Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, April 3, 2022

YEAR C 2022 lent 5

Lent 5, 2022
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Phil 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So the first thing you’re probably wondering is, “what on earth is nard?”  And the second thing you’re wondering is, “how much is 300 denarii?”  And you’re probably also wondering, “what does Jesus have against feeding poor people?”

Let’s go through these, one at a time.  Nard is an oil that comes from the plant called “spikenard,” which grows in India.  You can take the root of this plant and mash it up and get oil from it.  It’s expensive stuff, and always has been, partly because it is difficult to make, and partly because it has such a wonderful smell.  (But you’d think the name “nard” would make it just a little less valuable.)

I’ve talked about denarii before, but let’s review.  In the Roman Empire, there was a coin called an “as.”  It was minted out of bronze, weighing 1/6th of a pound.  One denarius was worth ten asses.  (Hey, I’m just reporting the facts here.)  And one denarius would be equal to a day’s wages for a farm laborer.  So, 300 denarii would be about a year’s salary.  That means, if the jar of nard could really be sold for 300 denarii, it would be worth about, say, $40,000 in Ohio today.  You could buy a lot of meals for people with $40,000, rather than pouring it over someone’s feet and wiping it with your hair, am I right?

Now we will have to come back to Jesus’ seeming disregard for poor people, and we will in just a minute.  First, I want to mention a few things about this particular story.  There are not many times when something appears in all four gospels.  For example, the birth story of Jesus only shows up in two of the four gospel books, and it is radically different in those two cases.  Even the resurrection of Jesus from the grave is not in all four gospels.  (The original version of the gospel of Mark doesn’t have a resurrection . . . someone decided they had to add one later . . . I guess it is kind of an important part of the story.)  But the point is, very few stories make it into all four gospels.  And this one, with the nard, and the denarii, and the woman, and the poor people, this story is in all four gospels.

So, why does that matter?  Why is it so important that this story gets recorded each time?  Well, I guess it’s obvious:  all four gospel writers thought this was an important thing to tell us.  But it’s also worth noting that the story is different in the different gospels.  In Matthew and Mark, the scene is set in Simon’s house, and an unknown woman pours the nard onto his head.  In Luke, they are gathered in the home of a Pharisee, and a woman (who is a “known sinner”) pours the oil on his feet while crying, and uses her hair to wipe off the oil.  In today’s version from John, the event takes place in the home of Lazarus—who has just been raised from the dead—and Mary, his sister, pours the oil on Jesus’ feet, wiping the oil with her hair.  (Incidentally, mixing these four stories together is what led Pope Gregory in 591 to bizarrely declare that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute—a mistake from which she has never fully recovered.)

So, given that there are differences in the four versions of what happened, it is useful to look at the differences, to help us see what John wants us to see.  

First off, the setting.  In the previous chapter, Lazarus has just been raised from the dead, by Jesus.  And now, six days before Passover, Jesus is back at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha.  It is clear that John wants us to connect this scene to the raising of Lazarus.  Plus, by having Mary pour the oil on his feet, and dry them with her hair, John is also connecting us to the Passover meal that’s about to happen, when Jesus will wash the feet of his disciples at the last supper.  For John, this scene acts as a hinge, or a pivot point, moving us from the raising of Lazarus to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And so why does that matter to us?

Well, John tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus.  Do you remember what Jesus does before he raises Lazarus from the tomb?  It’s the shortest verse in the bible: John 11:35 “Jesus wept.”  Jesus loved Lazarus, and he raised him from the dead.  Today’s story connects the raising of Lazarus with the resurrection of Jesus.  Can you see what that means for you?  I’ll give you a hint:    Jesus loves you too.

Okay, so what about the poor?  “You will always have the poor with you.”  Some version of that line is in all four gospels here.  And it is often misused to get out of helping the poor.  Politicians do it all the time.  “No point in trying to help everyone, since Jesus himself says, ‘you will always have the poor with you’.”  And the response to that is to go look at Deuteronomy 15:11, where God says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’.”

