Sunday, April 7, 2019

"An Extravagant Love." A Sermon on John 12:1-8 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the 5th Sunday in Lent.

"An Extravagant Love"

John 12:1-8

         In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, Lazarus was very ill, and his sisters Mary and Martha had sent a message to Jesus.  Though Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was, before he headed to Bethany.  When he got there, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days, and the mourners were there to console Mary and Martha. 
         Jesus went to the tomb and said, “Take away the stone.”  Martha—always a practical woman—said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  But they took away the stone that closed the tomb, and Jesus prayed and then called, “Lazarus, come out!” 
         Imagine the scene, as Lazarus came out of the tomb, his hands and feet bound with strips of grave cloths, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus told the people, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
            So, that’s the context. Now, six days before the Passover, Jesus comes to Bethany, to the home of Lazarus.  Once again, the house is filled with family and friends, and the table is covered with food.  Martha is hard at work serving.  Lazarus is reclining with Jesus-- Lazarus who was in the tomb until Jesus called him out.          
         Mary slips away and comes back, holding a clay jar in her hands.  Without a word she kneels at Jesus' feet and breaks it open, and the sharp smell of nard fills the room.  She does a series of remarkable things: 
         In a room full of men, Mary loosens her hair-- which is something a respectable woman never did in that culture.  She pours balm on Jesus' feet, which also is not done.   Then she touches him-- a single woman caressing the feet of a rabbi.   Also, not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the salve off again-- with her hair.  It is totally inexplicable-- the bizarre end to an all-around bizarre act.       
         Judas is quick to point out how extravagant Mary’s action is.  "Why wasn't this ointment sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"  That's what Judas wants to know.  A day laborer and his family could live on that much money for a year, and here she has poured it all out on your feet!"
         But Jesus doesn’t see it that way.  "Leave her alone,” Jesus says, brushing all objections aside.  "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
         Now, that is about as odd a thing to say as anything Mary did.  Jesus, who was always concerned about the needs of the poor and marginalized and putting their needs ahead of his own, suddenly pulling rank.  Leave her alone.  You will have the poor to look after until the end of time.  Just this once, let her look after me, because my time is running out.
            The poor you always have with you. These words of Jesus have often been interpreted to mean that Jesus believed poverty is inevitable. As the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis suggested in the book we read for our Lenten study last year, some people see poverty as an individual issue. Some believe that poverty is a matter of individual sin or moral failure—that people are poor because they don’t work hard enough…or have made bad choices.[1]
            In her book, Liz seeks to show that--far from giving Christian reason to ignore calls for economic justice, the passage we heard today actually makes “one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty.”[1] She says the passage has been twisted out of context to justify the belief that poverty as inevitable. 
            “The poor you always have with you, but you will not always have me.”  Some people would argue from this that we should attend to spiritual needs over, or instead of, tangible human needs. “Just a closer walk thee,” instead of a march on Washington. Thoughts and prayers, rather than votes and legislation. Individual acts of kindness, but keep the church out of the realm of policy-making and community activism. But there are problems with this interpretation.  
            As biblical scholar Lindsey Trozzo writes, we can’t separate Jesus from the poor.  Jesus brought good news in tangible ways to those who were oppressed and vulnerable, and in his actions and teaching he challenged the oppressive political system of his day.[2]
            “The poor you will always have with you.” Dr. Trozzo suggests that we may be reading this wrong. In the Greek, the present indicative form of a word, which states something, such as “you always have the poor with you,” is similar to the present imperative form of the word, which commands you to do something. So, another way to translate this passage would be as a command: “Keep the poor among you always.”
            Going back to the story:  Jesus and the disciples and some close friends are eating dinner, when Mary brings in a pound of expensive perfume and pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet. This is an anointing scene. In ancient Palestine, there were two events that would call for an anointing: a coronation and a burial. Jesus is about to die. He is going away, but the poor are always with you. Keep the poor among you always.            
