A sermon preached on March 21st, 2010, the fifth Sunday in Lent, based upon John 12:1 – 8.
Shortly before Jesus enters Jerusalem where he will die, the family consisting of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus host a party in their home in honor of Jesus. They have a warm friendship with Jesus; earlier in John’s Gospel we hear about how Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave at his sisters’ request. Apparently it is a family of some means – Mary has in her possession a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, which we soon learn was worth what a laborer would make in three hundred days of work.
Why Mary has this expensive perfume isn’t clear. Did she buy it recently with anointing Jesus’ in mind, or has she had it a while? We don’t know for sure, but given what we know of Mary from this and other passages it’s clear she wasn’t particularly “practical” in her thinking — that was her sister Martha’s forte. So my guess is that she bought it on impulse at some point in the past, and that now, on yet another impulse, she cracks it open in order to anoint Jesus.
If you had asked Mary why she bought it in the first place, or why she cracked it open to anoint Jesus, I expect that she wouldn’t have been able to give you an especially rational explanation. Maybe she would have said something to the effect of “it just felt like the right thing to do at the time.” And I suspect she would have had a hard time explaining why she decided to anoint his feet rather than his head, which would have been a more traditional way to anoint somebody.
It turns out that Mary’s actions have deep symbolic meaning of which she herself wasn’t fully aware. Jesus interprets her anointing of him as preparation for his burial. (Reading a commentary, I discovered that in those days the only time feet were anointed was to prepare a body for burial.)
In other words, Mary is receiving her directions from some place other than her rational mind, which opens her up for criticism. This, of course, is precisely what Judas does, saying, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
David Turner has been leading some of us in a study and reflection of the Lord’s Prayer. It is remarkable the “big questions” this prayer opens up. For instance, when we pray the petition, “Thy will be done” — how do we know in any given situation what God’s will is? As a pastor, if there is a religious question I hear asked more often than any other, it might be this: What does God want me to be doing with my life?
It seems to me that the answers to this question come to us from two places. First, we read the Bible with an ear to basic themes by which to be guided. We look to Jesus in particular — his teachings and actions — and we discern certain principles. For instance:
Jesus wants us to act lovingly towards other people, and to remember that all people are beloved by God.
Jesus doesn’t want us to get caught up in the pursuit of material possessions, but rather to locate our treasure in heaven.
Jesus wants us to care about the poor and act on their behalf, sharing what we have.
With principles such as these in mind, we try to live accordingly. From the perspective of these principles, Judas’ words make some sense: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” In the Lord’s Prayer group, the petition “give us this day our daily bread” led us to reflect on the distinction between our “wants” and our “needs.” It’s hard to see how a pound of very expensive perfume could ever come under the category of our “daily bread;” it’s rather extravagant, to say the least. And Jesus taught us to pray for “our” daily bread, not just “my” daily bread, which again suggests Judas had a point: think of how many hungry bellies could have been filled with bread bought with all the money it took to purchase that perfume.
So it seems clear that the question Judas is raising is legitimate if it were asked with sincerity in a quest for truth.
But that’s the problem; Judas isn’t asking his question sincerely. He is being intentionally deceptive. He doesn’t really have the concerns of the poor at heart; rather, his purpose is to appear righteous, indeed more righteous than others. Not only that, Judas is also using these words to put Mary down. The society they lived in considered women second class, whereas in the new community Jesus was creating, women are treated as equals. Judas is trying to put Mary “back in her place.”
I want to make a short aside here to say that what Judas is doing here is unfortunately quite common in contemporary political debate. Our country is faced with a lot of big public policy problems that are quite complicated, over which good people can easily disagree in regard to how to approach them — health insurance reform, for instance.
A lot has needed to be talked through — a lot of legitimate concerns to be addressed on both sides of the political aisle. But too often the debate has been “knee jerk”. Rather than sincerely seeking constructive ways to deal with the complexities of the issues facing our country, politicians have been primarily concerned with appearing righteous – Judas-like.
