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."
Gift of Discipleship: Loving & Following Jesus
Giving gifts can be wonderful. I remember being at a little child’s birthday party – I don’t even remember who it was - but on opening a small gift, he exclaimed with joy and delight: “Oh! Just what I’ve always wanted.” It was delightful to see the joy on his face – but even more delightful to see the joy on the face of the giver and everyone around the circle. That’s the response that we want when we give a gift. But… it doesn’t always work out that way
Mary’s gift was smelly. Imagine – a whole pound of perfume! The whole house must have reeked with the aroma. But besides the pervasive smell, Mary must have raised more than a few eyebrows when she caressed Jesus’ feet with her hands and she let down her hair to dry his feet. In the culture of the time, women’s hair was something that only their husbands saw. Plus, the perfume that she used was often saved to anoint the dead. Looking around the room – there was Lazarus – Mary’s brother, the man Jesus raised from the dead. Was this a joyful thank you to Jesus for bringing Lazarus back to life? Or was it a reminder of the nearness of death?
As if that wasn’t enough to make people notice, this was an extravagant gift. And people always pay attention when gifts are extravagant.
This past week, when I was at Breadsmith – the bakery that donates our bread on Wednesday nights – the man ahead of me kept adding to his order. He turned and looked at me and apologized saying, “Oh I’m sorry it’s taking me a long time. But I just had to come here – even though I live in Eden Prairie. My wife loves this bakery.”
I looked at his order. I noticed it included very large package of chocolate brownies. I smiled. But the man continued… “I’m in the doghouse.”
I didn’t say a word – just smiled. He went on, “You think this is bad – he gestured to his growing pile -- I work in jewelry and one day a man came in and bought a very expensive 18 inch gold necklace for his wife. As I was wrapping it up, he said, ‘I’m in the doghouse. I hope this will do it.’ Just as a joke I said him, “Well, the next time you are in the doghouse, you could come back and get the earrings to match!” He looked at me and said, ‘Wrap them up.”
These two men were giving extravagant gifts for a purpose – they both wanted to get “out of the doghouse.”
That wasn’t the reason for Mary’s gift. Her gift was extravagant too – and actually far more expensive than the gifts of those two men. Scholars estimate that nard, the perfumed oil that Mary poured over Jesus’ feet, would cost a year’s salary. How could Mary afford that? What was she thinking? What was the purpose in spending that money – wasting it as some would say?
That was Judas’ complaint. He clearly wasn’t happy with what was going on. He piously complains that the nard could have been sold and the money given to the poor.
Judas’ seemingly practical, sensible and even pious complaint is in sharp contrast to Mary’s extravagant – seemingly wasteful gift. John gives the readers an aside that Judas stole from the common purse, revealing a personal, selfish reason for his complaint. But still…why did Mary offer such an extravagant gift? If she had that much extra, why didn’t Mary give it to the poor or to some other cause?
Jesus provides the answer. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about the poor. When he says, “You always have the poor with you,” Jesus may have been referencing Deuteronomy 15:11 which says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Matt Skinner
But Jesus also wanted to remind his disciples, that Good Friday was not far off as he says, “but you do not always have me." So Jesus accepts Mary’s gift. It might not have been “the gift that he always wanted.” But it was a prophetic gift – a gift that pointed to Good Friday.
Why would Mary provide such a gift? Did she know more than the disciples? We don’t know. But remember the first time that we hear of Mary and Martha. Jesus is called upon to settle a family squabble. Should Mary have to help Martha in the kitchen or could she sit at Jesus’ feet and listen? Jesus honored Mary’s wish and made a place for Mary to sit at his feet, the place of a disciple, and listen.
In response, Mary’s extravagant gift was smelly, personally intimate and expensive– it was a gift of her whole self, her resources, time, talents and money.
For us, Mary models what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus. Like Mary, we too can listen to Jesus and act with love and care, not holding back but out of love, sharing our whole selves and our resources. And like Mary, you have been given a gift. Jesus has made room for you at the table. You too are called to discipleship. You too are called to love and follow Jesus.
But how do we do this?
It doesn’t mean that there should be a run on smelly perfume. As Jesus said, Mary’s gift was prophetic – a preparation for his burial.
But Jesus has welcomed you to His table too. He loves you and has claimed you. And God has given you gifts and talents that are given “for you” – and are given for you to share.
The question for you to ponder is this: how can you respond to the amazing and inclusive love that Jesus has for you? How can you respond – with love, like Mary did -- to the love of Jesus?
We could look at the marks of discipleship printed on our wall – the practices of worshipping, learning, serving, giving, inviting , encouraging and praying. All of these are good. But…let’s start with prayer, trusting that Jesus will lead us in our prayers to action.
Thank you for calling us to and giving us the gift of a life of discipleship. Lead us and guide us so that in our words and in our deeds we may show your love and walk in your way. Amen.