April 7, 2019
We are nearing the end of our Lenten journey, just a week away from Jesus’ triumphant entrance to Jerusalem and the mysteries of his betrayal, death, and resurrection. As we approach these solemn observances, one could say: the table is set.
And as we hear in today’s Gospel lesson from John, this is a table set for a truly strange party. Jesus is at table with Martha and Mary in the home of Lazarus, the man he raised from the dead. Just when Martha is serving the food, Mary, out of nowhere, breaks open thousands of dollars’ worth of perfume. Instead of dabbing it on his neck and wrists, however, she pours it on his feet and wipes her hair with it.
When it comes to dinner parties, we’re already way outside of normal territory. But just then, we hear the only halfway normal sounding thing that anyone says or does in this entire story--and the words come from Judas. These are not rich people, and Jesus has been preaching about and among the poor. Judas just points out the obvious: that this is a huge waste of money. But Jesus winds up the dinner conversation with this: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
As is true of so much of scripture, the scene from this dinner is full of meaning that makes the most sense in the context of everything else Jesus says and does. And when you look at it that way, you can see that this is, in fact, a meal that teaches us about love.
Look at the love between these people. Lazarus, the host of this dinner—he was the only person to bring Jesus to tears. Jesus loved him so much that he brought him back from the dead—and now he is back to eat with him and his sisters. After such a miracle, how could Mary contain her love for Jesus? Wouldn’t you do the same for the person who gave your brother back to you?
You see, this is not a normal dinner party because there is no need for the usual things we do to signal our comfort with one another in a social situation. The things moving this dinner forward are not chit chat or etiquette or even good food. This is a dinner driven by love. Deep love. Extravagant love. When that kind of love is present at table, the guests know they are feasting at a heavenly banquet. Jesus taught his friends to love extravagantly, without condition or limit. He taught them to love one another more deeply than they would have imagined—to love one another in spite of their flaws and their disagreements. And having done that, there was no way they could do other but love him in the same way. And that is what it looks like to be a Christian. It is the work and the reward of following Jesus. To sit at table with the people God has given you and to love with all that you are and all that you have. To love and to love…extravagantly.
When you see this scene this way, all of a sudden Judas’ comments look out of place. The Gospel makes it clear he is a thief and would have wanted to steal the money this perfume is worth. But there’s more to it than that. Mary is pouring out more than a bottle of perfume. She is pouring out her heart. She is affirming everything Jesus has taught her and holding back nothing. Judas would have her put the perfume back in the bottle. Or at least just spritz it out a little and keep the best part in. But there’s no halfway in Jesus’ extravagant way of love. There is no excuse for withholding our acts of kindness and acceptance toward one another. Jesus told us to love God and love one another with all we have. No conditions or grudges or dogmas or politics or theories. Just love. Love can’t be kept, sealed tight in the perfume bottle. It wants to be spilled out and used for anointing. That is love.
Many people are disturbed by what Jesus says in this Gospel passage. It sounds like he is saying that he matters more than the poor. I’ve spoken to clergy who say they just ignore what Jesus says here.
But is he wrong? Jesus says, “you will always have the poor with you.” Two thousands years after these words were spoken, there are 900 million people living on less than two dollars a day. That’s what the World Bank uses to define extreme poverty. Do you know how many of those people live in this country? The United States is the wealthiest nation that has ever existed. Still, somehow, there are 1.5 million people who live on less than two dollars per day right here at home.
And I would argue that it is a hollow sort of work to try to serve the poorest among us without love—and not just any love, but the extravagant love of Jesus. I know a couple of people who work in the secular world of global economic development. Agencies like the United Nations Development Program and UNICEF are the most sophisticated tools humanity has ever created to serve the world’s poorest citizens. They are mostly filled with people devoted to the cause of helping humanity. And yet, sometimes sophistication and smarts can do more harm than good if they are deployed without love.
