Today’s Gospel story leads me to a few questions that I share with you for your own private reflection.
- Who or what is being celebrated by the party at the home of Lazarus?
- What is a value we can place on physical or intimate actions of adoration?
- Why questions are the hardest when accusatory!
- Did Jesus mean that we should become comfortable with the status of the poor?
As we journey to the end of our Lenten season, we find ourselves in the middle of the Gospel of John.
The pivotal point in John’s narrative: is Mary’s anointing of Jesus, the closing scene of an episode that began with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
Life for Lazarus is up-against the fore shadowing death of Jesus. The climate of death is once again in the air, but is buffered by the aroma of love and life.
Just as Jesus confronted death’s hold on Lazarus, now Lazarus’ sister Mary shamelessly attends to Jesus as he prepares for his death. All this reminds us, as in life itself, we are always moving from life to death, and from death to life! It doesn’t matter whether you are at the beginning, end, or somewhere in-between on your journey.
I heard a burn surgeon say to his residents that he was teaching about skin damage and skin graft, “that the level of a cell life is defined in terms of there being more energy in the cell than outside of it.”
Just as in the Lazarus story death and life are inextricably linked, so also for us death and life are gauged by the life giving or denying power of our thoughts, words and deeds.
Lazarus, who had been decaying in a tomb for four days, was not the only one under the spell of death. When we lose touch with the Source of Life, we detect “death” silently following us.
Mary’s extravagant expression of devotion toward Jesus stands in stark contrast to Judas’ protest that the money from this expensive perfume should have been given to the poor.
I think we are all inclined to identify with Mary, because Jesus affirms her. We like to think of ourselves as the person who does the right thing because we want to consider ourselves doing the Will of God.
Hindsight is 20/20 and everything is clearer in retrospect, but come on. We are talking about a pound of essential oil worth almost a year’s worth of wages in world where people are trying to eek out a living. I doubt that there is a vestry in the Diocese of Southern Ohio who, if confronted with such an excessive and expensive act wouldn’t raise their voices in dismay and disbelief: “You did what? Just think of all the ministry we could have done and bills we could have paid with that money”.
But part of the nature of Mary’s gift was its audacity. Mary threw caution to the wind, risked her reputation, and spent a whole lot of money on a lavish act of devotion: anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume.
I, truth be told, along with many of us, as we digest this passage, are really uncomfortable with Mary’s gift. It seems extreme, excessive, bordering on the erotic, even wasteful.
Some one once said, and I think they get it right when they say, “lavish devotion contrasts critical stinginess”.
This passage gives, us permission, so to speak, to honor Jesus in extravagant ways. It warns against mistaking discipline for servant-hood.
Judas has the chutzpah to ask a question I could imagine most of us asking or at least thinking of asking: “Mary, couldn’t you have used these resources to more effectively address the needs in our community?”
Judas is asking a justice question, is he not? But the problem is that Judas is, as we know from the end of the story, a calculating self-centered man, full of pride.
But just for the fun of it and in the spirit of compassion, let’s take the high road and give Judas the benefit of the doubt here. Let’s assume for a moment that Judas actually cares about the poor, and about justice.
What stands out then is Jesus’ haunting reply to those present: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”.
What’s up with that?
Mary’s insight and affection are impressive in this scene. She is a devout servant who grasps the gravity of moment and acts with reckless abandon. So profound and humble was her act of devotion that it may have been the inspiration for Jesus washing the feet of his followers.
Mary here is acting with divine humility in that humans are divine since they are created in the image of God who cherishes the dignity of life and embodies ,in potential, attributes of God.
This variable lack of humility is difficult not only for Judas but for people like us who are so deeply conditioned to calculate the net value of every exchange and put a price tag on everything.
Einstein evidently had a sign hanging in his Princeton office that read: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
Mary’s act is pure gift – without a hint of any calculation, not requiring an explanation!
And, in this respect she treats Jesus as he treated others.
I doubt very much that Jesus used that label or thought of himself as dealing with the “poor” per se because he disregarded economic and social categories. His only concern were those which he encountered while shepherding those which God had Created.
Jesus follows the words found in Deuteronomy: “Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelite’s who are poor and needy in your land.”
For the poor, a place in society clearly implies being lifted out of poverty and given dignity in the form of jobs and housing and all of the other benefits that give autonomy and a voice to the powerless. That is why it is far too superficial to use these words out of context. They allow us to think that charity is enough. Charity is important to address immediate needs, but it does not solve problems in the long run. Jesus knew it. We need to believe it too, or we miss the true challenge of the Gospel of John.
Sister, let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you.
Brother, let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.