Sunday, March 13, 2016

Messy Love

Lent 5C

John 12:1-8

Eternal God, who brings us together in the midst of family and friends and those we

love, grant us to take a deep breath and give to each other generously of our time and

attention. Through your Son our Savior Jesus Christ who is your example for us. Amen.

The gospel passage today is from the gospel of John. John’s gospel is so interesting

because of the number of layers he has in his story. I’ve talked about this before, the

multilevel drama of John. Always, the interplay of these levels adds depth and

dimension to the story and so in order to see what is going on, we are going to take apart

the passage for today, peel back the layers, to find the real focus of this story.

This story has five major characters in it: John, Judas, Lazarus, Mary, and Jesus. We are

going to look at each person, what role they play, and how they affect our view of what


We are going to start with John. John isn’t exactly in the story as a character, but the

author is always a major player in any piece of writing. John certainly makes his feelings

about Judas known in this story with his multiple aside comments about him. John was

writing to a community that had suffered considerable dissention and division and we

can see how issues of betrayal and disruption are not acceptable to him. We don’t know

if the community of John was suffering money issues, but John points money out as a

major issue through his commentary on Judas and highlighting the cost of the perfume.

John colors the passage so much so that it is easy to lose the main focus of the passage

(which is what happens between Mary and Jesus). There is another bit of foreshadowing

that John does to color the passage, but we are going to look at that when we look at

Lazarus. But since John so explicitly focuses on Judas, so let’s look at Judas next.

The New Testament scholar J. N. Sanders suggests that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are

all younger siblings of Judas Iscariot, because they are all children of Simon the Leper.

In many ways then what happens in this story is family drama. We all know about

family drama. The dinner takes place in Lazarus’ home, where Martha and Mary are

known to live, but if Lazarus is Judas’ younger brother, than at one point in time this

may have been Judas’ house, perhaps before he decided to follow Jesus around the

country. We don’t know much about Judas specifically before this passage. If we took

out John’s commentary on Judas, we might actually believe that Judas really did care

about the poor when he asked why the money for the perfume wasn’t given away.

However, with John’s commentary, we see Judas as a thief and betrayer. We don’t know

what Judas would have been doing with all the money he was stealing, but it’s easy to

assume that he didn’t travel with it all on his person and perhaps some of it was going

back to his family. In this case, we could almost wonder Mary had used some of the

stolen money to buy the perfume. Either way, Judas is obviously upset about the use of

the money. We might be able to understand why. Judas has been following Jesus

around and Jesus has been mightily preaching and teaching about caring for the poor.

And here is a year’s worth of money, around $18,000 today, being used on perfume. No

matter what why you look at that situation, it seems a little excessive. Because it is. But

before we look at Mary and why she would have spent that much money on perfume, I

want to take a slight detour and look at the role of Lazarus in the room.

The whole story takes place in Lazarus’ house. Within the realm of his hospitality. In the

ancient hospitality system, anything that was given within his house was a gift from him.

So even though Mary is the one who has bought the perfume , and we don’t know if

Lazarus knew about it ahead of time or not, and Mary is the one who upends the

perfume on Jesus’ feet, in society it would have been seen as a gift of Lazarus to Jesus.

And it’s very interesting to me that this gift of perfume is seen as a death gift, a gift for

Jesus’ burial, from the man that Jesus raised from the dead. John, the author, takes this

moment in the larger story to foreshadow some of what is to come in the week (or two

for us) ahead. John mentions the Passover, which is when he times Jesus’ death, as the

sacrificial lamb, and he continues to push into our minds the preparation for Jesus’

death by having Mary prepare him for burial a week early. But since this all takes place

in the house of Lazarus, John also delicately foreshadows what is to come after Jesus

dies. Lazarus was raised and so will Jesus be raised from the dead. More even than

Lazarus, Jesus will triumphantly go beyond death into resurrection. Even though

Lazarus doesn’t do much in this passage, he has a major role in the way the story fits

into the overarching gospel of John.

Once we have peeled back the layers of John, Judas, and Lazarus, what we are left with

is a very intimate exchange between Jesus and Mary.

Mary, whether Judas is the eldest or not, is most definitely the youngest of the family.

Mary we have seen before is highly focused on her relationship with Jesus and has spent

hours sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him. Here today we see Mary come in with a

pound jar of $18,000 perfume and pours it all over Jesus' feet and starts wiping them

with her hair. It must have been quite the scene. It’s a very intimate gesture after all. To

be that close to a man who wasn’t part of her family would not have been acceptable to

society. Mary's face and head must have been quite close to Jesus' feet to have been

wiping them with her hair, no matter how long her hair was, and all these men are

looking on, probably with mixed feelings of astonishment, shame, shock, and

questioning what is going on. She makes a complete mess! The room probably stunk of

perfume for days! The floor was probably slippery with perfume. But Mary doesn't seem

to mind in the least. She never has. She is generous with her time and her money and

her gifts when it comes to Jesus. She gives freely out of love.

And Jesus? Jesus accepts Mary’s gift just as freely as she gives it. Here he is, six days

before he is going to die, the night before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, having

dinner with dear friends. And whether he knew how quickly things would move or not,

he takes the time to focus on his relationships. In this case, Jesus doesn't let anything

stand in the way of Mary giving her bounteous gift. Jesus says that Mary bought the

perfume for the day of his burial and some people point out that this doesn't make sense

because Mary, sister of Martha, is not part of the group who helps bury Jesus the next

week. However, it seems to me to make good sense, because if she bought this perfume

for his burial and she just used all of it to wash his feet, to prepare him for death now,

then she wouldn't have had any left for when he actually died. But she has already

helped in his burial, and completely out of love. Despite the scene and mess that it

causes, Jesus protects her and what she has done. He defends her. Jesus opens the space

for Mary's gift. He focuses on the relationship at hand.

The focus of the gospel passage is on this exchange of love and attention to the other

between Mary and Jesus. It’s this kind of relationship we want to be developing with

Jesus throughout our Lent practices. This is why we take forty days to focus and

strengthen our relationship with Jesus. To be able to give our messy love as generously

and to be able to receive Jesus’ grace and acceptance just as openly.