Isaiah 43:1-21, John 12:1-8, March 13, 2016
Extravagance. Lavish hospitality. Sensuous. These are words that theologian Houston Hodges called attention to at a gathering of preacher I attended years ago. He called it, “the most misunderstood and misquoted passage in scripture.”
You need to understand the scene. Jesus is staying with his friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha. A week before, Lazarus was dead in a tomb. Jesus brought him back to life. You’re probably heard about Mary and Martha, the two sisters who were so different. In Luke’s gospel there’s a story about them. Martha is working herself into a frenzy putting a feast on the table for company while Mary was sitting, listening to Jesus. Martha says, “Jesus, don’t you think my sister ought to get off her duff and pitch in?” And Jesus replied, “No. There’s only one really important thing and Mary has picked it.” So Martha, the one who’s feeling imposed upon, hears that she doesn’t even know what’s important.
[For the record, most of us are Marthas, just as most of us are older brothers in the parable from last week.]
To understand what’s going on you need to see the contrasts—
between Martha and Mary;
between fragrant and anosmic;
between Judas’s view of money and Mary’s;
between old and new;
between life and death.
Deaf people cannot hear. Blind people cannot see. Mute people cannot speak. Someone who does not have a sense of smell is anosmic. I met someone who is anosmic once. He was a member of the youth group at the church I served in Minnesota. Once we were driving the church van past a feedlot in southern Minnesota. Everyone said, “ooh, roll up the windows,” Everyone except Matt. He was puzzled. “what’s going on? Why did everyone say ‘ooh?’”
“Can’t you smell the cattle?”
“No, I can’t smell anything.”
Most of the time Presbyterian worship is anosmic. We don’t burn incense, for example. We celebrate communion once a month, but the smells of bread and grape juice are not very strong. On Easter, there’s usually a delightful smell of lilies that have been in the sanctuary a few days. On Saturdays at Community Breakfast there’s often a good smell of sausage and pancakes. Smell is the most primitive sense—and the sense that triggers the strongest memories.
We’ve gotten estranged from the sense of smell, I think. My friend Magdalena gave me her recipe for chicken. It calls for the juice of 5 lemons. After squeezing the lemons I sniffed my hands and said, “It smells like Pledge,” not “Pledge smells like lemons.”
So we have to imagine our society which has products that artificially smell like good things, and many, many products that suppress bad smells. Put yourself in Mary, Martha and Lazarus’s house, where the smell of expensive, aromatic ointment filled the whole house. The smell brought Martha from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron—it overpowered the smell of the roast she was going on about. “What’s that smell? Mary, what on earth are you doing?” 300 denarii was about a year’s worth of wages for a laborer in first century Palestine, so in our terms it was about $12,000 worth of ointment. Mary was being extravagant with the ointment!
Judas, the one who kept the money for the disciples, the one skimmed from the common purse, pointed out that the ointment could have been sold and the money given to poor people. And that’s a fair, logical position to take—even if one doesn’t have one’s eye on embezzling. Money that could be used to buy food for the hungry was being poured onto Jesus’s feet!
But we can and should be extravagant. And who could blame Mary for being extravagant? This guy who’s eating supper at her house brought her brother back to life. If you’re not going to break out the special nard for a guest like that, when will you?
The story of Jesus being anointed appears in all four gospels, but in different ways. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus has perfume poured over his head by Mary. In Luke’s gospel, he’s eating at the home of a Pharisee when a woman who is a known sinner, walks in, cries at his feet, pours ointment on his feet and dries it with her hair. The other guests start to wonder about Jesus, “Doesn’t he know who’s washing his feet? The character of the woman who’s touching him?” But who’s more grateful, Jesus asks, someone who has sinned a lot and therefore needs—and receives—a lot of forgiveness—or someone like us, I mean, the Pharisees, who never step out of line?
It is the sinner who is showing Jesus kindness, not the Pharisee. It is her example of extravagance that Jesus lifts up to the other guests.
What do we do extravagantly around here? What do we, as a church, spend a lot of money on? What risks do we take? When was the last time you spent a lot of money just to smell good? I can tell you when I did. NEVER.
Now look at the model that Jesus is holding up for us. Look whom Jesus is defending. Not Judas—the one who’s careful, logical and pragmatic. But maybe, maybe we’re stretching into extravagance…maybe…we’ve been doing Community Breakfasts for two years now…we just passed our second anniversary…and the crew is taking such delight in feeding hungry people and working together…that they’re thinking…maybe…we should try something bigger and better, more festive, more feast-like for our next Community Breakfast, the day before Easter. It’s hard for us though, isn’t it? Don’t we believe that the faithful thing is to fill the most bellies for the least cost? Would we support the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry if they only handed out rib eye steaks and baked Alaska? Judas would certainly be against such extravagance!
And in the midst of this conversation, Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, you don’t always have me.” And this, Houston Hodges believes, is the most misunderstood and misquoted passage in scripture. It’s commonly understood to mean that whether we seek to help poor people, or ignore them completely it won’t make any difference—whatever we do they will always be with us! Jesus said so. And if we believe our efforts won’t make a difference, then of course we shouldn’t spend any money on people who are less fortunate than we are—which is about 95% of the people on earth!
Judas is a miser. Jesus is a spendthrift. [I looked up “spendthrift;” one of its synonyms is “prodigal.”] We’re the miser. Jesus is telling us to loosen up—or at the very least he’s telling us that on occasion it’s ok to be extravagant. Like when he was preparing his friends for his death and burial.
God shows that kind of extravagance with Creation. If you doubt it, come to my house Memorial Day weekend and look at the maple seeds filling the gutters! Isaiah speaks of God offering rivers in the wilderness. Not trickles, not streams, which is the sort of thing that appears after a good rain, but rivers, enough water to satisfy thirsty people!
God says through Isaiah, “I’m doing something brand new, don’t you get it?” It’s not like something you’ve ever seen before. And when something is this radically new, this lavish, this crazy comes along—the best response any of us can make is to be extravagant in return. OK. OK. I know it’s hard to be extravagant with money. It’s wasteful, which is practically sinful to us. But how else can we be extravagant? How else can we respond to the radical newness God offers us in Christ through his death and resurrection? How about with praise? Or with patience? Or with going out of your way to thank someone?
One of the first impressions Christians made on other people was the extravagant way they loved each other. Our joy at being together and worshipping and praising God together drew the attention of outsiders. It was our extravagance that got us our first good press. No one said, “Look how well organized their Session meetings are!” They said, “See how they love each other!”
Look at how Mary loved Jesus. Smell how Mary loved Jesus.
Can you love Jesus that way? Can you love the one whose burial we smell coming this morning?