Fifth Sunday in Lent 2019
by The Reverend Jeffrey C. Johnson
John 12: 1-8Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, 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.
1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (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.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Nard. That perfume that is used throughout the four gospels to illustrate the extravagance of the love of Jesus. I’ve never smelled nard and seen it but in the little research I’ve done, it was the most costly perfume of its day. I think it is something like $300 for a small vessel of it. And probably for a person in the time of Jesus, it was a year’s salary. Think about an object, a fanciful thing that you would perhaps spend a year’s salary on. Just think about that.
So, what’s going on here? We have one of scripture’s most memorable stories but please keep in mind of these important moments in this gospel story:
- It was six days before the Passover, the same night of the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest, trial, and eventual crucifixion.
- They, meaning Mary and Martha make him dinner. And Lazarus their formerly dead brother is sitting there.
- Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet…specifically here in Luke, Jesus’ feet with her hair.
- The fragrance fills the room.
- Judas’ objection. Why wasn’t this money given to the poor?
- Jesus’ response: “Let her alone.”
- The poor you will always have with you.
- You will not always have me.
Fear not, I’m not expecting anyone to remember these key moments in this story, but keep in mind so much of this action points to Jesus’ death in a week’s time. The use of nard, a perfume not only for the living but also for the anointing of the dead. Not only Mary’s purchase of something way beyond her financial resources but the strange and almost erotic use of her hair to bathe Jesus’ feet points to the Last Supper. If you remember the first thing to happen at that Passover Dinner was Jesus’ washing his own disciples’ dirty, nasty feet with a towel and basin. So, in short, we have a lot of prophecy and foreshadowing as to what is about to happen a week later.
What I want us to focus on is the nard and its silly, ridiculous costliness. Why would anyone want to spend a year’s salary on something so wasteful? Something so precious but disappears immediately after it’s been used? Something that goes up in smoke?
I am reminded of the French when their soccer team won the World Cup for Soccer in 1999. I was in Washington DC the day they won and the celebration was electric. Supposedly, the French were so elated that they filled their signature perfume, Chanel #5, into all the fountains of Paris. That was a great experience of nard for France, Soccer, and Coco Chanel.
The nard here for Mary and Jesus is probably a great thank-offering for Jesus restoring and resurrecting her brother Lazarus. Remember, Lazarus was just freshly dead and now he’s sitting at the dinner table.
Judas makes an off-color remark and Jesus volleys back with a phrase that has been misinterpreted for centuries: “the poor you will always have with you.” Yes, indeed, we know that still in the 21st century, but it is not an excuse to ignore the poor. Because, yes, Jesus is as just among the poor Judas mentions. But Jesus also speaks to our here and now. Stanley Hauerwas, famous American theologian, so famous that Oprah Winfrey had him on her talk show program, states that “the poor that we always have with us is Jesus. It is to the poor that all extravagance is given. The true church always treasurers the life of the poor and always has the poor in its midst.”
However, I draw our attention to the presence of nard (that which is costly and does not necessarily last) in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and our own lives:
- At the wedding of Cana in Galilee, 180 gallons of wine are produced…far more than are needed.
- A choir prepares an anthem after weeks of hard work and then it’s gone.
- 5000 people are fed by Jesus and his followers with 12 baskets of leftovers. And presumably, that food is gone.
- A sermon is prepared and it is gone.
- Simon Peter is instructed by Christ to cast his nets on the other side of the boat and 153 fish jump into the net.
- 100 or more people show up at a fundraiser for a Preschool and lots of money is raised…more than speculated.
- The saints give their money, their time, their talent to a church and it becomes a place of hope for many.
- A food pantry gives away all its food with shelves bare hoping that for one day and for the right reasons; they are no longer needed.
I’ve noticed that in these biblical examples, wherever Jesus shows up, there is more than dreamt beforehand. Generosity breeds generosity and it oozes out of Jesus and hopefully, out of us. Does generosity ooze out of FLC? Do we smell nard in this room?
“Much of modern religion focuses only on what is useful, practical, and cost-effective. Concern for austerity arises when resources seem slim. Yet when it comes to the life of faith, we may discover our hearts are diminished if the budget is our first concern. Should we live spendthrift lives? No. Can we justify the wasting of God’s gifts? Not really. However long before a gift can be wasted, it must first be received. Jesus is the gift of God. Jesus is our nard. Our children, our very lives, this beautiful space, its stained glass, its beautiful pipe organ are nard…costly and of a great gift. So, how are we extravagant for Jesus and each other in our hearts?
I think we are generous: Through Prayer, showing up, being present each other, being present for those who will come in the future, and giving of our abundant gifts not only in money but time and talent. We are so lucky. We are so blessed to be in this glorious place. We are so blessed to have each other. We are so lucky for the gift of the one we call Jesus.