            So, could it be, as Trozzo suggests, that this passage that has been used to justify disregard for the poor is actually a direct command to always have Jesus’ mission for and among the poor at the center of our mission?
            Jesus’ words about the poor echo Deuteronomy 15:11: “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth. 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.’” The 15th chapter of Deuteronomy outlines the practice of a Sabbatical year in Israel’s tradition. Every seventh year, the people were instructed to forgive all debts. They were also instructed to give generously to the poor in other years.
Also, every 50th year, they were to have a year of Jubilee, which called for even greater generosity and debt forgiveness, and release for those who were enslaved. The context reminds us that Jesus’ teachings about the poor is a charge to live according to a different value system, and to work toward systematic change that would include all persons in a community of justice and abundance. We live in the tension between the reality that poverty is part of the way our world works today—and the hope of God’s beloved community, where no one suffers from poverty.  
         While Mary’s behavior may have seemed strange to those who were gathered in the house that night, it was no stranger than that of the prophets who went before her.  Ezekiel, who ate the scroll of the Lord as a sign that he carried the word of God around inside of him.  Jeremiah, who smashed the clay jar to show God's judgment on Judah and Jerusalem.  Isaiah, who walked around Jerusalem naked and barefoot as an oracle against the nations.            
         Prophets do these things.  They act out the truth that no one else can see.  Those who stand around watching either write them off as crazy...  or fall silent before the disturbing news they bring from God.
         When Mary stood before Jesus with that pound of pure nard, it probably could have gone either way.  She could have anointed his head and everyone there could have proclaimed him a king.  But she didn't do that.  When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees and poured the salve on his feet, anointing him for his death. 
         This was the action of a faithful disciple.  Jesus received from Mary what he would soon offer to his disciples, wiping his feet with her hair, as Jesus will wipe his disciples’ feet with a towel. 
         Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year.   Mary’s act was an extravagant act of love, a model of faithful discipleship—in contrast to Judas’s unfaithful response.  In the story, Judas represents the voice of reason and practicality.
         I think this story invites us to identify not just with Mary or Judas. In the figure of Mary, Christian discipleship is an act of adoration and gratitude to the One who is holy.  In her silent, prophetic act, she draws our attention not to herself--but to Jesus.
The good news is the grace of Jesus Christ includes them both, both the faithful and the unfaithful.  Both are included within the bright, transforming light the cross casts in a dark world.
         How do we respond to Jesus’ self-emptying, extravagant love?  With a calculating, practical, careful way of life, like Judas? Or does Christ call us to live lives of extravagant love?    
         The heroes in the scriptures are at their best when they live out their faith abundantly, extravagantly.  Noah building an ark when there isn’t a cloud in the sky.   Abraham and Sarah packing up everything they owned and heading for God only knows where.  Joseph marrying a woman who is pregnant with a child who is not his.  Peter and John announcing to those who imprisoned them, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”   As Paul said, “We are fools for Christ’s sake.”
         Over history there have been other fools for Christ:  Saint Francis, giving up his material wealth, living among the poor.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer returning to Germany and witnessing to his faith, eventually dying for it, rather than staying safely in New York. Desmond Tutu, challenging the powers that be, when he knew it could cost him.   Fools for Christ do not live a careful, calculating life-- but an abundant, extravagantly loving life.
         Mary’s love was uncalculating.  She was too caught up in her love and gratitude for Jesus to be concerned with her own scandalous behavior and extravagance. 
         Jesus said, I came that they might have life—life abundant.  We are called to a life of extravagant faithfulness. If we follow Christ, we will not calculate what is easiest or what will look best.  If we follow Christ, we will not be stingy or calculating.
         Mary showed us that she was beginning to understand that we don't need to hold back, out of fear.  Whatever we need, there will be enough to go around, for there is nothing frugal about the love of God, or about the lives of those who are devoted to him.
         Where God is concerned, there is always more-- more than we can either ask or imagine-- gifts from our gracious, extravagant Lord."
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 7, 2019

[1] Liz Theoharis, Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017.  
[2] Lindsey Trozzo, “Commentary on John 12:1-8 at Working Preacher.

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