April 7, 2019

5th Sunday of Lent Year C 2019

Our Lenten journey is approaching its penultimate climax. Next Sunday we will wave our palm branches and re-enact Jesus’ triumphal entry before we hear the story of his passion. Today’s reading is preparation for us and for Jesus’ friends gathered at Martha, Mary, and Lazarus’ home. But it is also preparation for Jesus, who the very next day will ride into Jerusalem on that donkey colt and by the end of the week end up on a Roman cross.

Our observance of Holy Week also coincides with a secular day of some significance in our national calendar as well, because Monday of Holy Week this year is also April 15 - tax day. And believe it or not tax day has something to do with our Gospel reading on this fifth Sunday of Lent. April 15 is the federally mandated date when we assess what our income was for the prior year and how much we owe Uncle Sam. You may be wondering what in the world that has to do with our Gospel today, but you will see that what Mary does costs a year’s wages.

Several days ago, Jesus had been across the river when a messenger was sent to Jesus by these same sisters, Martha and Mary, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Jesus got there too late and Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Everyone was still in mourning and when Jesus came to his friend’s tomb, the Gospel tells us simply, “Jesus wept.” And then Jesus’ cried with a loud voice, a roar that scared death away, and called for Lazarus to come out. Lazarus did, still wrapped in his shroud.

Jesus is back with his friends in Bethany and a large crowd is following him because they had heard about the raising of Lazarus from the dead and wanted to see for themselves. Of course the religious leaders were so incensed by this miracle that they were plotting to not only execute Jesus, but Lazarus too, so they could supposedly get rid of any evidence of Jesus’ miraculous persona. Jesus has already been telling his disciples that his days are numbered and they can see it on his face as he arrives to eat at his friends house one last time.

Martha and Mary and Lazarus, just like old times. BFFs. They faced death before and surely Jesus can pull something off again. Jesus takes a seat at the table while Martha does what she always does, she’s busy getting the food on the table, while Lazarus and Jesus enjoy happy hour with their friends before the meal. Lazarus sits next to his friend Jesus, unaware of the exchange that is happening. Jesus was out of reach across the river, safe. But now, by coming back to the scene of his crime you might say, the raising of his friend from death, Jesus has traded his life for his friend’s. The recently dead Lazarus is alive because of Jesus. And the fully alive Jesus is about to be executed.

Mary steals away and no one knows what she’s up to until she returns and without saying a word she anoints Jesus’ feet with enough costly perfume she could have embalmed a king for burial. How much is that you wonder? A year’s wages. Remember tax day is coming.

Then she wipes his feet with her hair, an act of loving intimacy, like she is trying to both give herself to him and take him with her at the same time. It is such a moving scene we aren’t quite sure what to do with it. But the moment is broken by the insincerely self-righteous proclamation of Judas, decrying Mary’s generosity for the sake of the poor. The Gospel writer making sure we know that Judas was as dishonest as he was deceitful.

Jesus quotes Deuteronomy in Mary’s defense, “You will always have the poor with you,” but you will not always have me. Interesting that the rest of that passage from Deuteronomy is a call to take care of the poor. Mary could have anointed Jesus head with that same perfume and the symbolism would have been entirely different, for that is what you do when you are anointing a new king at his coronation. And everyone around would have seen that act as a call to arms, to rise up against their oppressors and take back the kingdom of their father David.

But instead, Mary, in a deeply prophetic act anoints Jesus’ feet, and only dead men get their feet anointed. This act is so extravagant that it demonstrates something else. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way:

So Mary rubbed his feet with perfume so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year, an act so lavish that it suggests another layer to her prophecy. There will be nothing economical about this man's death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life.  In him, the extravagance of God's love is made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God's mercy is made manifest. 

This bottle will not be held back to be kept and admired. This precious substance will not be saved. It will be opened, offered and used, at great price. It will be raised up and poured out for the life of the world, emptied to the last drop. Before that happens, Jesus will gather his friends together one last time. At another banquet, around another supper table, with most of the same people present, Jesus will tie a towel around his waist, and wash his disciples' feet. Then he will give them a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you. 

At least one of the disciples will argue with him, while others will wonder if he has lost his mind. But a few will watch him working on their feet and remember Mary bending over his feet like that--the prophet Mary--who knew how to respond to Jesus without being told, the one who acted out his last, new commandment before he ever said it. Remembering her may help them leave him alone while he finishes delivering his message. 

At home in Bethany, the storm clouds are still piling up against the door when Mary gives the forecast: it will be bad, very bad, but that's no reason for Jesus' friends to lock their hearts and head to the cellar. Whatever they need, there will be enough to go around. Whatever they spend, there will be plenty left over. There is no reason to fear running out--of nard or of life either one--for where God is concerned, there is always more than we can ask or imagine.