In the 1980’s there was a television commercial for women’s perfume that seemed to change how not just women, but all of us, attempt to “do it all,” “accomplish it all,” all while looking and feeling our best. The commercial claimed, I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan or rather, I can do it all and keep all the priorities in their proper place!” We guys also have such commercials, like the Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials, which make us believe we have ultimate control in our lives and superstar coolness, brought to us through vehicular material fulfillment.
This Enjoli/Lincoln attitude of trying to be all and do all is a formula for burnout, depression, and redirected faith in self, not God. Brene Brown in a Ted Talk described the Enjoli/Lincoln temperament when she stated, “I don’t know how much perfume that commercial sold, but I guarantee you it moved a lot of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds.” When we strive for success and achievement for its sake alone, we live chaotic lives. We will take for granted God’s gift of life and the gift of love for those closest to us. The pressures of success invade us, and we are obsessed in the moment and try to accomplish it all, and the most important things of life diminish from view. We often fail to look past the chaos and tragedy, and see new life possibilities emerging before her.
The story in today’s gospel reading shows us a brief snapshot of a chaotic situation in the life of those earliest followers of Our Lord. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, and along the way he learned about the death of a friend. Miraculously, Jesus raised his friend Lazarus, and then stops for dinner at his friend’s home in order to celebrate. The drama after the miracle, that we just heard, depicts how one of Jesus’ friends was busyed preparing a dinner for the others, another friend was consumed with anger about perceived wasteful extravagance, and another friend did something so outlandish, yet she took the time to focus on what was most important. She look looked past the chaos and tragedy and saw new life possibilities emerging before her.
Context: A plot and a Dinner Party
This dinner table story precedes the events leading to Jesus’ trial and execution, but we have to rewind just a little. Right before the miracle and subsequent dinner party, the leaders of the Temple were plotting to kill Jesus. Word was spreading about this new, young rabbi’s miracles and teachings, Caiaphas the high priest told his colleagues, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” The plot was in motion now, Jesus was going to be arrested and executed, and chaos and death will soon be center stage.
Back at the dinner party, if you had been there you would have seen a former dead man, the stench of his grave still in the air sitting near you eating supper. Amazement at the promises of God that became real before your very eyes but you would have been left dumbfounded. There was anxiety in the air about the plot to kill Jesus, which threatened the entire group. Some expected Jesus to end the Roman oppression, while others were confused about his teachings about self-giving love, and even others could not fathom that their movement would end in Jesus’s death. In this chaos and fear of death and failure, new life possibilities would soon be emerging before you.
Martha, one of the sisters was busied and hurried (trying to do it all) in the kitchen roasting some lamb, baking wonderful pita bread, and preparing some delicious treats for this hungry band of disciples. Judas’ one of the followers was watching all this take place, but he his agenda was filled with deceit and betrayal. Then suddenly, Mary walks into the room and sits at Jesus’ feet and does something unexpected, outside the norm, and extravagant, and everyone present stops what they were doing and takes note.
She took a pound of costly perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. This was so excessive and “over the top” because the perfume was worth, in today’s money, over 50,000 U.S. dollars. Mary’s extravagant love showed where her priorities were that night, and her example shows where our priorities in this life should be. In the midst of chaos, the pursuit of success, and the fear of death, new life possibilities emerging are always before us.
Mary was completely focused on Jesus, and nothing stood in the way of her act of self-giving, no holds barred gift of love. Not a year’s wages, not the disdain of one of Jesus’ own followers who demeaned her act, and not the busy work of the kitchen would distract Mary from extravagant worship and the hope she had in life beyond tragedy. Theologian Ramsey Michaels explains, “Mary’s … reckless act of pouring out a pint of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair dramatizes for Jesus—and for us—the truth that love is stronger than death. (1)
Mary disregarded the chaos all around her, the fear of arrest and execution, the anxiety of the agenda of Judas, and the uncertainty of tomorrow’s financial security, and chose an act of unimaginable love. Mary reminds us even today, that being with Our Lord, focusing on loving Christ, trusting in the promises of life beyond death is the key to a disciple’s life of peace, joy, mercy, love, and grace.