Now, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is “the disciples” who suggest the money could’ve been given to the poor.  Only in John do we get this specific mention of Judas.  And, John adds this bit about Judas’ being a thief who would have stolen the money anyway.  So John makes the scene into something where it’s actually better that the money never went to the poor, since Judas would have just taken it anyway.  But something gets lost in Judas’ being portrayed as a thief here.  And that something is:  us.

What I mean is this:  you and I probably think of ourselves as the kind of people who would never steal from the collection plate.  We’re not like this Judas, who would use his pretend concern for the poor as a way to pocket money from the offering.  And for that reason, we just might miss an important thing that’s going on in this story.  

Judas raises a legitimate concern for the poor, which I know you share.  $40,000 could buy a lot of blankets and food for people living in our community.  Mary’s crazy oil pouring is a huge waste!  That is just bad stewardship!  Times are tough; we need to watch every penny.  And $40,000 is a LOT of pennies!  What could possibly be helped by pouring all that liquid gold on Jesus’ feet?

I’ll answer that in a minute.  But first we have to deal with the angels in the room.  One of my favorite authors, an Episcopal priest named Robert Capon talks about angels in one of his books.  He’s not talking about little cherubs like on Hallmark cards.  No, when Robert Capon talks about angels, he’s talking about the principles that we elevate above actual persons, and to which we sacrifice them.  The kinds of things like romance, or family, or even religion.  A good example is Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  Two star-crossed lovers end their lives for the angel called Romance.  Or religious zealots killing innocent people all over the world in the name of the angel Religion.  These angels, like Religion and Romance, are not bad in an of themselves, mind you.  In fact, for the most part we consider them good things.

But these angels are things you can’t argue with.  Mere people are no match for the forces of Patriotism, or Love, or Religion, or Partisan Politics.  You cannot reason with the angels.  They want people’s blood, and all too often, they get that blood.  We invoke lesser angels all the time; we call them principles, or common sense, or doing the right thing.  We all appeal to these angels, and we all get sacrificed to them as well.  You experience this in your daily life:  the angels of Job Performance, Good Grades, and a Clean House, the angels of Expectations, Community, and Good Behavior.  If you don’t measure up, or if you’re suspected of not measuring up, you are crushed and cast aside.  Better to just be rid of you in the name of some angel.  On paper, the angels are good, lofty, and—well—angelic.

A desire to feed the poor, is a good thing.  It can spur us to action.  Concern for the poor can help us adjust how we spend our money.  Caring about the poor is the kind of thing that could make a person say, “What are you, nuts?  $40,000 worth of nard could do a lot of good!”  Can’t argue with that.  Right?  The angel Compassion has come to town.  And Judas has handed out her calling card.

So . . . back to the question:  What could possibly be helped by pouring all that liquid gold on Jesus’ feet?
I’ll give you the answer from John’s words:
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
The house was filled.

Jesus is worth everything to Mary.  Jesus is the one who has brought her brother back to life.  Jesus is the one who loves her, and who will bring her back to life.  A jar of expensive perfume, poured over the feet of Jesus, that is a mere token of what she owes to him, what we each owe him.  She does this as an expression of love, and from that love, the house is filled with the fragrance.  These feet—which will soon feel the nails of crucifixion—these same feet fill the house with the fragrance of perfume.

So, two questions . . . Why did Judas object to Mary’s extravagance?  Maybe his concern for the poor, or maybe because he was a thief.
Why did Mary anoint the feet of Jesus?  Because the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

We can think of Judas as business as usual, the tired, old penny-pinching, selfishness masquerading as concern for the poor.  Appealing to common sense, and morality, but based in self-preservation and greed.  Turning inward.

We can think of Mary as a new way of being.  A way that throws everything at the feet of Jesus, knowing that he will turn it into a fragrance that will fill the world.  Pouring out our most treasured possessions for the one who redeems them—and us—and brings all things to fullness.

Those soon-to-be nail-scared feet give off the sweetest scent imaginable.  The overflowing abundance of God fills the room.  And we sense it when we come forward this morning.  When you hear the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God,” then you will know.  The fragrance of Jesus fills the room; the extravagant abundance of God overwhelms us.  The bread of heaven and the cup of salvation are here to offer us life and forgiveness.  God is doing a new thing, and the fragrance fills the room.


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