The perfumes of ancient Israel are not something I know a lot about. But I am told that pure nard comes from places like Nepal, which is a LONG way from Israel. Judas estimates the cost of the perfume in our story at 300 denarii, which is nearly a year’s wage for an ordinary working person of the time.
That is what Mary of Bethany pours on Jesus’ feet.
Judas questions Mary’s priorities. Judas insists that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus takes Mary’s side.
Now Judas is the bad guy in the story. In the unlikely event that we have forgotten that Judas is the bad guy, John reminds us that Judas will shortly betray Jesus to his death. John adds that Judas’ question was insincere. Judas really just wanted to steal the money.
Maybe so. But my first instincts are with Judas. Mary’s action seems extravagant. Jesus and his disciples owned virtually nothing. It is unlikely that Mary had pounds and pounds of nard. Mary was not part of the 1% of ancient Israel. Given the poverty of Jesus and his disciples, given the very real human need all around them, given the limits of her own resources, Mary’s action seems grossly irresponsible.
Judas’ criticism of Mary’s extravagance feels particularly relevant today since this is our Sunday for Church without walls. After the 10:00 service, several of us will head over to the Parish Cupboard to worship with people who are poor, people who could use the money Mary has seemingly squandered by pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.
But the gospel writer is clear that Judas is a jerk and that Mary is the hero of this story. What are we supposed to do with that?
Judas is not wrong to consider the needs of the poor. That is a good thing, as Jesus makes clear many times. Where Judas goes wrong in our story is in opposing service to God and service to the poor. Judas assumes that people have to choose between worshiping God and helping our neighbor.
Jesus rejects that opposition.
In an earlier story, a man asks Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” What is our primary purpose as the people of God? What are we called to do, above all else? Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” Pour the perfume on my feet.
But Jesus keeps going. “A second [commandment] is like [the first]: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:36-40).
Jesus does not accept an opposition between love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus insists that we are called to love God and to love neighbor. Jesus insists the two commandments are like each other. Jesus insists the two commandments go together.
Back to Mary of Bethany and her nard. But this time we can look a little deeper.
Judas is thinking only about the money. But this is not a story about money. This is a story about love, about love and worship. Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet. Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Mary is being extravagant because Mary is acting with the extravagance of love, a love that comes from her heart and her soul and her mind. Mary is offering Christ the best that she has to offer because she loves him.
But what about Judas’ question? Couldn’t the value of Mary’s perfume be put to better use? What about the second great commandment, which is so like the first, the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself? What about the very real needs of the poor all around them, and all around us?
Jesus answers the question. Jesus tells Judas, “You always have the poor with you.”
It is sometimes claimed that Jesus is teaching us not to worry about poor people since we will never be able to eliminate poverty altogether. That is probably how Judas heard Jesus’ response, since Judas assumed people had to choose between service to God and service to other human beings.
But Jesus means exactly the opposite. Jesus means that our work with the poor, our work fighting poverty, will never be finished, at least not until God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus is linking Mary’s offering to our work with and for the poor.
So here is my way of phrasing Jesus’ answer to Judas. Do not pit love of God against love of neighbor. Love of God and love of neighbor go together. Mary has done a good thing in offering me her best. Now get to work helping the poor.
Our story teaches us the rhythm of the Christian life. We come together in worship, to be nourished by God, to experience the love of God. Then we go out into the world to share God’s love with others. Back into the presence of God for rest and renewal. Then back into the world to do the work that God calls us to do.
So what would it look like for us to imitate Mary? Mary’s example reminds us that the Christian life begins at the feet of Jesus, offering Jesus our best. What is the perfume that we bring to Jesus? What is the best that we have to offer to God? How can we show our love for God?
Part of our answer is worship. We come together to give God thanks and praise, to offer ourselves to God as willing servants, eager to hear God’s call and to do God’s will. In the final analysis, we offer to God ourselves, our souls and bodies, as living sacrifices to God. We owe God everything. We give God everything. Extravagance indeed, if we can really bring ourselves to do it.
And when we come together to offer God our perfume, we get a lot more than we give. We bask in the heavenly fragrance of God’s grace and love. We hear the good news. We share Christ’s body and blood. We are touched by God.
And then we leave, with words like these: “Almighty and everliving God, we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food of the most precious body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.” That is the perfume of worship part of the prayer.
And after worship comes the Christian life. Our prayer continues: “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do” (BCP 366).
Sacrament leads to work. God’s perfume propels us out into the world to love our neighbors, to bring good news to the poor, to embrace God’s dream of a world of perfect peace and justice and love.
My prayer is that our worship this morning, and every Sunday, is an opportunity for us to offer our own perfume to Christ, and to rest at the feet of Jesus, so that we will be refreshed for doing God’s will in the world. And I pray that in the name of the one who was perfectly united with the Father in love even as he gave his life in service and love to all his neighbors. Amen.
Passage: John 12:1-8