This weeks sermon is available as an audio file and as a text.
First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21
Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14
Gospel Reading: John 12:1-8
Mary and the cost of love
Have you ever done something so outrageously, wastefully extravagant for someone else, without even thinking about the cost or the consequences? I can imagine that we’ve all done that for ourselves once in a while – a little mindless indulgence at the end of a rotten, hardworking week when it’s rained every day, the trains and buses have been late, what you wanted to wear was in the wash and there was an unexpected bill in the post. But to offer it to another? Especially if there’s probably not even an expectation of reward or thanks… that represents a great deal of selfless love. The type of love which isn’t either sentimental, romantic or erotic but instead is only concerned with what’s best for someone else.
Now, it’s always iffy to read things in John’s Gospel and take them literally at face value. But I think in this case, although there are the usual hidden meanings and symbols, it’s one of the few places in John where looking at a simple story can be very rewarding without a lot of complicated digging for what it otherwise might mean; even if additional exploration reveals more layers of this small, lovely moment in Jesus’ last days.
We’ve met Mary of Bethany before – she’s the one who sits quietly listening to Jesus, learning from him, just rejoicing in his presence like lovers who don’t have to speak to communicate, while Martha hustles and bustles around doing all the necessary stuff like getting food on the table. Mary is the one who demonstrates the need for more than an outward practical approach to life. She shows us a necessary dimension of looking for the deeper, inner essentials of our being. Our spiritual dimensions, if you want to think of it in that way. So John sets the story – it’s six days before the Passover – just before that very public emotional, triumphal entry into Jerusalem with people about to acclaim him as the Messiah, the King. Jesus is enjoying table fellowship, a quiet time with Lazarus, Martha and Mary, people he loves and trusts; and – presumably – at least some of the other disciples because we know Judas is there. And what does Mary do? She doesn’t offer the usual host amenities of water and a towel to wash Jesus’s feet – she takes this rare, fabulously expensive perfume from the far reaches of the known world and washes his feet with that. And then – an incredibly intimate act – wipes his feet with her hair. The whole house was filled with the smell of the perfume, so in a way everyone shares in Mary’s gift.
There seems to be no embarrassment, no hint of hesitation, nothing except a spontaneous action without worrying about “what will the others think” or “how much does this cost”. Maybe the nard was the only bit of personal luxury Mary had saved for and squirreled away for a long time – but she gladly handed it over. It’s a lesson in what might be called creative wastefulness, well outside the box of conventional expectations. How to love someone as God loves us, perhaps: totally and fully without wondering if we’ll get that love returned with an equal amount of devotion. Or at all.
The story goes on to show what might be a normal human reaction to such a gesture. Judas wrenches the pure gift back to the earthly level by complaining about the money involved – hang on, Mary’s just poured the equivalent of a labourer’s wages for a year onto Jesus’ feet! What a waste!!!! Judas, unable break the spiritual chains which keep him at the earthly level , utterly misses the point. John reminds us – in a somewhat Shakespearian “aside” – oh well, really, what do you expect, Judas is the one who will betray Jesus, he’s the baddie; and he’s not really worried about “the poor”, only about a possible loss of financial benefit to his own bank account.
John’s Gospel is full of these contrasts: the heavenly and the earthly, things from on high and from below, the light and the darkness. The demonstration of love and the complaint about its cost; and we all know just how costly real love can be. But without Judas, there would be no onward story, no betrayal, no crucifixion and no resurrection; so the dark side is just as necessary as the light.
Jesus won’t have any criticism levelled at Mary. Don’t tell her off, he says; Mary understands, she knows that this is only an opening gesture in what’s to come, and she’ll soon be asked to anoint all of me for burial. Caring for the poor is a noble and right thing to do, but there will always be poor people you can help. I want us to love each other while we can; and then for you to take that love, my love for you, God’s love, out to the world. It’s not Jesus marginalising “the poor”, he’s putting things into perspective by saying that one selfless gesture of love like Mary’s can mean more than simply anonymously putting coins into the collection box. Or writing a big cheque to charity but not engaging with other human beings on any meaningful level. Of course this isn’t to say that financial giving is unimportant or somehow inferior. I think what Jesus is teaching is that one to one personal involvement, personal sacrifice is a more complete expression of the great commandment to “love your neighbour”.
How could we do that? this is the challenge for us as followers of Jesus. How to translate his message of “love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself” into real terms; take steps, however tiny, towards transforming the world into the Kingdom of Heaven. It might only be something as simple as smiling at the Big Issue seller in the street, reminding her that she, too, is God’s child worthy of care and consideration. Or, out of the blue, giving a bunch of flowers to someone who has helped you without them even realising it. Even just spending that most precious commodity – time – with someone isolated who hasn’t spoken with anyone for days on end. Looking at our Mission Action Plan and finding where we might fit in with proclaiming the Kingdom through actions as well as words, in church or not. Giving of ourselves as well as of material things, giving generously even to the point of seeming wastefulness, following Jesus’ example in love and faith and trust; and doing it because we want to, without anyone else demanding or even expecting it.
Unlike Mary of Bethany, we don’t have Jesus with us as a human being on earth, accepting and defending outrageously extravagant gestures. But he is alongside us as we build the Kingdom and everyone comes to know that real love might indeed be costly on all sorts of levels but has no boundaries.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will. Amen.
Leslie Spatt 2016