March 25, 2007
by Julianne Stokstad
What a shockingly intimate story we just heard! Close your eyes and try to imagine the scene. It is a small dinner party with only the closest of friends present. One of the women of the house appears with a big jar of the most expensive perfume imaginable and falls to the feet of the guest of honor and begins to rub the perfume on his feet and wipe his feet with her hair! What was she thinking? Women generally didn't even come to the table or even eat in the same room with the men in those days. Imagine the smell filling the room, the sweet intense fragrance of nard (usually associated with death) overpowering everyone. Those present must have sensed and perhaps also entered the deep intimate contemplative prayer of amazing adoration and love abruptly ended by Judas's pointed criticism.
You might wonder why this scripture comes up on the fifth Sunday of Lent? We don't usually think of ecstatic overflowing love during Lent, but maybe we should. This incredible story occurs just six days before Passover making it actually within Holy Week. Jesus had returned to Jerusalem for the Passover after raising Mary's brother Lazarus from the dead. According to the gospel of John, it was this miracle that precipitated the opposition to Jesus and hatched the plot to kill him even as it pointed to his own death and resurrection.
In this story Jesus is relaxing with his closest friends and disciples. Over and over he had told his disciples he was going to die, but they could never hear it and still didn't understand. Mary alone comprehended what Jesus was facing. Her act is shocking - - the nard is worth a year's wages - - but she expressed her love for him holding nothing back while he was alive instead of waiting like so many of us do until after our beloveds have died. Mary mirrors to Jesus the extravagant love she, his disciples and all people received from him. He clearly told all he gave the love he received from God. Jesus graciously receives her gift and explains it to the others. In her seemingly impractical, generous gesture she gives us a model of true discipleship.
Most of us probably are comfortable with a response like Judas's, thinking of something "helpful" or directive to say. Judas is one of the most complex characters in the gospels. John paints him as a self-centered greedy thief, an ugly contrast to Mary's pure-hearted discipleship. His very name has become a symbol for betrayal. He is judgmental of Mary, unwilling or unable to see any other significance besides her wastefulness extravagance. He is coming from a very different place.
Me, too. It is the extravagance I have trouble with in this story. Extravagance is reckless or wasteful use of most anything. I grew up in an extravagant family and when I see wasteful unnecessary extravagance, it pushes my buttons. My parents frittered away two fortunes until both died penniless. I don't even like to waste food, and all too often finish my plate when I don't want to eat it all. I hate our wasteful disposable culture. I agonize more than you know over the gas I use driving back and forth to Berkeley, especially in light of global warming. Judas lives in me. Honestly if I'd been at that dinner, I'd have probably thought, "Mary, why don't you use just a little bit of the nard and save the rest."
In some ways this week's gospel echoes last week's story Jesus told of the Prodigal Son. Prodigal actually means profligate or wastefully extravagant. Each of the three characters in both stories is extravagant although in different ways. Mary, like the younger son, was wasteful of property though their intents were quite different. Judas, like older dutiful son, was extravagant in anger and judgment in waste. Lastly, the father in the Prodigal Son story is extravagant in his forgiveness and his unconditional love of both his sons. Jesus too is gracious, generous and willing to receive Mary's extravagant love. Today's story clearly holds up unconditional love over fairness.
The writer of John's gospel had it in for Judas, but I must admit I have some sympathy for him. Being a guy he was probably hugely embarrassed by such an emotional outburst. Perhaps Judas was so critical because he wanted justice and love to be measured out fairly and not wasted, especially in inappropriate ways. He was concerned for the poor and felt the money could have gone to better use. He clearly believed resources were limited. Many people in our congregation here in Marin County live with significant concerns about economic issues: debt, paying for health care, affordable housing, schooling and concerns about economic survival in retirement.
The truth is what we see in others is really a reflection of what is going on inside of us. A person filled with fear sees only threats, a bitter narrow person sees only bitter and selfish motives in others, while a person with a generous loving heart sees generous loving hearts in others. We don't know for sure what was in Judas' heart. He was a beloved disciple of Jesus' but tragically he couldn't get the point of what Jesus was teaching. He missed his chance. Mary took the better part and is a model of faithfulness. Her extravagant love like the father's in the Prodigal son story mirrors God's unconditional love for us. Which would we rather be?
All of us know Jesus' message was about God's extravagant love for us! It is greater than we can imagine and more than that, we don't have to do anything to earn this love. It is given freely unconditionally as the sunshine. It falls on the deserving and the undeserving alike. That is extravagant, recklessly wasteful love that has nothing to do with our earning it or deserving it. How do we handle such astounding reckless generosity?
Mary seemed to get the message. She had been at Jesus' feet, she had listened and learned and loved Jesus with her whole heart. And Judas, maybe because he was stuck on his own judgments, maybe because he was so sure about what he thought, he didn't get what Jesus was talking about. Maybe if Judas had gotten the point of this love like Mary did, it would have healed him and made him whole because love is what heals us.
Mary and Judas model two responses to God's love. One unites us to our world, to our God, and fills us joy. This is an experience of love, of acceptance, of communion. The other is the other separates us from our world, and our God and leaves us bitter, angry and resentful filling us with an experience of fear, exile and discord. There is a Judas AND a Mary living in each of us.
Annie Dillard writes "The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation." I see amazing extravagance in the natural world that for me points to the extravagance of God. When my car, everything in my garden is covered with a thick layer of pollen on a spring morning, I think wow, what extravagance! When I see the extraordinary variety and vitality of living things, I think extravagant creation! When I watch the ocean and think of the innumerable jellyfish or walk along the beach picking through the beach litter after a storm, I can't even imagine how many different creatures live in the vast ocean. There is so much we don't even know about. When I look into the night sky and see the countless stars and the edge of our galaxy, I am in awe of the extravagance of creation. When I think of the amazing complexity of our own body, I think extravagant love.
And so the question I leave you with is how can we receive this wonderful extravagant love that God has for us? I don't for a minute think it is an easy question, but it is the most important question in our lives. Life is all about love. Love heals, but love also can break our hearts. To turn from love is for our hearts and souls to shrivel and dry up. It is worth the risk.
I know we have all been hurt by inept attempts to love. There are so many ways that we hurt each other in the name of love. I think about parents who try to control their children, punishing them, hurting them "for their own good." It's a sick kind of conditional love. I think about people trying to control other people, so they won't go wrong. Out of love? I think of smothering fearful love. But all these are conditional love and hurt us. Unconditional love doesn't control, isn't afraid or judgmental and it is what heals.
Mary knew all love comes from God and when we connect with that source, it is everflowing, ever abundant and never goes away. To be sure the particular expressions of love change, but not the love. We cannot possess this love. This knowledge is the hope, the faith that ties earth and heaven together. This is what sustained Jesus as he faced his trial and death. This is the energy of the promise of resurrection.
Humbly we know how far we are from giving or receiving unconditional love. As we become aware of our own shortcomings, let us look with the eyes of unconditional love on ourselves. Can we love the Judas in us? When we recognize those who consider us their enemies, let us look at them with eyes of unconditional love. Can we love the Judas in others? It is certainly not the way of the world, but it is the way to eternal life.
Whatever we face, be it, change and transitions, loss or even death, I pray we remember that love is what connects us to God, who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. Give yourself over to this love and say thanks. Laugh, love and rejoice. Amen
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