The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John 12:1-11
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.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the day before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday. On this day they remember the story from John’s Gospel of the raising up of Lazarus. Connected to that tradition, of course, the final Sunday in the Lent before Palm Sunday we heard the story of the raising up of Lazarus.
In that story, Mary was described as the one who had anointed Jesus’ feet. And it was a strange note for John to make because Mary’s anointing of Jesus feet actually didn’t happen until later in John’s Gospel. So John’s narrative may be difficult to follow at times but the liturgical calendar is keeping us in line.
It was an immensely powerful act that Mary did, anointing Jesus’ feet. It’s the sort of thing that didn’t make a lot of sense to those who stood by and watched. I’m sure Mary had been so joyful at that meal, sitting there with her brother and sister. She’d been sure she would never see her brother again, that his death was final, that he was forever lost to her. The grief during those four days while Lazarus rested in the tomb was something I can only imagine. But then Jesus gave her brother back to her. Jesus raised Lazarus up and now here they are all at dinner, almost as though nothing had ever happened.
But something had happened.
This raising of Lazarus was a dangerous act on Jesus’ part. John’s Gospel makes it clear that it was the raising up of Lazarus that was the last straw, that provoked of the religious leaders to decide that Jesus could not be allowed to live. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived in Bethany, only a few short miles from Jerusalem. So they would have heard that because of this choice the religious leaders were out to get Jesus. They would have known that Jesus’ death was probably imminent.
And I think it’s rather powerful that Mary knew. I think it’s rather powerful though Mary was thrilled to have her brother back, she knew the cost Jesus was going to have to pay for this. I think she knew the cost would be profound. I think she knew—in ways the other disciple still didn’t know—that a Jesus who chose to live the way he did was going to be killed sooner rather than later.
So Mary takes this pound of costly perfume, breaks it open, and pours it over Jesus’ feet. She wipes his feet with her hair. She’s grateful to have her brother back, but she knows that the time is short. So she wiped that perfume on Jesus’ feet preparing him for the burial that will inevitably come.
Acts of devotion are an interesting thing in the church, I think. It’s very easy for us to judge another person’s act of devotion. Christianity has long been rather pleased to judge, to look at another person’s choices and wag a finger at them, even when those choices are made out of love for Christ.
So some in more evangelical traditions perhaps look at us with our organ and our stodgy hymns and cannot imagine how we can worship like that, how we can call what we do worship when it comes a book and doesn’t involve a band that quickens your pulse. And on our side there are some who maybe look at at more evangelical worship as so much emotional pandering. I have a hunch that if I ever had praise band up in the chancel of St. John’s, I would likely find myself shot.
Back-and-forth we go, each group sure the way they want to worship God the right way. Each group sure that their act of devotion is the right one.
But if you’ve ever been in love you know that acts of devotion don’t work like that. An act of devotion is a deeply personal thing, often flowing from the most secret place in your heart. One act of devotion is not really better or worse than another, they’re all different. Just different. The only real question is whether or not it is an authentic act on half of the worshiper.
I had an interesting conversation this past week with a parishioner at St. John’s. This parishioner is probably not, shall we say, the biggest fan of the homeless Jesus statue that we put in front of our church last week. I tried as best as I could to point this parishioner to today’s reading from John’s Gospel. I tried to suggest that though this person may not agree with the statue or understand why people would spend their money on something like this, that some of this person’s brothers and sisters found the statue moving, so moving that they gave sacrificially out of their own treasure to bring it here. We didn’t spend our community’s money on it, it was an act of devotion by a group of brothers and sisters.
We must be careful, we must be so very careful, when it comes to judging another person’s act of devotion. We must be careful judging those acts because those acts are made out of a person’s often intimate love of Christ. We must be careful about judging acts made—including these ones—because of their love of Chris,because they see Christ in the poor, particularly thanks to their experience of this statue.
Oh sure, that money could’ve gone to feeding the poor. That’s what Judas says when it comes to Mary’s choice to waste $50,000 worth of perfume on someone’s feet. That money could’ve gone to the poor. It’s interesting—that seems to be the line of those who like to judge. But no one is stopping those people from giving all of their money to the poor, if that’s the act of devotion Christ calls them to.
We will always have the poor with us, Jesus says. The church must always work for justice on behalf of the poor, for caring for the poor. But we don’t have to do that instead of showing devotion to Christ. We don’t have to do that instead of engaging in extravagant, deeply beautiful, worship. Indeed, the two should be interrelated. The devotion we show for Christ in worship and art is meant to be interwoven with the devotion we show for the poor.
Holy Week is a time that is particularly good for acts of devotion.
I don’t know what your act of devotion will look like. I don’t know what God will do in your heart to move you to express in concrete ways the love and gratitude you have for the gift of God in Christ.
But I promise that even if I don’t understand your acts of devotion, I’ll try really hard not to judge.
I hope that if sometimes don’t understand my act of devotion, you won’t judge me either.
We know that each of us are just trying, in our fumbling way, the love God well. We are all just trying to give God what we have.
Because the more important question of this Holy Week is what does devotion look like for you? What act of devotion does your heart seek to bring forth in response to this extravagant grace displayed in the passion and death of our Lord?
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.