March 13, 2016 John 12:1-8
What did you give up for Lent? I suspect that you’ve heard that question a lot in the last couple weeks. We are, after all, beginning our fifth week of Lent today. Lent is a time set aside to prepare for Easter. For some of us, we prepare for Easter by removing the things in our lives that inhibit us from spending time in prayer and Scripture. Things like television, and Facebook. For others of us, we prepare for Easter by fasting, so that we can sympathize with Christ’s suffering leading up to his death and resurrection. We fast from things like sweets, and meats, and coffee. All of these practices are meant to help us prepare for Easter by strengthening our discipleship. However, these practices are not in and of themselves our discipleship. Because to be a disciple of Christ is as much an inward disposition as it is an outward action. Mary’s anointment of Jesus is one example of this type of discipleship.
John’s story of Mary anointing Jesus probably sounds familiar to you. A similar story of Jesus’ anointment occurs in both Mark’s and Luke’s gospels. But John being John, he tells the story a little differently than the other gospel writers do. Because he wants to make sure that we understand Jesus as a divine, royal king.
Firstly, the story takes place six days before the Passover, in Bethany, at the home of Lazarus. John probably situated this story within the context of Passover to remind us, that Jesus is the soon to be sacrificial lamb. It’s also important for this story to take place in the home of Lazarus. Recall that in Chapter 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. In John’s Gospel, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead initiates the plot to kill Jesus. A King of the Jews with the power to raise people from the dead is a direct threat to the Roman Empire. Because he is a direct threat to the Roman Empire, Jesus must be killed.
So while all of this is going on in the background- images of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, and foreshadowing of the plot to kill Jesus, we get this beautiful story of extravagant discipleship. This is the only gospel account where the woman anointing Jesus is named. Let alone situated within a familial context. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes his feet with her hair. Now, as Judas later points out, this perfume is not just costly, it is downright extravagant. 300 denarii would be nearly a year’s wages for a laborer. In today’s terms it would be roughly $35,000. Before taxes. For a pound of perfume.
For a pound of perfume that Mary pours on Jesus’ feet. Now only in John’s gospel are Jesus’ feet anointed with perfume. In the ancient near East, a servant would have taken the responsibility for the care of the guests feet. Mary’s act of anointing Jesus’ feet shows incredible devotion and humility towards her houseguest. And this is the type of devotion and humility that Jesus longs for from all of his disciples. A devotion and humility where we not only put Jesus’ needs above our own, but where we do so in such a way that comes at great personal cost to us.
Mary’s act of discipleship also serves another function- to prepare Jesus for burial. Now even in the ancient near East, it would have been unusual to prepare a body for burial while it was still alive. However, Mary’s anointment of Jesus’ feet is a prophetic act. It signifies Jesus’ imminent death, and that there will be no time to prepare Jesus’ body for burial after his death. But most importantly it illustrates Mary’s care that his death be honored- even if he dies what the Roman Empire would call a dishonorable death.
The last unusual thing about Mary’s act of discipleship is that after she anointed Jesus’ feet, she wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. Jewish women, especially married Jewish women never unbound their hair in public. This would have been interpreted as a sign of lose morals. Wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair would have also signified Mary’s unusual level of devotion to Jesus. Even more so than the devotion signified from Mary washing her houseguests’ feet. However, Jesus praises her act of discipleship, and it is in Mary that we get an exceptional example of Christian discipleship.
I know it’s hard to hear this story towards the end of Lent and not feel self-conscious. I know I do. I’ve never anointed anyone’s feet with a $35,000 bottle of perfume. But I think if we obsess over the details of this story, we miss the larger point Jesus is trying to make. That as followers of Jesus, we are each called to extravagant discipleship. But the shape of that discipleship, is going to look a little bit different for each one of us.
Let me give you an example.
My grandfather is a retired electrical engineer. When he retired he found himself with a lot of free time on his hands. Granny insisted that he needed to find himself a hobby. Never the type of man to golf, Grandpap started to look into volunteer opportunities. Now Grandpap lives in Glassport, which is an old suburb of McKeesport. When the mills shut down in the 1980s, Glassport’s economy took a nosedive, and has yet to really recover. Today, Glassport struggles with drug abuse, gang violence, and food insecurity. After doing some research, Grandpap learned that food insecurity was crippling many senior citizens in his neighborhood. Many of these seniors had to choose between filling their prescriptions that week or going grocery shopping. Grandpap decided to volunteer at the Duquesne Food Bank, sorting and packaging food donations to be sent to local food pantries for distribution.
After a few years of volunteering, Grandpap started buying a lottery ticket every morning he volunteered. He would write down the names of everyone who volunteered that morning on the back of the lottery ticket, and say that if he won, he would split the winnings amongst whoever volunteered that day.
