Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.
Now pray for me as I venture to speak on behalf of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the chapter before today’s gospel, John tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. We don’t know how old Lazarus was when that happened, but we suspect that both he and his sisters were in their early 30s – likely near Jesus’ age – because they were personal friends. That would agree with what we know about illness and death in the 1st c. AD – when the average life-span is estimated to have been between 30-40 years. Of course, some died earlier and some died later – but it would not have been unusual for someone in that age-range to become sick and die. Nowadays there are still places where modern hygiene, sanitation, and medicine are absent and life-expectancy is about what it was 2000 years ago. Depending on where you live, life-ex-pectancy ranges between less than 40 and more than 80 years. So here I am at more than 80 – thankful to be standing before you and praising the Lord while I’ve breath! But one thing does not change – whether the decedent was young or old, death is still a stunning event for us.
Jesus had gone to Ephraim immediately after raising Lazarus. Now with Passover less than a week away, Jesus and his little band of followers had returned to Bethany where they were visiting the home of their friend, Lazarus, and his sisters, Mary and Martha. They were all at a be-lated dinner to honor Jesus after he had raised Lazarus from the dead – well everybody except Martha, who was in the kitchen, and Mary, who was at Jesus’ feet – when, apparently without a word, Mary takes a bottle of very costly perfume called ‘nard’ – made from the oil of the balsam tree – pours every last drop of it over Jesus’ feet- and then wipes his feet with her hair. John says the scent is so pervasive that the whole house ‘was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’.
The whole house! Some of us remember the old Brylcreem commercial from the 1950s and ‘60s that told men it didn’t take much to get the rich, creamy effect they wanted for manage-able, wavy hair? “A little dab’ll do ya”, it said. Just put on a little Brylcreem – comb it in – and you’re good to go. It doesn’t take much – “A little dab’ll do ya.” I play golf with a fellow from whom you can virtually see the fumes radiating all around him. He hasn’t caught on that it does not take much of his cologne to get the job done – but all of us in his vicinity know the source of his excess. He hasn’t learned that ‘a little dab’ll do ya’, and in today’s gospel Judas Iscariot had reason to think that Mary hadn’t learned that lesson either.
Reading the gospels, it’s clear that the same Jesus-stories do not appear in all of them – and that when similar stories do appear in more than one gospel there are differences. So while all four of the Gospel writers present an account of a woman anointing Jesus [Mk 14:3-9, Mt 26:6-13, Lk 7:36-38, Jn 12:1-8] – there are several differences in the details – including the iden-tity of the woman and where and when the anointing took place. Luke says it happened in the home of Simon the Pharisee and the woman was a sinner. Mark and Matthew place it in Bethany in the home of Simon the leper but the woman is not named. John places it in the home of Laza-rus in Bethany and identifies the woman as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha.
It’s true, as Albert Schweitzer pointed out in his monumental Quest for the Historical Jesus, that all attempts to write lives of Jesus are doomed to discover the Jesus whom the author either needs or wants to find. So does all this matter? Well, yes and no. Modern historiography says ‘yes’ – because like Sgt. Friday we want to get the facts right. But NT scholars say that as long as the main event is clear and plain, the field of meaning in stories like this does not depend on having all of the facts exactly right. Variations can actually enrich our understanding of the essential matter – and today’s story illustrates that point. So what is the ‘essential matter’ in this story with all these variations? There are several ways to say it – and while John doesn’t mention this promise, Mark puts it this way: “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”. [14:9] Or we might just say that there can be extraordinary power in the simplest deed when it is done to bring honor to Jesus.
That’s what Mary does in today’s gospel – and last Sunday’s gospel of the Prodigal Son is a companion story. There are 43 parables attributed to Jesus and they are variously interpreted as similitudes, allegories and analogies. I think this one ought to be called ‘the prodigal God’ – and that it is an analogy in which God is the father and we are the child. The child is called ‘prodigal’ because he spent foolishly and lavishly. Prodigal can mean wasteful – but it can also mean extra-vagant. And in this story, the really extravagant person – the real prodigal – turns out to be the father who welcomes home his dissolute child – clothes him with the best robe, puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet – and has the servants throw a huge party to welcome him back. We say this is how God is toward us – unconditionally extravagant in his love for us his prodigal children – always happy to welcome us home. And today we learn of a time when Mary is the extravagant one who ‘wastes’ an entire bottle of expensive perfume – and on Jesus’ feet of all places! She took a full pound of it – 325 grams – and poured all of it on Jesus’ feet! How foolish – how wasteful. This stuff was so costly that it was largely reserved to the wealthy as a burial oint-ment to offset the odor of decaying flesh.
