Sermon preached by Emily Kempson
In the Eastern Himalayas, the nard-plant grows.
If you crush its roots and distil the sap, it creates a thick amber oil, called nard. It has a strong, raw, earthy smell. And like perfume, a little goes a long way; a few drops release a cloud of woody, smoky, sweet scent: Something like a cool forest floor beneath towering trees who have dropped their leaves.
Bethany in Judea was 3800 miles away from the Eastern Himalayas, roughly half a year’s journey on foot. There, nard was precious. The pint of it that Mary, Martha’s sister, has in our Gospel reading today would have cost a year’s salary. Nor was nard a mere luxury item: it was medicine to treat illness; it was used for incense in the temple and possibly for anointing the dead; Old Testament love poetry describes a lover’s allure as wafting like nard’s perfume. At Bethany, Mary took this holy, amorous, healing, extravagance and poured it out on Jesus’ feet.
In a word, ‘Extravagant’ is what Judas said.
‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?’ Regardless of his motives, Judas’ question has a point. Given the nard’s price, you could have paid to fed the 5,000 a second time and still have had a third of the money left over!
On the surface, Judas’ criticism sounds like social justice concerns: care for the poor, the oppressed, the suffering, and the needy. But there is also an underlying utilitarian logic to it: Judas says do the most measurable good. Feeding a greater number of mouths is more important than actions that accomplish nothing material. Importantly, he also assumes a zero-sum equation: Either Mary anoints Jesus’ feet OR she aids the poor as if the two are mutually exclusive. Judas speaks as if moral actions are like maths equations computing measurable goods.
Jesus does not calculate good deeds this way.
If anything, the only sum he knows is what the high priest says while plotting his death: ‘it is expedient . . . that one man should die for the people.’ In response to Judas’ complaint about Mary and the nard, Jesus replies ‘Leave her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you will not always have me.’
When Jesus says ‘The poor you always have with you’, This is not selfish advice to favour him over the needy, nor a fatalistic report that poverty is unstoppable. On the contrary, Jesus means to break the either/or, zero-sum logic of measurable goods, saying that Mary’s generosity does not automatically deprive others.
He quotes from Deuteronomy chapter 15, calling to mind the following verses: ‘For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor.’ and further ‘If there is among you a poor man. . . you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.’
With this quote Jesus tells Judas ‘if you are really sincere in your mercy for the poor, there is much time left for you to benefit them’ (Theodore of Antioch).
Just as when Jesus fed the 5,000, God’s world is full of abundance to feed and clothe and house all of its people. Mary’s actions do not detract from the duty or opportunity to help the poor. Early church fathers such as Origen, Augustine, and Ambrose interpreted the passage in this unified way, They rejected Judas’ either/or dichotomy, saying ‘to serve the poor is to anoint Jesus’ feet. Just as the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment, so also the world is to be filled with the fragrance of the Christian’s good deeds,’ (Origen).
Deuteronomy and Patristics help us break out of Judas’ faulty logic of measurable-mutually exclusive goods, but it does not explain Mary has done for Jesus and why he defends it. To understand her actions and Jesus’ appreciation, we must recall what Jesus has already done for her and why he’s going to die.
The story begins in the previous chapter, which tells us that Jesus loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. When Lazarus falls ill, Mary and Martha send for Jesus saying ‘the one you love is sick,’ but Lazarus dies before Jesus arrives. He finds Martha and Mary weeping and grieving over Lazarus. He goes with them to the tomb, and there he does a bizarre thing: Jesus weeps with the women he loves, Mary and Martha, over the man he loves, Lazarus, even though he knows he is about to restore Lazarus to life. His tears and sorrow served no concrete purpose and accomplished no measurable good; they even seem to fly in the face of the joyous miracle about to happen – but even so, out of love, Jesus is troubled, groans in spirit, and weeps.
Our narrator says raising Lazarus from the dead caused many Jews to believe and this strengthened the resolve of those plotting to have Jesus killed.
The disciples warn him that he risks his life by going to Bethany and Jerusalem. In John’s Gospel, Jesus knows he will die for his actions; he knows as clearly as we know that the Friday after next is Good Friday, and on Good Friday Jesus dies.
Mary knows this too, that he came to Bethany to give life to those he loves, and for that he will die. In response, she also does something bizarre; she takes a perfume almost beyond price and anoints Jesus’ feet. When Mary poured the oil on Jesus feet, spreading it with her hair, the deep earthy fragrance would have filled the room, wafting out the doors and windows, spilling into hallways and streets.
Look at the stained glass window above our altar, where we see a woman anointing Jesus’ feet. If Mary had poured the nard over Jesus there, the dark earthy aroma would billow from the altar all the way to King’s Parade. It would be so strong, we would feel we were breathing the scent not smelling it. Like Lavender, it fills the lungs and then fills the body with a sense of calm peace. The spirit sighs. A fragrance usually reserved for temples, palaces and tombs, for royalty, gods, and the dead, this heady aroma engulfed a humble house in Bethany.
The strict meaning of Mary’s action is unclear because there is no religious or cultural precedent for anointing feet with hair. It is only partially like washing another’s feet, anointing a new monarch, or anointing a body for burial. But however we imagine these meanings combine, for Mary they add up to an effusive act of love, much like when Jesus wept with her.
Mary has given something of great price to a person she loves beyond price, one who is in distress, one who will die because of his love for her and her family. Even though she can do nothing to prevent his suffering, she expresses her love, gives him honour, and celebrates his life, even in the shadow of death. Like Jesus weeping, she does no measurable good. As Jesus groaned with her grief even as life was about to be restored, she overflows with joyous love even as he is about to leave her.
These are acts of love among friends.
Actions transformed beyond cold calculations by the love of Christ. They defy the utilitarian logic of tallying up good deeds into an index of positive impact on the world. Loving another person is not just about bread. We do not live by bread alone. Love is not just solving problems; Love includes letting the sadness touch you, mourning with those who grieve – even if there is everlasting life. It is giving gifts that do no more than express love and spread beauty. Love is telling others how much you care, even when they will not be with you long. This is why we grow both fields of wheat and gardens of flowers. Why soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and hospitals are built alongside concert halls, museums, and cathedrals. Why, in addition to doctors without borders, clowns without borders exists too. To each other and to God, we are more than mouths to feed. We are here to share joys and sorrows, to love totally, even unto death, so that we may have life.
And metaphorically speaking, this is how the intoxicating fragrance of Jesus’ love for us overflows into love for each other and billows beyond our walls, into the streets and world beyond.
As we enter Passiontide and holy week, may God’s longing to bring us into life and love fill our days; may it draw us to give generously to those in need. In love, let us celebrate each other and our lives in Christ even as we know we share his death. Let us weep with those who mourn, who suffer or are oppressed even as we know Christ overcomes death and heals all wounds.
In love, let us break bread with the hungry and poor in spirit. And may the bread of Christ’s body broken for us feed our body and soul, as divine love wafts to the rafters, and love for our neighbor billows beyond our walls. Amen.