Now, plenty of people, myself included, thought that he was throwing his money away. Like Judas, I, and my family would ask him why he didn’t just take the money he would have spent on a lottery ticket, and donate it to the Food Bank? But Grandpap didn’t listen to us. He kept right on buying his lottery tickets, and writing down the names of volunteers. Well one fall day he won. And he didn’t just win $50. He won $10,000.
Now Grandpap has a gift for stewardship. From a young age he’s taught my cousins and I that we should not hoard our possessions, but should use them to glorify God. When he won the lottery, Grandpap wanted to be the best possible steward of his winnings. He spent the fall researching how to distribute the money to the Food Bank volunteers. He ended up giving each of the volunteers a check for around $300 at the Food Bank’s annual Christmas party.
I shared this story because I think it is a good example of what it means to be an extravagant disciple in our daily lives. Grandpap has no formal theological training, but he takes his discipleship very seriously. Unlike Judas, Grandpap accepts what it means to live in the economy of God, where followers like Mary ‘give as God gives.’ God presented him with the opportunity to serve the seniors in his community. Rather than saying “well my community is disintegrating, and there is nothing I can do about it.” He found a small way to use his gifts and talents to address food insecurity amongst senior citizens in his neighborhood. Grandpap’s extravagant, self-giving love, grows out of his conviction that the world is not as it should be, and until Jesus returns to restore creation to its intended glory, he wants to participate in what God is already up to.
Grandpap will be the first one to tell you being generous with his resources at the Food Bank did not “solve” the problem of senior food insecurity in the Mon Valley. Many seniors still have to choose between filling their prescriptions or buying groceries. But that, to me, is what makes his act of discipleship so extravagant. When Mary poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet, she probably suspected that Jesus’ death was imminent. Even though the perfume was expensive, it had no magical powers to prevent the inevitability of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus is going to die. Jesus is going to die a horrific death on the cross. And, sometimes, like Mary, our discipleship also will feel like a waste. A waste of time. A waste of money. A waste of energy.
But it is in these moments when our discipleship feels like a waste, where we get to decide if we want to love generously or not. If we want to be faithful to our call to follow Christ, even when our call comes at a great cost to ourselves. Because Jesus’ claim that we will always have the poor among us is not tacit support of the status quo. But a way for us to think about how we want to live as Jesus’ disciples, given the ever present reality of poverty. Poverty that exists in our church, in our community, in our city, and in our world.
Another reason I shared Grandpap’s story is because it is a good example of what discipleship can look like post-retirement. I know that for a lot of us, retirement may not feel like a joyful time, but an anxious time. We wonder if we’ve saved enough money to prepare for the unknown? Unknown financial disasters like the death of a spouse, or an unexpected illness. We wonder if we’ve mentored the next generation well enough that they can continue the work we have dedicated our lives to? We hope that we have instilled in them a sense of tradition, but also equipped them with a sense of gravitas to face the unknown future. But most of all we wonder who we are, now that we no longer do the things that have always told us who we are? Am I still me if I’m not preaching every Sunday, or figuring out how to make government buildings more energy efficient?
But the good news of this passage is that our discipleship is not defined by the things we do, but it is a part of who we are as followers of Christ. Sure, Mary is praised for her act of extravagant discipleship, but it is not the act itself that pleases Jesus. It is her inward inclination towards devotion and humility. In this story Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and dried them with her hair. But what pleases Jesus is the knowledge that after he is gone, Mary will continue to be his extravagant disciple. And sometimes that will look like serving the poor, sharing the good news, and inviting others into a life of discipleship. Her inward disposition of extravagant discipleship will translate into outward acts of extravagant discipleship in whatever environment she finds herself in after Jesus returns to the Father.
Mary’s inward disposition of extravagant discipleship is something we too are called to cultivate. That is why every year; the church celebrates Lent- a season where we prepare ourselves for Easter by evaluating our own discipleship. I know that we only have two more weeks of Lent, but it is not too late to practice cultivating this inward disposition of extravagant discipleship. One way to do this is by maintaining our spiritual disciplines- spending time each day in prayer, and worship, and Scripture. We have to spend time each day with God so that we can discern how God is calling us to be his disciple. Another way to do this is by setting aside time to nurture the relationships with the people God has placed in our lives. Which is sometimes as simple as calling up an old friend and inviting her out for coffee.
Lent is actually the perfect time to cultivate an inward disposition of extravagant discipleship. Extravagant discipleship is the type of life Jesus invites us to participate in as resurrection people. Yes, we live our lives in the shadow of the cross, but we also live in the presence of the risen Jesus. Freed from the power of sin and death, awaiting Jesus to return in glory, we respond by living lives of extravagant discipleship