“and the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” The perfume Mary used was nard and I’ve brought some nard here today so that we can be in the room with Jesus and his friends. Nard, or spikenard, comes from the Valerian family and grows in Nepal, China and India. The rhizomes are crushed to make this scent. Take a deep whiff so you can be transported back in time.
Let’s put this gospel in context: just a few days before, Jesus had received an urgent message from his good friends, Mary and Martha, beseeching him to come to Bethany and help their brother, Lazarus. Jesus didn’t make it. Lazarus died, a funeral had been held and he was buried in a tomb. By the time Jesus got there, Lazarus had been dead for days and his decomposing body stank. Jesus roared to the heavens and Lazarus was raised from the dead. He came out of his stinky tomb trailing his burial wrappings. Doesn’t this make you think of zombies?
Well, you can imagine what happened when word of this huge miracle got around. People who had been on the fence about this Jesus fellow jumped right into believing that he was, in fact, a miracle worker, maybe even the long awaited messiah. I imagine most of them hoped that he would be their new king too.
While the believers are rejoicing, the folks at the temple are incensed. They can no longer allow Pilate to ignore Jesus. Something must be done about him, something must be done to permanently silence him. He is getting way too popular. Oh, the heat is on.
Jesus returns to stay with his friends in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem, knowing full well that he is jumping from the frying pan into the fire. We know that Jesus will die in six short days. It doesn’t take a prophet to know that his future isn’t bright. Most of us would have headed far, far away but once Jesus turns toward Jerusalem, he doggedly keeps to the course, knowing what will happen in the near future.
We seldom hear about Jesus having friends. We hear about his parents, his followers, and his enemies but the only mention of friends is these folks: Lazarus, Mary and Martha. These are his buddies, their home is apparently the only place where he can just relax and be free of everyone’s expectations. Now that things are looking the darkest for him, he longs for the refuge he finds in the home of his best friends.
The scene if somewhat familiar. Martha is doing the work, cooking and serving a nice meal. Mary is sitting at the table with Jesus and his followers, listening to their talk, worrying about her beloved friend. Lazarus, well, Lazarus may be a bit out of it. Being dead for a few days kind of changes a fellow. Maybe he is a bit spacey, a bit forgetful, you know, a bit ‘undead’ but he still knows the comforting companionship of his good friend Jesus.
They eat together. Then, abruptly, Mary gets up from the table, goes away to another room and comes back with a jar filled with expensive perfume of spikenard. Want to smell it again?
Before Jesus, Mary silently kneels and pours the precious oil onto his feet. She massages that expensive oil in then she pours even more. The whole house is filled with the fragrance of the oil. Her loving actions are extravagant beyond measure. Everyone in the room watches this sad, quiet woman as she undoes her hair and lets it fall in long waves to the floor. She leans forward until Jesus’ feet are hidden beneath the curtains of her hair. Her tears fall as she uses her hair to dry his feet.
Just days before she had anointed the body of her brother, Lazarus with oil and now, in a prophetic gesture, she foretells the death of Jesus as she anoints his feet. We don’t count this Mary as a prophet usually, but I think we should. She has been watching and worshipping Jesus for sometime now and she sees the whole picture. She knows what is to come.
Others in the room are made uncomfortable by Mary’s intimate, raw expression of love and grief. Judas really doesn’t get it. He thinks he can impress Jesus by drawing attention the the profligate wastefulness of Mary’s gesture. He speaks up for the poor now, assuming that Jesus will agree him. Jesus barks at him: “Leave her alone! Can’t you see that she is preparing for my funeral? This is not about the poor.”
In a few nights, Jesus will celebrate the Passover with his friends where he will kneel and humbly wash their feet. He will remind them for the last time to love one another as he loves them. He will shower them with his extravagant love. I wonder if they will remember Mary doing the same thing to Jesus just a few nights earlier.
Mary pours out that expensive oil just as she pours out her love for Jesus. There is more than enough. Mary has expressed extravagant love.
There are many ways to express extravagance: most of you know that my mother was Mexican while my father was Norwegian. We grew up near my mom’s family and boy, that Mexican family expressed everything with extravagance ... love, hate, joy, sorrow - all the emotions seemed to me, as a child, to be outsized. I used to imagine that when my mom’s family gathered, I could see electricity crackling in the room, because the feelings were all so intense. I loved it.
Then we would go up north a ways to visit my dad’s Norwegian family for Thanksgiving. There were fewer of these relatives: Grandma, Aunt Agnes and Uncle Emil, maybe my cousin Sharon Ann. This was a very calm, careful house. I was fascinated by the difference between my relatives. Where was the extravagance here? Oh, on the dining room table. My grandma expressed her extravagant love with so much food, the dining room table wasn’t big enough. A turkey AND a ham, several homemade breads, pickles and relishes and way too many side dishes. The quiet conversation usually revolved around whether to pass the dishes clockwise or counterclockwise. Obviously, I loved this family: I married a Norwegian!
So we all can express abundant, extravagant love in our own way. Mary doesn’t wait for Jesus to die to pour her love upon him. At his coming death, she will have great sorrow but she will not have regrets.
You see, that is the thing with the abundant love we have from God. There is always enough. God is not stingy with love and we mustn’t be either. Today is the day to express your love. Please be extravagant with it!