One friend of mine used to work in one of the poorest countries of the world for one of these organizations. Her office commanded multi-million dollar budgets to fund programs in areas ravaged by poverty. Part of her boss’ job was to make field visits to these various programs to observe how well they were working and to meet the program officers on the ground. I’ll never forget the story my friend told me about one of these visits. The program was in a remote village far from the capital where the office was, and the roads there were in bad disrepair. So instead of driving, her boss decided to fly there—by helicopter. Apparently the cost of the trip itself would have funded the program for a year. When the helicopter arrived over the clearing in the village where it was supposed to land, my friend could see that the people living in the village had set up a banquet in order to welcome her boss. They had set out one of the few tables they had and covered it in precious food, and around the meeting area they had put out rows of the flimsy sort of plastic chairs you so often see in the developing world--the only chairs they had. But as soon as they began do descend, it was obvious what the problem was. If you’ve ever been around a helicopter, you know they are incredibly loud, and more than that, the propellors whip up violent air currents around them. So as this team of helpers descended to the ground, they simply watched as their aircraft blew away the chairs, and the table, and the food. When they got out to greet their hosts through the horrible noise, they just looked around at the destruction their arrival had caused.
Friends, we are a helicopter people. In this Lenten season of self-examination and repentance, in these final weeks before we approach the holiest mysteries of God, we must confront the fact that we live in a society whose instinct resemble Judas more than Jesus. When it comes to love, we are a stingy people. It is our collective instinct to encase ourselves in a flying ton of metal and arrive at the dinner party in a tornado of our own making. We do this because we are afraid of love. We do this because we have forgotten how to be vulnerable, how to sit at our Lord’s feet and anoint them with all we have that is precious.
We are a stingy people, a Judas people, a people who live in fear of the extravagant love God shows us at every possibility. We are a wealthy people who act as if we live in a time of scarcity, hoarding an ever-growing pile of treasure. And to what end? If Jesus Christ were to come in our midst, do you think we would have to good sense to open up Fort Knox and pour our gold out at his feet? Do you think the magnates and billionaires would wipe his feet with their hair. I think not.
We are a people with every reason to love one another, but who for some strange reason are choosing to withhold that love. In this time of peace, in this time of prosperity, in this unprecedented time of good and plenty, we have turned on one another. We are in a constant search for the scapegoat. We are quick to blame and slow to listen. And it is tearing our society apart.
And most shockingly of all, American Christians have become a people who are stingy with Jesus. In fact, we are often even worse than Judas. If our churches are not temples of extravagant love for all God’s children, then the people within their walls are doing little more than mumbling about the common purse. If churches are not intentional sites of racial reconciliation, then they are not seeking to heal the centuries of spiritual hatred that fuel our nation’s great sin. If churches do not fall at the feet of queer people who come to them, then they are rejecting the ways of extravagant love that the Holy Spirit is moving through God’s people. If churches place barriers to any person as they approach the table of this feast, if churches are not striving to make everyone feel the love of God in God’s holy house, then they are falling prey to the spirit of stinginess that has infected the world around us.
There is much of which we must repent. But you see, this is the first and necessary step. Because there is a motion from stinginess to extravagant love. It is the motion of Judas to Mary, of the seated one to the one lying prostrate at Jesus’ feet. At this strange dinner party, it is the guest on the floor who occupies the position of honor in God’s eyes.
And look: there is a table, right here, waiting to be set. Because this, too, is a strange and awesome meal. It is one in which Christ is not only the guest, but the sacrifice. For us, extravagant love moves us from the chair to the floor. For him, it moves from the chair to the table itself.
What can we do but pour out our precious perfume? What more can we offer him but our devotion to him and open heart to one another? What response is there to this extravagance of love but to love extravagantly? God has placed this extravagant love in our hearts. It does not belong in a bottle. Let the love in your be poured out, and the sweet fragrance will be smelled up to the highest heaven. Amen.