This morning, like many who attend a worship service that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, I heard a sermon from John 12 about Mary pouring the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and Judas protesting about how the money could have been used otherwise. This is Mary, sister of Martha, who is also famous for wanting to hang out with Jesus when there was a lot of work to do. She was also the sister of Lazarus, who was at supper that night because Jesus had raised him from the dead. Mary, shall we say, had a keen sense of how to live in the moment.
I’m sure the story had been told many times before it was finally written down in John’s gospel, which also explains why John does everything but call Judas a sonuvabitch as he describes his objecting to the extravagance. I have a feeling he was not the only one in the room who was uneasy with Mary’s over-the-top expression of devotion and gratitude, but, since he was the identified betrayer, it was perhaps easier to remember him as the one who objected.
First of all, she poured a pound of perfume on Jesus’ feet. No wonder the whole house was filled with the fragrance. The whole neighborhood probably smelled that something was up—for days. And that pound of nard, as unattractive as the name is, would cost about $54,000 today, translating denarii into dollars. To name it as an extravagant gesture is understatement. I’m not sure it’s easy for any of us to understand. It was a gift so extravagant that it might have put her in financial jeopardy. It was a risky move.
“You will always have the poor with you,” Jesus said, “you will not always have me.”
In John’s timeline, the event happens just before Jesus enters Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. Though the gospel writers didn’t coordinate their chronologies, it struck me this afternoon that Jesus told three parables that Luke records some time before that night and those stories might help us look at Mary’s actions a bit differently.
In Luke 15, Jesus told a trio of stories that point to the extravagance of God. First, he talks about a shepherd who loses one sheep out of a flock of a hundred. He then asks, in a way that is both ironic and rhetorical, “Who wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine to go find the missing one?” The tone sounds the same as asking, “Who wouldn’t drop 50K on a bottle of perfume if you could wash Jesus’ feet with it?”
Then he tells of a woman who lost one of ten silver coins—we are not told the denominations—and proceeds to turn the house upside down looking for it, which leads me to believe she needed the money. When she finally finds it under one of the couch cushions, she spends the rest of the month’s grocery budget throwing a party in celebration.
The last story is the most often retold—the parable of the prodigal son. A man had two sons, as did almost all of the men in Jesus’ parables. The oldest one was compliant; the younger one was adventurous/rebellious/self-absorbed (your pick). He asked for his share of his inheritance and took off for whatever part of Palestine felt like Vegas and blew everything to the point that he thought coming back to his father and asking to be a servant was his best option. Before he even got to voice his contrition, which may not have been that sincere, the father ran to meet him, welcomed him home, and also threw a big party. The older son who had dutifully, though not joyfully, done what he was supposed to do, responded much like Judas: “Why does he get a party when the rest of us have been doing our job and never even got a barbecue?”
The father uses similar words to Jesus’ response: “You are always with me, but we thought your brother was dead and now he is alive. It is right that we should make merry.”
Whether Mary was there to hear those parables we don’t know, other than she seemed to understand how to live out the extravagant love of God in her words and actions. For Jesus, her actions were not unusual; he was familiar with extravagance. He was the incarnation of a spendthrift God. And he didn’t flinch when he told those parables, or follow them with saying, “Remember those kind of things only happen occasionally; it’s not like you can live that way.” He told the stories and left them there: this is what love looks like. Period.
I wish that such extravagance were so familiar to us.