Father Nicholas Lang
5th Sunday in Lent
Sometimes we must act in the moment, audaciously and fearlessly, or the opportunity
may slip through our fingers. Often the choices and decisions we make will show us where our hearts are—and where our treasure resides.
We are standing at the thresold of the church’s annual observance of the last days in the life of Jesus—his last supper with friends, his passion and death on the cross, his burial and resurrection. We find Jesus and his dear friends celebrating a thanksgiving dinner not long after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
In the days ahead they would stand in awe and fear of the resurrection of their Master, Teacher, and Friend. Judas’ sinister greed is revealed at this dinner just as it will be at the Last Supper when it leads to his betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The anointing of Jesus’ feet is in anticipation of what will take place in preparation for his burial. Yes, the elements of the story about to unfold for us in the next week are right here in this story.
Even as Mary’s actions point to the approaching Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, the Gospel today is more than a forecast of the future and more than a collection of allegories and metaphors. It is a story of extravagance and of breaking barriers and taking huge risks to exercise that extravagance.
Last Sunday we retold a similar story that teaches us about the extravagance of God who like the Prodigal Father just loves us—period—not because of what we have done or not done, not because of what we deserve. God just loves us because that is who our God is. It is a not a story about our faithfulness, but God’s faithfulness. If we have been led to believe that there are limits on God’s love or that we have to earn it or that if we stray from God we can lose that love, the parable of the Prodigal Son is meant to set the record straight for us. God’s love, like the Prodigal Father’s, is simply a given—a constant, abiding, and unchangeable given.
In a sense, today’s story is the other side of the coin—one of response to that radical love. Here we find an unmarried woman breaking the cultural taboo of approaching and touching a single male in a rather intimate way and certainly doing what is against the norm as far as whose duty it is to wash the guest’s feet. She is reckless as well with her copious use of expensive ointment much to the chagrin of Judas who reprimands her sternly for wasting what could have been sold to care for the poor.
Anointing another with oil has always had deep spiritual significance: sometimes it is enacted at the coronation of a monarch. In the Jewish world, it was a symbolic act announcing that the person anointed was especially favored by God.
Jesus goes beyond the demands of social convention, recognizes her love and the need behind Mary's act, and he tells Judas to leave her alone. His response to Judas is not meant to dismiss the obligation to care for the poor, but to remind them all of his impending death and the fact that he will not always be physically present with them as he was at the moment.
But Judas just can't cope with a leader who allows women to openly display their love for him. Judas probably couldn't cope with a leader who allowed little children to approach him as equals, or who hobnobbed with people that he—as well as the Pharisees—looked upon as the dregs of society. Jesus did all of those things. In this brief heated exchange, we find a marked contrast between Mary, the true disciple who has acted selflessly and Judas who loves money enough to become a traitor.
In her book Good Friday People, author Sheila Cassidy asks the question “Why did Mary do it—make a massive declaration of love by pouring a box of expensive oil over his feet and wiping it with her hair?” She notes how the Bible commentaries talk about her doing it for Jesus’ burial but does not think that makes a lot of sense. Sheila writes: “I think Mary wanted to say I love you. I care that you’re lonely and afraid. I wish I could stop it happening, but I know it’s got to be. So here is a sign, a sign that I know how you feel, that you are precious to me. My wasting this stuff on you is the only way I know how to make up to you for what you’re going through now.”
Mary poured out her whole bottle of expensive oil with no remorse whatsoever, knowing that it was but a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of God’s love emanating from the Savior whose feet she bathed. In that moment, she smells the fragrance of new life—an aroma of joy that fills the whole house where they are dining that Sunday night.
I wonder, what is our “expensive oil?” “Our “pound of nard?” Where is our tendency to be extravagant with it? What is the question Judas would pose to us in an attempt to prevent us from using it lavishly?
Sometimes, like Mary, we must act in the moment, boldly and fearlessly, or the opportunity may slip through our fingers. Often the choices and decisions we make truly show us where our hearts are—and where our treasure resides.