This Lent we have seen how the shadows of the spiritual life have opened new opportunities for deeper spiritual consciousness. Only by embracing our limitations can we meet God’s limitless love. This morning we walk through the shadow of approaching death. Death is not a limitation that comes to us because of our own failure or sinfulness, but as a part of the human experience. While we live, we spend most of our time avoiding talk and thought of death; we try to suppress reflection on our mortality. But we all encounter moments in which we can no longer ignore our mortality. All of us will go down to the dust, all of us, and all of our loved ones will die. This morning as we walk with Jesus in the shadow of approaching death, we will find that our deaths are profoundly spiritual experiences and represent the consummation of our spiritual hopes. Living as we are prepared to die, and with our approaching deaths (and those approaching deaths of our loved ones) in mind is the most profound and powerful way to grow in our awareness of the sacredness of the present moment, which is latent with God’s Presence —within us and without us.
Jesus is at a dinner party hosted by his dear friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, arguably Jesus’ three closest friends outside of his twelve apostles. The Gospels recount three different occasions found in Luke 10:38-42, John 11, and John 12:1-11 (including the story of Jesus’ miraculous resurrection of Lazarus) in which Jesus visited the three siblings and found rest, refreshment, recreation, and pleasure in their presence. Our Scripture lesson for this morning details Jesus’ third (and final) visit to the siblings in their home in Bethany, a village outside of Jerusalem. For John, this passage of Scripture is an opportunity to look back with fondness on what has been in Jesus’ life and ministry and to foreshadow Jesus’ coming death.
As John begins his narration of this dinner party the newly resurrected Lazarus reclines at the table with Jesus and the other guests, Martha busies herself in the kitchen preparing the food, and Mary is … notably absent at first glance. Suddenly, in verse three, introduced by the small word, “then,” she dramatically appears. In her arms she is carrying an alabaster jar full (3/4 of a pound) of expensive anointing perfume (a year’s worth of wages). To the surprise and dismay of some (most notably Judas, but surely there were others present who disapproved of Mary’s action), Mary pours the entirety of the jar’s contents upon Jesus’ feet.
Imagine the scene, the mess, and the smell. Nearly one pound of anointing perfume has been poured over Jesus’ feet. The perfume would not have remained just upon Jesus’ feet, but would have seeped, and crept across the floor and around the table creating an ever-expanding mess. Those sitting next to Jesus likely would have jumped up from their pillow seats on the floor, perhaps bumping the table, creating more chaos and disorder as other jars or cups containing food and drink would have spilled. The men (because it would have been exclusively men at the table) would all have stepped away from the mess, moving towards the walls, perhaps even trying to wipe the excess perfume from their own clothes. In perhaps one of the great understatements in the Scriptures, John states that the entire house was soon “filled by the aroma of the perfume” (12:3). Imagine 3/4 of a pound of perfume poured out in such a small and enclosed space. Most likely people would have been gagging and eyes perhaps were even watering as folks sought out clean fresh air. In short, Mary created a scene and many, not just Judas, would have been annoyed.
To complete her remarkable act, Mary takes not a towel but her own hair and wipes dry Jesus’ feet. Judas, no longer annoyed, is indignant. John, through his narration of this scene, lets the readers of his Gospel know the true reason for Judas’ anger. Judas, the treasurer of the twelve apostles, is also a thief and has been stealing from the funds for his own personal use. Perhaps Judas was hopeful that at the conclusion of the dinner party the three siblings would have contributed a financial offering to support Jesus’ ministry. Judas, ever-greedy, immediately calculates the loss in revenue. He is not concerned with the needs of the poor; he simply wants more money — more money to hold on behalf of Jesus and more money from which to steal.
Despite Judas’ own misdirected motivations, Jesus’ response is still odd and confusing. Instead of exposing Judas as the greedy thief and liar (as John exposes Judas in writing his Gospel), Jesus says, “the poor you will always have with you, but you won’t always have me” (12:8). Ironically, this statement, which Jesus intended to establish the priority of his disciple’s ministry to the poor as a foundational practice for the future church has been used to justify the church’s abandonment of the poor creating a false dualism in the church’s ministry by separating physical needs from spiritual needs. As we will discuss further, this is not the intention of Jesus’ words.
