Are you a Mary or a Martha? Or a bit of both?
If Jesus walked through that door – would you go make him a cup of tea or would you sit at his feet?
Or are you Judas – looking on – criticising, mumbling about the waste of money?
Mary, Martha or Judas – none of the above or a wee bit of each?
There is no doubt that what Mary did – pouring out that perfume was an extravagant, exuberant gesture – a beautiful moment of devotion. She was not being showy and trying to grab the limelight – all she doing was simply showing Jesus her love for him. In the midst of what might be seen as a grand gesture is an intimate moment of love – as she pours the nard onto his feet and rubs it in with her hair.
I don’t know about you – but there are very few people who I would be prepared to do that for – and even fewer people I would be willing to let anywhere near my feet!
But Mary gets on her knees and she would have had to have been almost prostrate to be able to use her hair to rub in the oil. She gets as low as she can before Jesus and shows her love and devotion to him – her way.
In the meantime we have this image of Martha busying herself in the kitchen preparing the meal – keeping back, hiding a way. Not daring to get close.
And yet showing her love for Jesus her way – in the practical action of preparing a meal. Preparing a meal with love – showing her love and devotion to him – her way.
Let’s now take a step back from Mary and Martha for a moment and look at the bigger picture of what is happening in this scene.
Where is Jesus? He is in the home of Lazarus. The home of his dear friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary.
Each of the Gospel writers includes this story – we know it as the anointing of Jesus. Each Gospel writer has their own twist on it. But each saw as significant enough an event to include it in their writing.
In John’s gospel this anointing takes place at the conclusion of Jesus’ public ministry, just before he enters into Jerusalem for his final Passover celebration. Jesus’ last speeches, his private teachings to his disciples, follow this public meal that is described in this week’s text.
As Jesus approaches Jerusalem there is an increasing scent and sense of death. In chapter 11 John tells the extended story of Lazarus — his illness, his death, and his miraculous resurrection accomplished through the power of Jesus, the one who is “the resurrection and the life”.
But it is also the restoration of life to Lazarus that leads the chief priests and Pharisees to begin actively plotting Jesus’ death.
Before entering into Jerusalem and the final phase of his earthly mission, Jesus pauses and takes a breather. Jesus lingers in what was one of his favourite places, Bethany. This small settlement, just two miles outside of Jerusalem.
Bethany is today a troubled place – with neither Israel nor the Palestinians taking full responsibility for it, although it predominantly a Palestinian town. It is a place strewn with litter and rather run down. And on the wall outside the church on the sire of where Lazarus’s tomb was – someone has painted on – Jesus still weeps. An ironic reference to the shortest verse in the Bible From John 11:35 – Jesus Wept.
When I visited the Holy Land last year it took just a short time to travel to Bethany from Jerusalem but as we travelled a wall under construction was pointed out to us. This wall when complete would cut the town off more or less completely from Jerusalem – and cut the people off from the services Jerusalem provides. For example hospitals and other emergency services. Life in Bethany is currently bad – it is going to get even tougher.
No wonder Jesus still weeps at Bethany.
Back to the Gospel.
Jesus is at the home of his friends – and there will have been an air of celebration – its only been a short time since Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead.
And there are important ties between both todays story and that of Lazarus’s resurrection. And one in particular that goes further – it looks forward to Jesus own death.
When Jesus went to Bethany after hearing his friend had died – as he approached the tomb Martha warned ‘There will be a bad smell Lord. He has been buried four days.’
A bad smell.
What we have in our reading is a beautiful smell – a smell very similar to the one now floating around this church. (nard oil in pots were opened earlier in the service)
Jesus was anointed by Mary in the place where once a bad smell was feared. Replacing death with life – the bad smell is banished and replaced by a sweet fragrance.
Jesus himself in our reading connects this moment of sweet scent to his own death. ‘leave her alone!’ he tells Judas, ‘Let her keep what she has for the day of my burial’.
The past, the present and the future tied together in one short Gospel passage. And through the sense of smell. The bad to the good to the even better.
What a wonderful way to think about what Jesus does to our lives. He takes the past – the bad and makes it through the present good and promises us an even better life to come.
What Mary does when Jesus comes to dinner is such a powerful thing to do. It is outrageously generous but with an understanding of the back story makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t she want to show her love and gratitude in such a way?
I came across this story this week – another example of outrageous generosity.
It’s a story about a missionary surgeon.
He could be rather gruff and to the point. On one occasion the surgeon was speaking to a small group of university students about his work in the Gaza Strip. He was telling them that westerners – the “fat cats” knew nothing about gratitude. Nothing!
On one occasion he had stopped a peasant hovel to see a woman on whom he had performed surgery. She and her husband were dirt poor. Their livestock supply consisted of one Angora rabbit and two chickens. For income the woman combed the hair out of the rabbit, spun the hair into yarn and sold it. For food she and her husband ate the eggs from the chickens.
The woman insisted that the missionary surgeon stay for lunch. He accepted the invitation and said he would be back for lunch after he had gone down the road to see another postoperative patient.
An hour and a half later he was back. He peeked into the cooking pot to see what he was going to eat. He saw one rabbit and two chickens. The woman had given up her entire livestock supply–her income, her food, everything. He concluded his story by reminding us that we knew nothing of gratitude. He wept unashamedly as he concluded his story.
Outrageous generosity – giving without thinking of the cost. So grateful for what had been received, in this case lifesaving surgeries, in Mary’s case her brother’s resurrection.
