Fifth Sunday in Lent
“Six days before the Passover.” Five words let us know the clock is ticking. The disciples didn’t know they were down to six days. But someone in that Bethany home smelled the approach of death.
John 11 recounts how, right near the end of his life, Jesus called his friend, Lazarus (four days dead in the tomb) back to life. Pandemonium broke out. Many who were there decided that Jesus was the Messiah. News spread like wildfire—everyone wanted to see him. No one wanted to miss the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem. Surely Jesus would come, and who knew what might happen next?
“Six days before the Passover” Jesus slipped into Bethany for a quiet meal served in his honor by Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. People have always gotten together after a funeral to comfort the family, eat egg-salad sandwiches, and tell stories about the deceased…but what do you do when the dead guy is no longer dead? What was that conversation like?
And how do you thank someone for bringing your brother back from the dead? Martha spoke a familiar love-language: “You need cornbread with those beans? Did you have diet or regular? A bit more wine here please.”
Someone asked, “Where is Mary?” She emerged from another room, cracked open a fragile vessel , and the aroma of anointing oil overpowered every other scent in the crowded house. Mary, overcome with emotion, came near to Jesus, poured the liquid fortune over his feet…and began to rub it in. And Jesus let it happen. He didn’t get up. He didn’t turn her away. He didn’t even stop talking! The oil spilled onto the floor. No one had ever seen anything quite like this. Mary let down her hair down and began to wipe Jesus’ feet with her long locks.
“The aroma of the oil filled the house.” Can you smell it? The odor was too sensual for some. Perhaps the smell brought back memories Lazarus wanted to forget. The scent was too much for Judas, too. Did the smell of money get his attention? Perhaps the odor that none of them could place was the scent of impending doom. We’re almost relieved when Judas interrupts, sputtering, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” But Jesus told Judas to leave Mary alone. Let her be. This is not the time to talk about budget shortfalls and overdrafts in the checking account—this is an opportunity to watch a miracle unfold.
Later, Mark and Matthew remember Jesus saying of Mary: “She has done a beautiful thing to me. And wherever this gospel is preached in all the world, what she has done will be spoken of her, in memory of her,” (Matt 26:6 13, Mark 14:3 9.) We remember you, Mary! We remember that your gift filled the whole house with the aroma of love.
Each of us clutches our own container of valuable treasure—treasure we might pour over the feet of our Savior in adoration, worship, sacrifice. Some of us are too mindful of others’ opinions to be overly demonstrative. A few of us think such public displays are unbecoming and irresponsible. Some of us think Judas was probably right; we are far more at ease with charity for the poor than public adoration of God. Come Easter morning, will our hands still be firmly clamped around our treasure?
The choice is ours. Mary wasn’t coerced, and neither will we be. It was her choice to lavish her love on Jesus and it is our choice whether we will do the same. How luminous a single life can be! Mary, the disciple of Christ, was a simple woman unknown to the world, unimportant in the halls of the mighty. But she was so filled with love for Jesus that she found a way to pour out that love. Do you love Jesus like that? What might be a way for you to make an offering to him in these days before his suffering? What gift might please him immensely? What sacrifice would show that he is first in your heart? What gift might be costly to you and not so easy to give up? As Jesus makes his way to the cross, what would you offer?
We can’t break Mary’s vial of scented ointment and fill the room with the perfume of sacrifice again. But here, a few days before the Passover, what gifts might we give, purely out of love for Jesus? There are the obvious gifts that are assessed in dollars and cents. But there are also gifts that must be reckoned using other measures. What do you hold precious that you might pour at his feet? Some of us nurse hurts and hold hard feelings close to our chests. Purely out of your love for Jesus, could you lay it down? Could you forgive someone who has hurt you and make a new start? Could you leave the war behind and forgive? Would you do that for him, six days before the Passover? Could you break a habit for him? Would you give up a dark sin for him? Would you pour that sweet oil over his feet? Would you do it, knowing he is on his way to the cross?
We might ask what one reckless act of generosity by a dreamy woman could have in the whole scope of things. What contribution can one person make? One thing is certain. Jesus doesn’t forget those kinds of deeds. Five days later, says John, Jesus gathered with his disciples for a final meal. He talked with them in that Upper Room about the importance of sticking together and loving each other with their whole hearts. At that meal the voice of Judas was heard again, right before he slipped out in the night to carry out his dark plans. Then, after supper, Jesus shocked and embarrassed the disciples when he took off his outer clothes, wrapped a towel around his waist and washed their feet, wiping them with a towel. How did Jesus think up such a surprising act? How did he discover a way to serve and teach his disciples without saying a single word? It was a gift given him by Mary. And Jesus gave that gift to the disciples. And his disciples gave it to us. And we…we can give it back to Jesus…and to one another.