In the Gospels (and throughout the history of Christian interpretation of the Scriptures), Mary of Bethany is viewed as the exemplar of devotional love. In Jesus’ first encounter with the siblings it is Mary who, instead of working in the kitchen to prepare the meal, sits at Jesus’ feet simply listening to Jesus’ words and enjoying his presence. In that instance Jesus commends Mary’s devotion to him as choosing “the better part” (Luke 10:42). Here again, Mary’s actions are highlighted as the ultimate expression of love and devotion to Jesus. While the other party goers are doing the things expected of them, Martha (again) labors in the kitchen, Lazarus and the other men recline around the table, Mary simply refuses to do the things that are expected of her. Her love for Jesus compels her to actions of gratuitous indulgent love. Her love for Jesus knows no shame nor boundaries. To love Jesus thoroughly Mary will sacrifice all things, including money and public opinion. From her unexpected appearance at Jesus’ feet at the dinner party, to her outpouring of perfume upon Jesus’ feet, to the wiping of Jesus’ feet with her hair, Mary’s actions and her very life are an example of selfless love towards Jesus. The first lesson we learn from this passage of Scripture is that our lives of devotion to Jesus should mirror Mary’s. Mary here is our role model when it comes to loving and worshiping Jesus.
But in addition to being the exemplar of love and devotion to Jesus, Mary also plays an additional role in this passage of Scripture, that of the prophet. When Jesus says, “This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it” (John 12:7) he reinterprets Mary’s act of devotion as a prophetic act. Mary’s actions are prophetic in two respects: first, (with the assistance of Jesus’ interpretation of her actions) she foreshadows Jesus’ coming death; second, she gives witness to our emotional, psychological, and spiritual states as we encounter approaching death.
Mary’s actions foreshadow Jesus’ death; Jesus himself says that Mary’s actions served to prepare his body for “burial” (12:7). He uses this as yet another opportunity to speak to his disciples about his upcoming crucifixion. Mary is the only one who has ears to hear what Jesus has been saying, on a mystical level, Mary seems to intuit that Jesus’ time is coming.
For our purposes this morning, and in light of our ongoing Lenten conversation about the shadows of the spiritual life, more significant is the second aspect of Mary’s prophetic ministry. Mary’s actions (and Jesus’ interpretations of her actions) force us to confront not only the reality of Jesus’ coming death, but the reality of death in general, the reality of our inevitable death, and the inevitable death of those whom we love. Mary is a truth teller, and like most truth tellers when they tell us truths that we ourselves try to avoid we find their truth to be deeply uncomfortable.
We spend our lives doing everything we can to avoid death. But try as we might to avoid and ignore approaching death, the reality of our mortality cannot be denied, and when death finally comes all things stop. This is how both Mary and Jesus instruct us this morning in our passage of Scripture. As Mary the mystic intuits Jesus’ coming death, she stops all her expected tasks and simply seeks to be with Jesus to express her love for him. As death approaches, nothing is more important for Mary than spending as much time as possible with Jesus and making sure that Jesus knows just how much she loves him. These become her two priorities.
When death approaches all things are reordered, and we pause to allow approaching death to shape our actions, thoughts, and priorities. This is the meaning of Jesus’ strange words about “the poor always being with you.” Central to Jesus’ mission was the proclamation that the Kingdom of God has come and central to the Kingdom was the justice of God and the reordering of social order in which the last, the least, and the lost would be prioritized. Jesus came to announce God’s preferential option for the poor and called his disciples to stand in solidarity with the least of these, not only seeking to feed the hungry, visit the sick, and care for widows and orphans, but to participate in their poverty and marginalization. The poor will always be with you Jesus has indicated repeatedly, and because of this Jesus has commanded his disciples to make solidarity, friendship, and advocacy to the poor the central facet of ministry in his name.
But just as death halts the daily routines and occurrences in our own life when we encounter the approaching death of loved ones so it did for Jesus and his disciples. When we get that heart-sinking, stomach-dropping, gut wrenching, and soul-melting news that someone we love is critically injured or ill and it appears that death is approaching, what do we do? We stop everything, even the most important and elemental aspects of our life. We leave work early and buy a plane ticket at the last minute. When death approaches all other things stop, because approaching death has our full attention. This is the meaning of Jesus’ words about “the poor always being with you.” Even the most central aspect of discipleship in Jesus’ name temporarily halts and gets reordered as his death approaches. There will soon be a time when the disciples’ devotion to Jesus will resume taking the shape of caring for the poor, but now, as Jesus’ death approaches, his disciples’ lives are to be appropriately reordered by his approaching death, and their attention, love, and devotion is to be directed at spending time with him during these remaining days.
The shadow of approaching death invites us to reorder and redirect our lives by providing focus and clarity on the priorities of our life. We are invited to experience God’s presence in new and profound ways (ways only accessible to those living in death’s shadow) and to prioritize relationships with loved ones. As death approaches we are given the opportunity to recognize the joy and privilege inherent in every moment with which we are gifted with life. Only when death approaches do we realize that we are not fully alive and we are granted the grace to do exactly that — to fully and truly live aware of the sacredness of and God’s saturating Presence in every moment.