Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. 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."
It was the last time that Jesus would share a meal with his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Where our story ends this morning, the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, with palms waiving and shouts of hosanna filling the air, begins.
The end was approaching, and Mary and her siblings knew it. After all, Jesus had made the three of them celebrities. Word of her brother Lazarus being raised from the dead had begun to spread. People came from all over to see Lazarus; they came to wonder at him. Indeed, many had become followers of Jesus because of Lazarus, and it had not escaped the notice of the religious leaders—they were infuriated. It had become so dangerous that Jesus had to flee from his friends to the edge of society in order to keep his head low and stay out of reach of the authorities.
But the time for hiding was now over. This was a clandestine dinner with his friends, one fraught with danger. I imagine that the disciples were filled with tension and anxiety as they ate their food and talked in soft voices. And then in the midst of this reunion meal, in the midst of all the emotions that hung heavily in the air, in the midst of a meal still being broken and shared, Mary does something unexpected. She does something shocking.
From an unseen and unknown place, Mary pulls a jar of expensive perfume. Kneeling down at Jesus’ feet, she washes them with her hair, pouring out the perfume upon them. The rich scent fills the room. With it spreads silence as the disciples, as Martha, as Lazarus, all become aware of what Mary is doing. The silence spreads and deepens as the outrageous extravagance of her action sets in.
Why did she do this? We asked this very question at our Lectionary Study Group this week. What would provoke Mary to break open such an expensive jar of perfume? Perhaps it was an act of Thanksgiving to Jesus, who had restored her brother, Lazarus, to them. After all, this was the first time that they had seen Jesus since Lazarus’ resurrection.
Perhaps it was an act of devotion as Mary saw the lives of others in her village changed and transformed as they became disciples of Jesus themselves in the aftermath of her family’s miracle. Perhaps it was an act of mourning, as Mary understood that Jesus’ return meant that his journey toward the cross was coming to an end. After all, she and her siblings were well aware that the local authorities were looking for Jesus and were seeking his arrest. Or perhaps Mary’s extravagance was simply an act of love, for she and her siblings had been longtime friends of Jesus.
The truth is, all of these seem like reasonable motivations to us who sit and hear this story now. Very reasonable indeed. The problem is that Mary’s extravagance exceeds all reason. It is an extravagance so great, so outrageous, that it points to something deeper, something greater, going on in the story.
It is understandable that we might miss this. Hearing the story now, we imagine an expensive bottle of perfume, like we might find at a department store. Perhaps a nice bottle of Chanel, which can cost a couple hundred dollars. However, a denarius is not a dollar, but rather an entire day’s wage. And three hundred denarii were equivalent to approximately a year’s wage. So, if we translate this into today’s median wage in Connecticut, it means that Mary was pouring out a $40,000 jar of perfume on Jesus’ feet as the others watched on in disbelief.
Suddenly, Judas’ response seems much more reasonable.
Mary’s action boggles our minds, just as it bewildered the disciples who witnessed it firsthand. It is beyond all reason and all understanding. It is an action so great that I cannot explain it for you. All that I can offer is that it was an act of mind-blowing extravagance offered to a God whose extravagance toward us exceeds our ability to comprehend. I think that Mary understood the extravagance that Jesus had already worked, and that he would still work. I think Mary understood what the other disciples did not yet know. She understood that the work, the salvation, the love that God had for all creation, for all of God’s people, was so great that the only possible response was to mirror it in her own life. Mary’s action comes only after traveling far and wide on her journey of faith. It was an act that is beyond all reason, for it was born ultimately not of reason, but of faith.
This journey of faith is a part of who we are here at St. Stephen’s. It is why the invitation to come find God with us is a part of our identity. For God cannot be found unless we first seek, and the journey of faith cannot be known until we first walk it.
It is why we invest so much of our time, our energy, and our resources into supporting one another on our journeys of faith. It is a promise we make at every baptism, and a promise we keep, whether it is our adult Bible study, or a book group, or our children’s formation work, or our youth confirmation class, or even the fifteen Boy Scouts who are gathered here this morning to celebrate the completion of their religious awards.
Whether you are taking you first steps or have traveled the journey of faith for countless miles, we are committed to supporting you. We are committed to supporting everyone in the hopeful anticipation that each of us at last will be able to understand God’s radical, extravagant love, and like Mary, respond with our own bewildering, unreasonable, and wonderful extravagance.
Preached by Adam Yates