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Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 17, 2013

When I go to my brother and sister-in-law’s house near Annapolis, they take good care of me. They feed me, they take me out on their boat, they let me share their lives. One day, they took me to get a pedicure. I had never had one before, so I didn't know what to expect. When we got to the salon, I was invited to take off my shoes and socks, sit in a chair and put my feet in a basin full of warm water. Then I got to soak for several minutes while my skin and nails softened. When that was done, the pedicurist wiped my feet dry. She cut and shaped my nails, then put nail polish on them in the color I wanted. It was a truly sensual experience, one I would willingly repeat. When I go to Joe and Nora’s, I am able to leave my world behind, both literally and figuratively. I am able to relax and leave the stresses and strains of my life in Northern Virginia. I am able to celebrate being a family with them. When I leave, they tell me I can come back anytime I want to. Time there makes me feel loved and appreciated.

Jesus is taking a break from his cares, too. He is at Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ house. They are his friends and his disciples. They are throwing a party for him because he had brought their brother Lazarus back from the dead and they are overcome with joy and gratitude. It is six days before Passover, just a week before Jesus would die on the cross. Jesus continues his teaching and preaching, but his coming “hour” when he will be glorified is never far from his mind. The Gospel of John says that Jesus knew that when he brought Lazarus back to life, he would have to enter the tomb himself to save the world (Fred Craddock). The raising of Lazarus made many of the Jews believe in him and threatened the power of the high council led by Caiaphas. In John, instead of the cleansing of the temple, the resurrection of Lazarus was the precipitating event for those in power to decide to kill Jesus. Jesus is carrying around a terrible burden, and a party at the home of his dear friends surely was a welcome relief, if only for a few hours.

While he is at the table, Mary brings an entire pound of costly perfume and lays it at Jesus’ feet. Then she uses it all to anoint his feet and then wipes them with her hair. To have his feet bathed with perfume and wiped by Mary’s hair must have been a very sensual experience for Jesus, like my pedicure was for me. He who usually did the serving is being served and in a most generous way. Not only that, the aroma of the perfume flooded the whole room, involving everyone in the experience through their sense of smell. The evening’s celebration becomes extraordinary through Mary’s intimate act of love.

Mary anoints Jesus’ feet out of adoration, thanksgiving and hospitality. She is so grateful for her brother’s rising from the dead that she wants to give her very best to Jesus. And her very best is a lot. The perfume cost almost a year’s wages. To use up every bit of it to anoint Jesus shows that her gift is extravagant in the extreme, not only because of the cost, but because of the limited amount of time the gift would last. By the next day, all the smell will have dissipated from the house, all the perfume would be gone from Jesus’ feet and he would be heading toward Jerusalem again, his feet getting dirty and dusty just as they would on any other day.

Mary’s gift symbolizes many things. First, the anointing, even though it was not on the head, symbolizes Jesus’ kingship, his identity as the Messiah. John refers to Jesus as king many times during the trial scenes (Susan Hylen). It also symbolizes the anointing Jesus will receive for his burial. Does Mary know what Jesus’ disciples refuse to acknowledge – that he will die and that the time of his death is soon? We don’t know, because Mary does not speak during her ministrations. Mary also wipes Jesus’ feet just as Jesus’ wipes the feet of the disciples when he washes them at their last supper together. Even the word for wiping is the same in Greek.

It is Peter who objects to the foot washing at the last supper, but here the figure of Judas is introduced. Judas makes a perfectly logical assumption – that the expensive perfume could have been sold and the money distributed to the poor. At a cost of almost a year’s wages, the disciples could take care of a lot of hungry people. And wasn't that what the master said his disciples were to do? But the logical suggestion is revealed as a hypocritical one, because John tells us that Judas kept the common purse and stole from it, so he was really interested in his own gain. It is important to note that although Judas is the one who betrayed Jesus to the authorities, he was by no means the only one who betrayed Jesus. Peter specifically comes to mind. Regardless of his failings, Judas was still a disciple of Jesus, just as Mary was, just as Peter was (George W. Stroup).

But Judas does not understand what is going on. Jesus accepts Mary’s gift with gratitude and defends her action. No matter how celebratory the occasion is, Jesus cannot fully forget his destiny. He tells Judas to let her be, that she has bought the ointment for the day of his burial, and anyone smelling it would have immediately thought of embalming (L. Susan Bond). Jesus is not used to being extravagantly gifted. He is used to being the one doing the gifting, such as the abundance of wine at the wedding in Cana and the feeding of the 5,000 with 12 baskets left over. But he was not going to be with them much longer and the gift was appropriate for the situation.

Jesus tells Judas that they will always have the poor with them, but they will not always have him. Jesus is not expressing a callous attitude for the poor – far from it. He is referring to Deuteronomy 15:11, which expresses the knowledge that someone will always be in need and that the people of God must open their hand to the poor and needy neighbor in their land. There will be plenty of time for that though, after Jesus is gone from them, and this one gift, full of meaning, is his and his alone. The dinner is a reminder of his past and a foreshadowing of his future, serving as a pivotal point between Lazarus’ resurrection and Jesus’ passion.

The dinner at Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ house teaches us some lessons about our faith. Our faith in Jesus comes from reminders of God’s past actions in our lives and our expectations of the future. If we have found that we could trust God with our will and our lives in the past, we are hopefully likely to do so in the future. Faith in God in Christ is a relational faith, not static intellectual concepts. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet; Martha serves the meal. They are both engaged in service to others. They loved their Lord and their neighbor. Prayer and meditation and action hold our faith together. We have to be in communication with God to know how we can be of the most service to God’s kingdom.

We also learn about the grace of God that gives us faith and saves us from sin and death. Mary is our example of the ideal disciple, and Judas is our example of the unfaithful disciple, but both were disciples of our Lord. Sometimes we are faithful, and sometimes we are not, but God encourages our obedience and forgives our sins so we can start anew. Does Jesus redeeming Judas sound far-fetched? It might, but we cannot put limits on God’s grace and mercy.

Our faith is one of abundance not scarcity. Mary’s gift was extravagant; it was the best she had. We are called to give the best we have – our whole selves – to God. Judas was greedy and hoarded the group’s money for his own gain. If not greedy, we sometimes keep money and talents that we could use to serve the world in Christ’s name. Our faith is a faith of giving and generosity, not of hiding and hoarding.

Finally our faith is always a cross and resurrection faith. The celebration dinner is overshadowed by the image of the cross, in Mary’s anointing and in Judas’ coming betrayal, even by the presence of Lazarus. The joy of resurrection cannot go around the cross. It must go through it. We must die before we can receive new life.

As we draw nearer to Jesus’ passion and the cross, let us examine our faith to see if it is relational, grace-filled and abundant. We are called to this extravagant faith by God; practicing it is a sign of our gratitude for the gift of the cross and resurrection.


  - Rev. Ann Barker


Works Cited:
Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 164
Susan Hylen, Working Preacher, Lectionary for March 17, blog post
George W. Stroup, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2, Theological Perspective (WestminsterJohn Knox Press, 2009), p. 142
L. Susan Bond, New Proclamation Year C 2013, Advent through Holy Week (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012) p. 178