Unsurprisingly, somebody objected to Mary’s extravagance. This time it was Judas Isca-riot who asked “why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor”? In those days people worked for 1 denarius a day – and 300 denarii would pay a working man’s salary for a year. The equivalent of that today would be something like $30-to-$40,000 dollars. Wouldn’t we would welcome anybody among us who was inclined to be that prodigal! We could do a lot on this campus and around the community with that kind of money.
Of course, Judas had a point – and not just because he was in charge of the little money the disciples carried with them – the one who paid for food and lodging from the contributions given to Jesus. Why shouldn’t that expensive perfume have been sold and the money given to the poor? John suggests that Judas was a thief – but Jesus defends Mary’s apparent extravagance. “Leave her alone”, he said, “she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” I know some who interpret these words to mean that poverty is irrepressible – that its eradication is as hopeless as the ‘war on poverty’ and many of our entitlement projects demonstrate. But that may miss two important points of this say-ing. One of them is the suggestion that Jesus’ time with his disciples is limited – so they should not disparage efforts to honor him while they can. Mary took the opportunity to show Jesus this honor. The other important point is that sometimes we do something simple and God gives it added value. Charity toward God’s vulnerable children is a virtue. Helping widows and orphans – the poor and homeless – the sick and those in prison – taking care of these people is a mitzvah and a divine mandate in both Testaments. We’re told that we have honored Jesus ‘inasmuch as we have helped even the least of these’.
We will always have vulnerable brothers and sisters in our midst – and very like the brief time remaining for the disciples to be with Jesus, our opportunities to help them are limited. Life can sometimes seem a long time – but all of us know that it can fade suddenly and be gone in an instant. I think that Lent is a perfect time to ask this sobering question: When your life has gone – will you have honored Jesus and helped your vulnerable neighbors while you could? There’s no need to get all self-pitying and maudlin about a question like that. Jesus emphasized that if we want to enjoy God’s company, we need to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty and extend hospitality to the stranger and clothe the naked. Without at all denigrating our dependent neigh-bors, they are our opportunity – they are an invitation to love and serve the Lord.
When he set his face toward Jerusalem I believe that Jesus knew full-well that in doing so he was exposing himself to great danger. He knew that his enemies had already attempted to trap him and that the likely consequences of his actions in Jerusalem could provoke his own death. His followers also knew that he was in danger. Maybe Mary suspected that, too. So I can ima-gine she offered her gift as a comfort and reassurance to him. She believed that he was the Messi-ah – maybe the nard was her anointing oil. Then Jesus used her extravagant gift as an example of a profound truth. Sometimes we must boldly and fearlessly seize the moment or the opportunity may slip away. So it’s not the gift itself – nor its cost – that is the point of this story. When one follows Jesus in a passionate act of surrender, any personal sacrifice or unpopular choice might be forthcoming. I would not say that Mary knew that Jesus was to die in a few days – or that she meant her nard to be embalming ointment – but what is vividly clear is that she meant to honor Jesus – and that Judas wanted to count the cost. So part of what this story teaches us is that we must live beyond defined moral formulae. God has loved us extravagantly and unconditionally and we are called to love him and our neighbors in the same way.
Mary’s gift shows us what true devotion to Jesus looks like. Her unselfish love for Jesus challenges our stinginess and self-indulgence. And her generous act of devotion prompts us to examine whether our commitment and service to our Savior can be called extravagant. I could admonish you to follow Mary’s example – and to live extravagantly – but I would need to be care-ful because living prodigally can be dangerous. In fact, the current state of our economy suggests that it might even be ruinous. But living too prudently can be ruinous as well – because it’s all too possible to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Today’s Holy Gospel tells us of God’s prodigality towards us. A prodigal Jesus offers himself for the salvation of the whole world – and by his offering of himself, he forgives all our sins. A prodigal Father runs to greet his prodigal child and welcome him back home. A prodigal Mary shows her love for Jesus by empty-ing a pound of expensive perfume on his feet.
I haven’t been here long, but already I know that we have hagioi like that here – saints in the St. Stephen’s family whose lives honor Jesus – who love extravagantly – who keep us going – and who make a faithful witness to God’s love in this community. Week in and week out they live their lives as a gift to God. They support his work with their time, their money, their prayers. And we acknowledge that every time we bless folks who come forward to celebrate important events in their lives. We know we are the beneficiaries of their devotion and service. God also knows his prodigal lovers – and the countless ways, sometimes large and sometimes small, by which they show their extravagant affection to him and, in turn, to us and to others. People who know the history of this parish know that God has richly blessed it with the generous presence of many prodigal lovers – some dead, some living. So I’m going to pause and ask all of us to take just a moment to re-member ourselves to these folks and give thanks for their blessings.
Now – for Jesus, for Mary, and for all those prodigal lovers among us – I invite you to join me in saying simply ‘thanks be to God’.