In other words, we need to silence that Enjoli/Lincoln voice in our heads that keeps whispering to us that we can be all, do all, and accomplish it all through our own works. This is the same voice that will deceive us into believing that if we can just take the ”bull by the horns” in this chaotic life, we will never lose ourselves, nor stray from the path of faithful discipleship. However, “it is (Mary’s) action that defines for John (and us) what being a servant or disciple finally entails. (1)
Judas’ concern for the poor?
“So, what was Judas’ part in the drama,” you may ask. Judas looked at Mary’s act of love and rebuked her and said, “we should have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor. Jesus’ responsed, “you will always have the poor with you.” Some might say that Jesus’ gives us the license to not worry about thosay living in poverty, and merely focus on my relationship with God.
Judas did not care for the poor around him, because he could not understand the kind of love and devotion it took to give up something of so much value, for someone you love so much, hoping for life beyond the disarray and tragedy. Judas could not let go of his own love of personal gain, and his hope of Jesus becoming a power-wielding King with whom he might share glory. Judas did not even begin to understand the love and devotion Mary offered to Jesus.
Mary’s gift did not deprive the poor of their needs, but their is a contrast here. The contrast presented in the story is between extravagant love of Jesus and Judas’ pretentious care of those less fortunate. The story reminds us that we should not only care about those in need as matter of ethical “do goodery.” It reminds us that we need to spnd more time with Jesus, and that should lead us to sincerely want to help the poor to bring hope to the least and lost among us, but to serve the least, lost, and lonely -in the same way Mary sincerely served Jesus–extravagantly–and not in the hypocritical way Judas showed.
A blog I read stated, “It is often easier to love “humankind” or “the poor” or “the oppressed” in the abstract, than to show our love concretely for family who live under the same roof or friends who eat with us at the same table.” (4) In our pursuit to do it all, be it all, and accomplish it all, on our own power and actions, we will forget to love those sitting in front of us, those who may be facing the most incredible challenges of their lives. Like Mary, we must be examples of our faith, and we must show others a faith that can overcome even the tragic, terrible loss, immense pain, and the grief of death itself.
A Glimpse of Resurrection
The same Mary said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32). Mary said these profound words that proclaimed her faith in the power of Christ’s presence in any moment. Mary, the woman in today’s story anointed Jesus with a year’s salary worth of burial oil as an act of faith, love, and devotion, made mere words real in action. Mary knew what Jerusalem held for the one she loved, but she also knew that “earthly death is insignificant wherever Christ appears.”(3) Even when staring death in the face, Mary knew in her heart Jesus’ presence would overcome. She believed in new life, in resurrection, and in the promises of God, that nothing comes between us and the love of God. This story teaches us how we are supposed to live as disciples. It teaches to let go, to trust Jesus, to live in peace, so we might have the capacity to love not only those closest to us, but those who are beyond the bounds of our relational connections. This story teaches us to look diligently every day for those little glimpses of resurrection in our lives.
I met with a young man the other day whose life was in utter chaos, and the future looked so bleak. Despite his circumstances, he had hope that all would eventually work for the good. He had hope that even if the worst might happen, he would be in the loving grace of God. My sisters and brothers that was a glimpse of resurrection and we all should be looking for those moments every day. How can we see that happen? If we pour out some extravagant, out of the norm love on those closest to us, and also those folks for whom we need to bring hope in the midst of their chaos, we will see the promises of new life possibilities emerging before us.
We need to silence that noisy Enjoli/Lincoln commercials that we are fed each day, the recoding that calls us to into anxiety and depression. We need to wake up each day and seek out new life emerging in our midst. As the Apostle Paul encourages us, we need to “press on toward the real goal, for the real prize, which is the grace, peace, and joy we can only achieve, when we answer the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Where do you think you might catch a glimpse of resurrection today, tomorrow, and in the weeks to come?
(1) Michaels, J.Ramsey. “John 12:1-11.” Interpretation, vol. 43, no. 3, July 1989, pp. 287–291.
(2) Simmons, Elizabeth McGregor. “The Sense of the Text: An Invitation to Lenten Preaching.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 27, no. 2, Lent 2004, pp. 3–10.