Fifth Sunday in Lent 2016

Gospel: John 12: 1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Several times in the gospels we find this story of Jesus having his feet anointed with perfumed oil. Whenever I imagine Jesus getting this foot massage from Mary of Bethany a question always comes to mind. I wonder if Jesus’ feet were ticklish? When I read this story of the anointing of Jesus’ feet, I imagine trying to anoint my mother’s feet. They need anointing. She had the worst feet. Bunions, corns, calluses, toes growing in odd directions, a tendency to suffer from ingrown toenails. Alone, she kept Dr. Shoals in business. And even though I suspect that she has never had one, she needed a pedicure badly. Two things kept her from it. One is that her feet are outrageously ticklish. So ticklish, in fact, that as loving and as mild mannered a woman as she was, if anyone merely suggested that they might come near her feet, this beautiful 97 year old lady would say, even to the grandchildren she loved more than life itself, “I’ll kick you in the head. I promise, you touch my feet, I’ll kick you in the head.”

The other thing that kept her from having a pedicure is that it would have seemed to her a wasteful extravagance. She grew up very poor – the seventh child of a family of sandy land farmers. She chopped cotton in worn out fields, tended the family garden, took care of her elder sibings’ children – and ran barefoot doing it all. Calluses grew, her liberated feet spread where they would, so that they always fit very uncomfortably in a pair of even the most generous heels.

And yet, I would like to care for her feet. To hold those gnarled feet in my hands and anoint them with the most expensive oil I could manage, would be a blessing beyond imagining. To kneel before her and make some small recompense for the love she gave and the sacrifices she made for me and for all her children, would be a blessing. But not one she could allow.

But Jesus did. Knowing, perhaps, what pleasure it would give his follower, Mary of Bethany, in these final days of his ministry, to return the love that Jesus had offered. Here is the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet because she understood his suffering – how he suffered with the poor, suffers with us now. Her anointing of Jesus’ feet was her natural response to the suffering she encountered. Her act of generosity and kindness was taken to alleviate that pain. Mary is paying a great price to do something about the suffering she knows lies ahead for Jesus. Sometimes it seems that it is only the women among Jesus’ followers who have a clear sense of what awaits Jesus – a sense of his mission and the price that he was to pay for fulfilling that mission.

It was indeed an extravagant show of love that Mary demonstrated. She bathed Jesus’ feet with a vial of perfume worth 300 denari. A denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer in 1st century Palestine. To put it in perspective, imagine a person in Arkansas who makes the current minimum wage of $8.00 an hour. That $8.00 times 8, for an 8-hour day, results in $64.00 for a day’s labor. If that person works 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, she will earn a grand total of $16,640. The equivalent in 1st century Palestine would have been enough to buy a pound of pure nard. In 21st century Arkansas it might be enough to buy groceries at Wal-Mart, purchase clothes at Helping Hands, and pay the rent. But forget about having enough money to visit the doctor, repairing the clunker you need to get to work, or buying a gift for someone you love.

Jesus words in response to Judas’ criticism of Mary’s extravagance were, “You always have the poor with you.” Indeed, Jesus always had the poor with him. He was surrounded by the poor, was poor himself. Spoke constantly of the poor, directed his message toward the poor, and continually revealed a preference for the poor. Jesus spent his entire ministry preaching and teaching about those who live in poverty, directing the people toward his vision of justice. And now as he enters his last days – he is just about sick of it. He is ready for something new.
Let’s look at the Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah again. Isaiah’s reference is to the Exodus – the liberation of the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt.

“Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing;”

The new thing that God did for the people of Israel some 800 years before this story of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany, was to liberate an oppressed people. To turn the power structure upside down. A god was taking the side of the powerless, taking the side of the slave and not the master. It was a completely new thing.

You know it wasn’t particularly unusual in first century Palestine for a servant to wash the feet of his master, or for a student to wash the feet of his teacher. But Mary’s extravagance in choosing to anoint Jesus’ feet with a perfume worth a year’s wage was unusual beyond imagination. No wonder the action provoked such a response from Judas.

But even more astounding is what comes next. Mary of Bethany’s care for the feet of Jesus anticipates the foot washing scene that appears in the next chapter of John in which Jesus rises from the table, fills a basin with water, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes his disciples’ feet, saying to his followers, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Jesus decision to follow up Mary of Bethany’s act of love and kindness and generosity with the washing of his disciples’ feet was entirely “a new thing” – a turning upside down of the established order. A new kind of love that the world, including Christianity, still hasn’t quite grasped.

Jesus’ observation that “You always have the poor with you” was hardly intended as an excuse for complacency with regard to the poor. This was not a vision that somehow it is part of a God’s plan for the world that we should accept the presence of the poor as, “that’s just the way it is” or that “the poor will always be with us” and therefore we are excused for doing nothing to alleviate suffering.
Consider how different this passage sounds if you place the emphasis of the passage on “you” instead of “the poor”; in other words, “You will always be with the poor, but you will not always be with me.”

We aren’t just called to be charitable to the poor. We are called to Mary’s extravagant devotion – devotion to God and devotion to God’s mission. We are called to love the poor. The poor are always with us and we are called to be always with the poor. It is often easier to love humankind or the oppressed in the abstract than to show our love concretely for those who live in our neighborhoods, for those who live in poverty just down the street.

Far from a dismissal of the poor, Jesus action in receiving the loving care of Mary of Bethany and the example he sets by washing the feet of his disciples is a call to love, a call to love that reaches beyond a mere call for charitable action toward the poor. As Christians we are called to bring the poor into our midst, not merely to love them from a distance, in the abstract, but to bring them close enough to wash their feet.

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