Leaving this “aside” aside, I said before that there were basically two ways we find answers to the question of “what does God want us to do?” The first was to search the scriptures, especially the words and example of Jesus, to discern basic principles to guide our actions. Although his question could be seen as arising out of concern for certain principles Jesus set forth, Judas’ underlying behavior is at odds with other fundamental Jesus-based principles. If there is one thing that Jesus hammered away at more than anything, it was the evil of hypocrisy and self-righteousness. With his knee-jerk reaction, Judas is being a self-righteous hypocrite.
There are situations in life where reason alone won’t make the way clear. The second place that we look for direction as to what God wants us to do comes from the source that Mary seems to be tuned into, which can be called “intuition.” In doing what she did, Mary was led by intuition rather than reason. This, of course, can seem very tenuous. How, for instance, do you tell the difference between psychosis and true religious insight?
But if we believe in the reality of the Holy Spirit – that God is actively involved in our lives nudging us towards the path we are to take – then we have to be open to the possibility that God is trying to communicate with us in ways that aren’t strictly “rational.” Otherwise, our religion will resemble the lifeless religion of the Pharisees, for whom it all came down to applying the right law from the Torah, and for whom there was no room for spontaneity.
You may remember Mark Gibson, the mentally-handicapped young man who used to come to our church before he moved up to Butler to live in a group home. Mark’s intellectual capacity was less than that of others, but if you ever took the time to talk with Mark, you couldn’t help but come away with the impression that he was tuned into God in ways that those of us with greater intellectual capacities could easily miss.
Now we do well to test our intuitions – our hunches about what God wants us to do — with what we know of God’s will from scriptures. If we were to get the feeling that God wants us to kill somebody, hopefully we wouldn’t follow through with it because we would be hard pressed to find anything Jesus said or did to support this intuition.
But sometimes the “rational” approach may overlook some of the peculiarities of a particular situation. In our Gospel lesson, there is an elephant-in-the-living room that everybody is avoiding. Jesus is getting ready to die. In less than a week, his body will be in the tomb. Jesus is a man with a heavy heart. It is the needs of Jesus himself that are being overlooked.
Only Mary, relying on her intuition, is tuned in to this fact. Jesus has a profound need at this moment to have his impending death acknowledged. And so Mary cracks open the costly perfume, anointing Jesus’ feet, filling the whole house with the sweet fragrance, and I suspect, soothing his Jesus’ troubled soul.
Jesus defends Mary from Judas’ attack. “You will always have the poor with you,” he says, “you will not always have me.” The principle holds: in keeping faith with Jesus, we are to care for the poor, who will always be among us. In this particular instance, however, the principle is superseded by the needs of Jesus himself.
So there are two distinct faculties — the rational and the intuitive – upon which we are to turn in seeking God’s direction. Clearly, Jesus had both in play. His rational mind was impressively on display when he debated his critics. But he drew on something beyond reason as well.
It is fascinating that this story involves an interaction between a woman and a man. Generally speaking — though there are a lot of exceptions — women tend to be more developed in the intuitive side of life. Men are inclined to rely more heavily on the rational side. This can put women and men in conflict at times.
My wife Sarah is more intuitive than I am. Sometimes this frustrates me. Like Mary, Sarah’s intuition can lead her to be somewhat impulsive at times. There are times when she declares that she “knows” certain things to be true, but can’t explain how it is she knows it. Over time, this “knowing” is shown to be on the mark. “How did you know this?!” I ask. Neither of us can explain it. It comes from her intuition rather than from reason. So I’ve learned to pay attention when my wife tells me she “knows” something.
Sometimes Sarah refers to the knowledge she intuits as something she can “smell,” which is interesting, given how this story describing Mary’s intuition at work is also one of the very few instances in the Gospels where the sense of smell is employed. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” The nose knows.
None of us are the body of Christ alone; in order to discern where God would have us go, we need one another and the different faculties of reason and intuition with which God has gifted us. With humility, may we so honor one another.