What have you to be outrageously grateful for? What would cause you to be outrageously generous?
That’s a difficult question isn’t it? I remember an agreement Neil and I had about a treat I could have when I finished my degree. I like champagne. So the agreement we had was that I could buy a bottle of Dom Perignon and enjoy it all by myself – Neil doesn’t like champagne.
When I had finished my study Neil reminded me about my treat- but you know what? I couldn’t bring myself to do it! If I was going to enjoy a bottle of champagne all by myself – I just couldn’t bring myself to spending £100 on it. I couldn’t bring myself to be that extravagant on myself. Instead I enjoyed a bottle of Tesco’s finest and very nice it was too.
And that is the rub with today’s Gospel reading, isn’t it? Mary’s nard was worth a fortune and yet she pours it out over Jesus’ feet. And it takes Judas, Judas of all people, to point out the outrageousness of this. That nard could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Says the man who looks after the disciples cash but we are told helps himself whenever he wants some.
And there are probably a large portion of you thinking exactly the same. Especially today when we are having our Souper Soup Lunch – when we are going to have a small lunch and give money to Christian Aid and then spend the afternoon feeling just a bit peckish.
Maybe Judas – yes Judas is right. Maybe the nard should have been used to feed the poor.
So where does that leave us? With Martha’s domestic servant hood, with Mary’s outrageous generosity and with Judas timely reminder about the poor – however ill-intentioned his intervention.
Well Jesus interjects and reminds Judas rather pointedly – ‘you will always have the poor, but you will not always have me.’ Ouch! Knowing what we know about Judas that hurt!
And Jesus is right – sadly all too right. There will always be poor – however heart sinking that thought is.
But – and here is the BUT we can be outrageous in our gratitude to Jesus by being outrageous in our generosity to the poor.
We can be as outrageous as Mary in our response to the poor in our society and in doing so be outrageous in our gratitude to Jesus.
This last week a document was published and sent to every MSP and MP in our country. The report has been jointly published by the Church of Scotland, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist and United Reformed Churches and it confronts the most common myths told about people who are in poverty or in receipt of benefits.
The churches have joined forces to protest that evidence and statistics have been misused, misrepresented and manipulated to create myths that blame and stigmatise the most vulnerable in society.
Statistics have been misused by politicians and the media to support a comfortable but dangerous story: that the poor somehow deserve their poverty and therefore deserve the cuts which they increasingly face.
The myths tackled in the document are these:
Myth 1: ‘They’ are lazy and just don’t want to work
Myth 2: ‘They’ are addicted to drink and drugs
Myth 3: ‘They’ are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly
Myth 4: ‘They’ are on the fiddle
Myth 5: ‘They’ have an easy life on benefits
Myth 6: ‘They’ caused the deficit
And this is not me making a political statement – these phrases are taken straight from the report – a Christian response to these myths and lies.
The introduction to the report concludes with these words:
As a coalition of major British Churches, we want to create a new story; one grounded in truth, compassion and hope. Part of our calling as Christians is to seek after truth, and that means facing up to our own blindness as well as calling others to account.
Collectively we have come to believe things about poverty in the UK which are not grounded in fact. We need to develop an understanding of the depth and breadth of UK poverty that is compatible with the evidence available. Just as importantly we need to match the language of public debate with the reality of people’s lives. It is a task we must approach with humility; one which puts the lived experience of poverty at its heart, and one which is committed to truthfulness – no matter how uncomfortable we find those truths to be.
Just a few weeks ago we heard from Jesus how we have to bring good news to the poor – a mantra for the church – Jesus manifesto. We can only hope and pray that our politicians will listen.
This coming week we have a budget statement to be given by our Chancellor. I wonder where Jesus would ask him to place his priorities.
And as the first of April approaches what do you think Jesus would say about millionaires getting a tax cut whilst some of the most vulnerable in society will bear the brunt of a bedroom tax or as the government prefers to call it a cut in the spare room subsidy?
There are some who think in times of cutbacks and austerity we should be cutting back on aid for overseas – if ever there was a time to not cut back on aid to the poorest in our world it is now! If the world economies are struggling – then the poorest in our world will be even more destitute!
Like many of you I watched Comic Relief on Friday night – and there were stories of outrageous generosity. And there were those videos from Africa – they were difficult to watch – but we need to see them. If you think you have it bad – you have no understanding of extreme poverty.
So we must be outrageous in our generosity.
We can and should be outrageous in our generosity.
And as we approach Holy Week and the outrageousness liberality of the Cross we are reminded of the love of God so generous – so lavish.
We have so much, so much to be grateful for – to prostrate ourselves before Jesus for.
And what a wonderful way to show our gratitude to Jesus if we can be outrageous in our generosity to the poorest in this world.
Mary’s scent filled the air – percolating throughout the house. Can we help that scent of generosity percolate through society and beyond to our worldly neighbours in our own outrageous generosity?
Her fragrance still fills our lives with the presence of Christ.
WE are Christ’s hand in the world – let’s spread the fragrance of love through what we do and what we give.
Today we have an opportunity to give and support the work of Christian Aid in helping some of the very poorest in the world. Let our response be generous – no! Outrageously generous!
(Footnote: After our service we are sharing in a Souper Soup Lunch for Christian Aid – a simple lunch of soup and bread – a reminder perhaps later in the afternoon of what being hungry is like)