Fifth Sunday of Lent

April 7, 2019

Introduction and Call to Worship
When Jesus went to dinner with a family at Bethany, Mary worshipped at his feet. We too are called to fall before the Lord as we worship him and seek spiritual renewal in his presence and holiness.

Today’s Readings
First Reading
Isaiah 43:16-21
Isaiah refers to the first saving act of God when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land and reveals that God has now promised to do something new and amazing for his people.

Second Reading  Philippians 3:4b-14
Paul states his Jewish credentials but counts them as so much dross against his goal of striving to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

Gospel  John 12:1-8
Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and wipes them on her hair, much to the discomfort of Judas Iscariot.

HOMILY    “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” (John 12:3)

Our sense of smell can be very evocative. On the one hand, a smell can transport us back in time to a place, situation or individual. Just the other day, while walking through Staines, I had to take a second look as a lady passed me wearing the exact same perfume my Grandmother who lives out in Spain uses. I knew it couldn’t be Nan, but for just one moment part of me questioned, “Could it be?” The aroma of a market selling exciting street food is so compelling – if I smell a lovely curry I want one – it is even more alluring than chocolate! As many of you know, I love cooking, and the smell of extra virgin olive oil is one of my favourite things; so pure, healthy and life enhancing. Mary of Bethany knew all about the significance of oil. She brought this costly perfume, an ointment for a special occasion; but she takes things much further by anointing Jesus’ feet then massaging them with her hair - an extravagant gesture. This was not the action of a host at your usual Surrey Dinner Party!

Mary risked her reputation and her status by this act of pure love, but for Judas Iscariot this was unacceptable and a waste, as he retorts, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” On the face of it, we may think he had a point, since that jar of scented oil must have cost over a year’s wages. Judas expected Jesus to remonstrate with Mary. After all, at that time society’s rules dictated that she should have been serving at table along with her sister, not performing a flamboyant, intimately personal and sensual act, made more obvious by the aroma of this luxurious perfume filling the room.
Note the silence of the other disciples (today we could call them the quietly disgusted of Surrey!); they too may have been embarrassed by such a shocking, emotional display and Judas may have spoken for the majority. But our Lord knows different and he challenges Judas back and protects Mary from such stinging criticism. Once again, in the face of his own journey to the Cross, Jesus looks out for the penitent, the lowly, the vulnerable and his destination is in sight, as he knows Judas was saying one thing and doing another; criticising Mary for using this expensive perfume when he himself was ‘dipping his fingers into the till’ (common purse), as the Gospel writer claims? Once again, Jesus uses this opportunity for some teaching and he explains that Mary had bought the perfume to use as a burial spice, and her wildly extravagant gesture is a foreshadowing of his impending death. This is not the first pre-figuring of his death but all the same his trusted disciples seem to miss the point. For them Jesus is still a leader, a rabbi and teacher – perhaps not yet their Saviour.

An account of Jesus being anointed is recorded in all four Gospels (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 7 & John 12), but each describes it slightly differently. John is the only Gospel writer who names Mary of Bethany as the woman with the perfume: in the other Gospels she is nameless, and in Luke’s Gospel, she is both nameless and a woman whom Jesus was expected to know as shameful, ‘a woman in the city, who was a sinner’ (Luke 7:37). In all the Gospels, her action is both embarrassing and wonderfully extravagant.

John is also the only writer to single out Judas as the disciple who objects to her actions. Perhaps this is deliberate. Maybe Mary represents the way in which God cares for us and his creation, lavishly, extravagantly, selflessly and lovingly, while Judas represents the ways of the world, where so-called generosity is often mean and grudging, self comes first, and risks are usually minimised. In the face of the Brexit challenge we could all do with a little more loving humility and compromise rather than judgement and ideology. For Jesus, real people matter – you matter – you are loved too.  

I can’t deny that today’s Gospel confronts me with my own sense of unworthiness. Indeed, we are not always comfortable with extravagance; Pope Francis seems to understand a need for spiritual and practical spirituality which I think is a real blessing for the Catholic Church and indeed us who are reformed too. Our refurbished nave altar is beautiful, but simple. There is something about St Mary’s beauty and simplicity which is deeply prayerful, and we are all called to bow down before the very presence of Jesus our Lord who meets us here. We are called to love the Lord extravagantly – like Mary, giving of ourselves and all we have.

Yet in times of austerity and challenge like this, when Brexit seems to impact everything and money is tight, jobs feel insecure, costs are rising and the parish share looms over us, it is tempting for us to hold back in the wrong way, perhaps in an attempt to be prudent. We must be careful not to reduce our commitment to the things that Jesus teaches us to be important: our gift of time for worship and prayer, and our gifts of support to others in need. While we are expected to be good stewards of our resources, repeatedly the Bible message is that we should give generously, lovingly, willingly, overwhelmingly, extravagantly and selflessly, just as God gives to us his Son whose destination is the Cross and ultimately, our salvation. Amen.

SUMMARY
1.    Mary of Bethany’s extravagant gesture in anointing Jesus’ feet with perfumed oil and wiping them on her hair, was sensual and therefore risky. She gave of what she had to Jesus.
2.    With his sour words, Judas probably spoke for others. But was he speaking from the heart of faith? What is our reaction to Mary’s action, her outpouring of love?
3.    Jesus reproved Judas and demonstrates his continuing care for the marginalised.
4.    God is overwhelmingly extravagant and generous, so much so that he gave us Jesus whose destination is the Cross and our salvation.

 

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