This is my sermon text from Sunday, March 17:
John 12:1-11, The Common English Bible
Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” Many Jews learned that he was there. They came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. The chief priests decided that they would kill Lazarus too. It was because of Lazarus that many of the Jews had deserted them and come to believe in Jesus.
This scripture passage is loaded with so many characters, actions and drama. It is the perfect portrayal of being a disciple of Christ full of double meanings along with a requirement that we today recall other characters that John’s gospel has introduced to us.
Recall that last Sunday we heard about the many ways that we are like the elder brother in Jesus’ story about the prodigal or lost son. In case we didn’t really hear some of what Jesus was teaching with that hard to hear story about celebrating with a party when a lost soul returns home, John’s gospel gives us this reality show scene of Jesus with friends, disciples, neighbors and the threat of the religious police taking in everything that’s happening.
Jesus is about to have dinner in Bethany with Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Easy enough to understand. Lazarus—the one he raised from the dead. That’s our first clue, isn’t it? This is no ordinary dinner with friends and disciples. How often have you had dinner with someone who had been pronounced dead, and then, due to the guest of honor at the dinner, came back to life and is there to eat and drink with everyone at the table? We can’t just breeze through this description of who’s present in the house, can we? No wonder many Jews were there. Wouldn’t you show up to see the one who brought Lazarus back to life? Wouldn’t you wonder what was going to happen next—what would the religious leaders do about someone who was stealing their thunder and making them look really badly? Reality programing at it’s best is playing out right before our eyes, and it’s about to get better.
Martha, a disciple/follower of Jesus, Mary’s and Lazarus’ sister is again hard at work serving the meal—slaving away in the kitchen all day so that a meal could be prepared for Jesus, Mary, Lazarus and all the disciples present—including Judas. I hear echoes of the elder son’s words to his father as I imagine Martha doing what she’s always done so well and here’s her sister Mary at it again. The last time we saw them at a meal with Jesus, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet hanging on his every word while Martha again, prepared and served a meal. Martha’s discipleship is about serving others.
Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet—that’s what disciples do with their beloved teacher—sit at their feet and listen and learn from them, has now become even more outlandish and stepped out of the prescribed role. She has brought a ridiculous amount of expensive perfume, poured it over Jesus’ feet, and is now soaking up the excess of the perfume using her hair like a towel. My father might make the comment, as he had done when I had too much perfume on—it smells like a French whorehouse. To which Jesus would not even have blinked. Mary’s discipleship is an act of adoration and gratitude to God’s holy one, and she has complete focus on this reality of who Jesus is and why he is in need of being anointed even in the midst of all that is happening around her.
It gets even better as the scene unfolds. Judas, also a disciple, speaks up to complain about the cost of this perfume and is thinking of how much of that money he could have gotten his hands on if rather than making such a wasteful display by pouring money out of bottle on Jesus’ feet, Mary had just given him the perfume and he could have sold it for cash. Of course, like all good disciples, Judas covers his real motives by complaining loudly and in an accusatory tone, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas’ discipleship is about God’s making righteous or the justifying of those who have rejected and betrayed Jesus. Nowhere in scripture do we ever see Judas condemned or separated from Jesus’ love—John’s gospel tells us clearly that Jesus loved them, all the disciples, to the end. We can’t forget that Peter also betrayed Jesus, and he was not rejected either. Jesus commanded him to “feed his sheep” just as he commanded Judas to do what he had to do—betray him. Jesus knew his disciples well, just as he knows us well today.
As an aside here, it’s important to address Jesus’ response to Judas, “…You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” Jesus knew his scripture, and like all A+ students of Jewish scripture, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15:11:
Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.
It’s accurate to say that Jesus and all the disciples present, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Judas and the others not named along with the religious authorities knew this scripture passage, too, from memory. Jesus just abbreviated it here—most likely to make sure that he was not ignorant of Judas’ stealing and of his true motive for complaining about what Mary had done with the perfume. Like all excellent teachers, Jesus really was reminding the dinner crowd of God’s command about the poor. It reminds us today to examine ourselves: Do we open our hand generously to our fellow Christians, to the needy among us and to the needy non-Christians—strangers we see everyday? And now we are getting to the heart of it.
Some disciples, like Mary, are able to understand and realize who Jesus is—God’s son, the Messiah, who comes to take away the sin of the world—and her gratitude for this sacrifice of his life for her and for all of us is overwhelming gratitude and to give generously of all that she has. She spares nothing. There is no hint of scarcity and no hint of holding back any part of what she has to give to Jesus, her Lord and the giver of grace to all people no matter who they are and no matter their motives. Just as the perfume is an extravagant gift she offers without counting the cost, Jesus is God’s extravagant gift to all God’s people—even those who betray him.
It’s a reality show for sure, this setting and scene. For me it is the perfect portrayal of people who are working to become disciples of Christ. Disciples include all kinds of people with all kinds of accusations, motives, agendas, power plays, plots, deceptions, and betrayals. Sinners—imperfect people in an imperfect world—surrounded Jesus, and he loved them to the end. I believe he expects us to do the same.
In John’s gospel we don’t see Jesus with the disciples at the Last Supper. Instead we see Jesus doing exactly what Mary did for him—serving them by washing their feet and drying them with a towel—taking on the role of a servant. He doesn’t tell them to eat bread and drink from the cup in remembrance of him. Instead he commands them to become servants of one another and he reminds them that he is choosing to give up his life for them and for us—those disciples yet to come. Jesus’ last words include telling those he loves that to willingly give up your life for your friends is the ultimate sacrifice.
I think this entire dinner occasion is a study of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. It is full of opportunities to see that people who complain about Christian hypocrisy are actually sharing common ground with Jesus. Jesus recognized the hypocrisy of Judas, and he loved him to the end. Jesus recognized the extravagance of Mary’s gift of perfume, and yet he understood it as a gift from Mary for his coming death. He also knew that his death was going to be a result of the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders who could not allow their power and control to be taken away by anyone—especially not someone who broke the religious laws and had people following him and listening to him—sitting at his feet in adoration even.
Perhaps in addition to the overwhelming aroma of expensive perfume is the aroma of those who will betray Jesus—not only Judas but also Peter along with all the other disciples who will be hiding after Jesus’ death because they are afraid that the Jewish religious authorities will send the Roman soldiers after them next. Perhaps because of the overwhelming aroma of the expensive perfume Jesus nor anyone else present can barely smell the stench of hypocrisy and betrayal in the room. And Jesus loves them to the end without any condemnation.
Yes, remember, Jesus is about to become the extravagant gift of our salvation—to take away the sin of the world—to make us right with God and to fulfill God’s promise and covenant with God’s people—all God’s people. Jesus is about to become the extravagant aroma of being an offering for God—willingly laying down his life for his friends and for the world.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. Because of God’s choice to become flesh and live among us, we now, in all of our hypocrisy and betrayal of Jesus are the aroma of Christ to God. We become this aroma by loving and serving people who may betray us just like Judas and Peter. We become this aroma by acknowledging that we have received the extravagant gift of Christ’s love for this world.
Jesus makes it clear that his path will lead him to Jerusalem where he will die, and he will be raised from death just like he raised Lazarus. With the difference being that Jesus will now live eternally—never to die again. Lazarus will die again, and he, too, will have the gift of eternal life along with his sisters along with us. It is an extravagant gift in the midst of sin and betrayal and Jesus loved them all to the end. Jesus loves us to the end—extravagantly—never counting the cost. Thanks be to God. Amen.