April 7, 2019 – The 5th Sunday in Lent
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
What’s important to you? What do you truly value? The family you love and that loves you back? The friends that support you on every side? The job that leaves you feeling fulfilled? Your health? Your wealth? Your faith? The freedom to do and say and think what you want without fear of reprisal? How much do you value those things that are important to you? If you tried to put a dollar amount on those intangible things that are most precious, how much would they be worth? How much income would you be willing to give up for the job you’ve always wanted? How much is your freedom worth? How much money would you pay to stay healthy or for a cure for the incurable disease that has come to you or someone you love? How much would you pay for another year with that person who has already died? How much for single a day?
In today’s gospel lesson, Mary shows us that her love for Jesus is worth more than $25,000. On their way to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, Jesus and his disciples stop in Bethany at the home of his friends. Lazarus and his sisters throw a dinner party for the man who had raised him from the dead, and, while Jesus is sitting at the table, Mary takes a jar of costly perfume made of pure nard and anoints Jesus’ feet with it, wiping them with her hair. The rich, musky fragrance fills the air, and with it comes resentment. “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas asks.
A denarius was a day’s wage for an ordinary laborer, which makes 300 denarii almost a year’s income or, at the current minimum wage in Arkansas of $9.25, around $25,000. It was a fabulously lavish gesture on Mary’s part—an act of pure love and devotion. If it were not for the gospel writer’s editorial comments, letting us know that there were ulterior motives behind Judas’s question, we might ask Jesus the same thing: why wasn’t the costly perfume sold to provide meals for the hungry or shelter for the homeless? “Leave her alone,” Jesus says cryptically. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
Mary sees something in Jesus that Judas and the other disciples cannot see, but what is it? What does she know about Jesus that the others do not know? For starters, she knows the cost of losing someone you love. In John 11, the previous chapter, Jesus had come to Bethany because Mary’s brother Lazarus had died. When Mary left her home to go out and meet Jesus, the mourners who were with her in the house had followed her. They, too, had seen the miracle unfold—how Jesus had asked that the stone be rolled away and then had called Lazarus back from the dead. They had been amazed when they saw the dead man walk out of the tomb, his hands and feet and face still wrapped up in strips of cloth. But some of those who had seen the miracle were troubled by what they had seen, so they went and reported it to the religious authorities. News traveled fast in the small town, so it didn’t take long before Mary had heard that the authorities were planning to kill Jesus because of what he had done.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, where the religious leaders were waiting for him, and Mary knew what would happen to him there. She knew that Jesus had traded his life for the life of her brother, his friend, and she knew that there was no gift too costly to give as an expression of her gratitude. The perfume was only part of it. She lovingly anointed the rabbi’s feet. She wiped them with her hair as a gesture of deep connection and complete devotion. But her action was more than a lavish gift of thanksgiving. It was also an act of preparation. Because she had seen her brother brought back from the dead, Mary knew that Jesus’ death would not be the end but a new beginning. She had seen that Jesus was the one who had power even over death itself. She recognized that her brother was a foreshadowing of the age to come, the era that would be inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. She gave Jesus everything she had because she recognized him as the one who, through his own death, would bring abundant, never-ending life to God’s people.
For the followers of Jesus, his death and resurrection is more than a symbol of hope. It is God’s transformation breaking into the world. It is not abstract theology but real change taking place all around us. It is the poor made rich. It is the imprisoned set free. It is the mournful overcome by joy. It is the dead brought back to life. That is the gospel at work, and Jesus shows us not only that it is possible but that it is already happening. In Christ, God has realigned the values of this world to conform to the values of God’s reign. Those who, like Mary, can see that transformation taking place are willing to give everything they have to become part of God’s work in the world. And those who, like Judas, can’t see it or aren’t willing to see it are stuck in that place where poverty and oppression and death seem unconquerable. For them, the economics of the problems we face cannot be overcome, but, for us, they already have.
You know the people and the groups in this community who have gotten a glimpse at God’s resurrection power unfolding in the world. They are the ones who pursue the impossible tasks of justice and reconciliation and universal prosperity with reckless abandon. They are the people who give up the security of well-paying jobs to take up the work of justice. They are the organizations who risk their reputation to become champions for the poor. They are the ones who live on the edge of survivability in order to help others thrive. That’s what it means to follow Jesus—to recognize that his death and resurrection mean the transformation of this world and to give up everything we have for the sake of that transformation.
That’s what it means to be a Christian, and that’s what it means to be the church. We are the Marys in this world. We are the ones who can see that Jesus’ death means abundant life for everyone. We are the ones who recognize that there is nothing more important—nothing more valuable—than the transformation that God is enacting in the world through God’s Son, Jesus. We call ourselves Christians because that’s what we believe, but do our lives reflect it? What do we really value? Where do we spend our time and our money? What do we allow to catch our imagination? In what do we place our confidence? In what do we place our hope?
Come and fall down at the feet of Jesus. Bring everything you have and offer it to him not because he wants your riches but because in him all lives become rich. Let go of what you value and embrace only what God values. Live a life defined by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ here and now. Don’t wait for heaven, because the needs of this world cannot wait, and, because of Jesus, they don’t have to.