing the unimaginable, bringing Lazarus back to life, he does so at great personal risk. Many Jews had traveled the two miles from Jerusalem to Bethany in order to be with Martha and Mary in their time of bereavement, and they were witnesses.

As John records in Chapter 11, “… some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what [Jesus] had done. So, the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation … So, from that day on they plotted to take his life.”

The chief priests’ fears were not unfounded. War or the threat of war was ever present for the Jewish nation.

After raising Lazarus, Jesus withdraws from Judea and lays low for a while.

When he accepts the dinner invitation from this profoundly grateful family and comes back to Bethany, Jesus knows he is returning the danger zone, getting closer to Jerusalem and closer to the Cross. This is not The Last Supper, but it’s one of his last suppers. Passover is only a few days away.

On this occasion Lazarus is the host. We can picture the scene with Jesus and his disciples reclining around a table. Martha and Mary are not at the table; that’s just for the men. The women are serving. Martha is back in her presumed comfort zone, the kitchen, and once again Mary is doing something else entirely.

She bursts into the men’s domain, but not to serve dinner. Her hair is uncovered and flying loose. She kneels down before Jesus, opens a jar, and pours a sweet fragrant ointment over his worn feet and then she wipes his feet with her own hair.

What a thing to do! I imagine a moment of stunned silence as the fragrance fills the room. This act is personal and physically intimate.

Judas breaks the mood, complaining, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” John says that he didn’t actually care about the poor, but wanted access to the money for himself.

Judas is probably not be the only one in the room who thinks the money could have been put to better use. Who are these “poor” anyway? I thought Jesus was poor, and his disciples along with him.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are not poor. They are able to host a banquet and feed Jesus’ whole entourage, but do not have servants to do the work. Somehow, they managed to purchase a large quantity of very expensive imported ointment. Had they bought it for Lazarus’ burial and this was left over?

It’s not unusual to feel critical of other people’s financial priorities and uncertain about our own. The money I spend on a trip where I get to see the glories of God’s creation could have been given to the poor. The money we spend on our meetinghouse could have been given to the poor. In such matters of conscience I always want to know what would my ideal Quaker, John Woolman, would say.

But maybe this argument about money was just an excuse. Whatever was going on between Mary and Jesus was so intense; maybe Judas just had to turn away. Maybe the other disciples were grateful for the distraction.

Overwhelmed by her feelings, perhaps Mary had overstepped. If she had thought twice, she might have avoided this whole drama. It’s a big risk to act on a powerful impulse. The reaction you get might be disappointing. You might look like a fool or, worse, you might embarrass the very person you’re caring for.

Sermons on this text encourage us to be like Mary, to hold nothing back in our love for Jesus. To give our all, so that there can be no turning back. And I approve that message. But I also see a secondary lesson in which Jesus models for us that loving service can be a two-way street. Indeed, if we are to (as Paul says in Galatians), “bear one another’s burdens,” it must be a two-way street.

You know how hard it is when a friend is grieving or in trouble but pretends to be OK so as not to worry you, to not be a bother, not to admit to weakness. You want to help, but you’re not allowed in.

You also know how difficult it can be to ask for help. I know I’d much rather be the helper than the “helpee”. But in our lives, we each take many turns in each of these roles. And when someone reaches out with a helping hand, we may offer them a blessing by simply receiving it.

Jesus had spent his whole ministry helping others. He knows the end is drawing near and he knows that he will suffer, profoundly. Is this moment he allows Mary to give full rein to her devotion, to push beyond the limits of acceptable behavior, to do something … beautiful … just for him.

What he says is startling. “Leave her alone … It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Is Jesus being ironic? Or is he saying “Yes, and … you can do more than one thing. Feed the poor, always. But pay attention. Don’t fall asleep on me now. My time with you is running out.”

Mary is not just doing some “nice” for Jesus. In anointing his feet, she is doing something holy. As Brian read to us just a few weeks ago, Jesus had claimed his anointment by God at the very beginning of his ministry when he proclaimed the fulfillment of these words from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)

Mary’s act comes at the other end of Jesus’ ministry. The disciples, once again, are in danger of missing it, but Mary is fully awake to this moment, this hinge, in between Jesus’ service and his sacrifice. By following her heart Mary does more than she knows, and Jesus accepts her act as preparation for his future which is his death—his death for Mary and Martha and for you and me.

Jesus could have stayed away and stayed safe, but he remained faithful to his mission and to God. On the very next day he seals his fate by riding a donkey into Jerusalem, surrounded by cheering crowds. Soon, he will sacrifice all because of love.God is about to do a new thing.

As we enter into open worship this morning, perhaps we can begin by imagining ourselves in the home of Martha and Mary with Jesus and the disciples, in the quiet, transcendent moment when the house is filled with a sweet fragrance.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2022 Lyn Koehnline. All rights reserved.

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