April 8th, Wednesday Holy Week
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.
Jesus’ Tuesday in Jerusalem had been a most demanding day. All day long he was in the Temple preaching and teaching, and the sermons and lessons had to have been extremely taxing. For one thing, they were freighted with matters of eternal consequence. In one of his last earthly teachings, Jesus was striving to convey the meaning of God’s kingdom. Making it even more burdensome was the fact that there were those in the crowd whose only purpose was to harass Jesus in hopes of discrediting him. It had to have been one of the most strenuous times in Jesus’ life. Thus, it should not be surprising that on Wednesday Jesus headed to Bethany to rest and prepare for the ordeal ahead.
It was on that Wednesday evening that we have the powerful story of Mary’s anointing Jesus with expensive perfume. This story is told in the other gospels, with different characters and even different times. However, I like John’s positioning and telling of this story. You will remember that in John’s Gospel Jesus had healed Lazarus, Mary’s brother. It had created quite a commotion, one that some scholars have speculated led to the huge display of emotion at Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. We don’t know for certain, but for me, this story of Jesus’ anointing finds a meaningful place here, because the story takes place in Bethany at the home of his good friends, good friends who are still in some form of amazed shock after Lazarus’ call from the dead.
There are a few things to note about this after-mealtime experience that might help us visualize the story. For one thing, the men in the room would have been in reclined positions, the typical dinner posture of that day and time. Mary’s entrance among all these men would have been more than just a bit dramatic, and her behavior made it even more so. She had her hair down, which was unheard-of for adult women in that part of the world (then and now). In those days, from the moment when a woman became eligible for marriage she wore her hair up, only letting it down for her husband. Mary’s entrance must have stunned those at the feast, but before anyone could say a word, she took an expensive bottle of perfume. (And when I say “expensive,” I mean expensive. The name nard or spikenard denotes an essential oil from a plant in northern India, which was quite rare and costly, worth up to a year’s salary.) She poured it on Jesus’ feet and then wiped it with her hair. It was an astonishing gesture.
While everyone else gasped at the enormity of the act, Judas, speaking for all who value reason and practicality, asked why the perfume had not been sold, so that the proceeds might have been given to the poor. It was a good question. As my friend Brett Younger quips, “Is it any wonder Judas was shocked? What would be your reaction if our next finance report included a $35,000 charge for perfumed oil?” It was a deed of great extravagance, and one not only noted by Jesus, but affirmed.
One of the best movies of any year is entitled Babette’s Feast. It was first a short story written by Danish author Karen Blixen, whose pen name was Isak Dinesen (whom we might remember as Meryl Streep’s character in the movie, Out of Africa). Babette’s Feast is about two sisters and a most rigid community who live off the coast of Denmark. The two sisters are living out their lives, carrying on the strong piety of their minister father. They live a grim, spartan kind of life, with their daily diet consisting of a gruel of boiled cod fish and dry bread. Babette comes running into their lives, an immigrant fleeing the French revolution in which her husband and son both perished. After the sisters take her in, she works for them for 14 years. Ironically enough, at the end of fourteen years it is discovered that Babette has won a lottery and will be rewarded with 10,000 francs. The sisters assume she’ll be leaving them now, but her only request is that she be allowed to cook a dinner to celebrate the 100th birthday of their austere, deceased father. What they don’t know is that Babette will spend all of her winnings on the meal, and they are aghast when supplies begin to be delivered. Accustomed to their daily gruel, they are shocked to see live animals arrive, not to mention wine. The two sisters, worried about their souls, round up all of those who are to join them for Babette’s meal and have them swear that no matter how the food tastes, they will not say a word. However, at the banquet, the rigid moralism begins to melt, old wounds begin to be healed, old divisions begin to be closed, and all insults and slights forgiven. At the end of the meal the old general stands and says, “We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and shortsightedness, we imagine divine grace to be finite. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see, and we realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.”
Tomorrow we will commemorate Jesus’ “last supper,” but in so many ways, this “next-to-the-last supper” in Bethany has meaning for all eternity. May this Wednesday find us remembering the extravagance of grace and even daring enough to share it.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- How much of what you believe about God is inherited, and how much is first-hand experience? Has there been an occasion in your life that sparked an awareness of that difference?
- Can you remember times in your life when you were blessed by extravagant expressions of kindness? As you remember, share your gratitude to God for those times and people.
- Have you ever been extravagant in your expressions of God’s grace? Would you like to do so by asking God to reveal opportunities for such expression?
- How might we as a congregation embody grace in this stress-filled time?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Inside of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge”
Tax not the royal Saint with vain expense,
With ill-matched aims the Architect who planned—
Albeit labouring for a scanty band
Of white-robed Scholars only–this immense
And glorious Work of fine intelligence!
Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely-calculated less or more;
So deemed the man who fashioned for the sense
These lofty pillars, spread that branching roof
Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells,
Where light and shade repose, where music dwells
Lingering–and wandering on as loth to die;
Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality.