Fifth Weekend in Lent (C/RCL): “Lavish Love”
John 12:1-8, Philippians 3:4b-14
March 12-13, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Lavish love. Gratitude that goes beyond words. That’s what we have in today’s Gospel. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, throw a party to thank Jesus and to celebrate Lazarus’ improbable return after just three days from the longest trip anyone can take. (Lazarus is one of very few people we know of for whom it became a round trip, not a one-way.)
Lazarus, Martha and Mary were close friends of Jesus, even before Lazarus’ sudden death and miraculous return to this life. How do we know this? St. John writes that when Lazarus became ill, his “sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’” (John 11:3) St. Luke tells us that Mary loved to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him… which aggravated Martha so much she complained to Jesus about Mary leaving her to work in the kitchen alone! (Luke 10:38-42). I’m imagining these were the kind of friends who ministered to the One who ministered to everyone else. Their home was a haven. In it Jesus could take a breather, find refreshment, have His body and soul renewed by the gift of friendship, just like we do.
We could get the impression from St. Luke’s story about Mary hanging on Jesus’ every word while Martha prepared lunch that Mary was a woman of prayer rather than action. Not in today’s Gospel, though. St. John doesn’t record anything Mary says, but he tells us what she did, giving us a great example of actions speaking louder than words….
It’s memorable. Mary anoints, massages Jesus’ feet with perfume. We’re used to perfume being measured in ounces, but John tells us Mary had a pound of perfume! And that it was very expensive. We all know what it’s like to be on an elevator or in any close quarters with someone who has put on what we consider a lot of perfume: maybe 4 dabs instead of 2, 2 sprays instead of 1. I can’t even begin to process what a pound would be like! That’s where lavish comes in. We’re talking abundance. Crazy abundance. Sort of like the love of the father in last week’s parable of the prodigal son. Over-the-top love and devotion and generosity and forgiveness. Except that this week, the love is related to gratitude: Mary’s gratitude for what Jesus has done for her brother Lazarus and for everybody who loved Lazarus. Jesus had brought him back from the journey that usually has no return. Think of the deceased loved one you miss the most. Imagine them being returned to you. Could your heart hold all that joy??
None of us have had a loved one literally return from the dead. (Figuratively, maybe….) When have you been so thankful you felt that words couldn’t express your gratitude? When has someone done something that was or seemed life-saving? For you or a loved one? Maybe you sent flowers. Maybe you made a donation. Maybe you prepared a special dinner. Mary’s choice? She anointed Jesus’ feet with the most amazing perfume she could find.
St. Paul wrote to the Romans: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15b, mirroring Isaiah 52:7) Jesus’ feet had walked many a mile over dusty roads to announce Good News…. But there’s a deeper symbolism here, which Jesus points out. He says Mary will use the same perfume at a later date to anoint His body for burial. (There is actually no precedent we can find in Jesus’ world for anointing the feet of the living: only of the dead.)
So this beautiful interlude, between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (which we’ll remember next week) and the events of His Passion and death, foreshadows what’s coming – and not just Jesus’ death, but His actions that spoke louder than words the night before He died.
Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with the perfume, then wiped them with her hair. The exact same word is used for Jesus’ wiping dry of the disciples’ feet after He washes them the night before His death. Mary’s ministering to Jesus’ feet points forward to Jesus’ ministering to His other followers’ feet. Footwashing was a job so low on the totem pole that it couldn’t be demanded even of a slave. Jesus’ chose to assume that humble role, to perform that intimate kindness, as a foreshadowing of His complete gift of self on the cross. After He so served the disciples in complete humility He announced:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13)
(That’s why the Thursday of Holy Week is called Maundy Thursday. Maundy from Latin mandatum, meaning commandment: “A new commandment I give to you….”)
St. Paul has something to say about that in his letter to the Romans, chapter 5:
6For while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Lavish love. Inexplicably lavish love for the undeserving. Mary’s love for the Lord who raised her brother back to this life is nothing compared with the Lord’s love of her – and of us. He died so that we may be raised, not returning to this life like Lazarus but passing through death to Life-with-a-capital-L, Life that is everlasting. That Gift isn’t only laid up for us in the future, either. Everlasting Life is the Gift Given in Holy Baptism, alive in us now and not just later. It is Life fueled by “the power of the resurrection” that Paul mentions in today’s lesson from Philippians (3:10). It’s not a fairy tale life devoid of sorrow or trial. It is real Life that involves our “sharing of [Christ’s] sufferings,” in addition to our access to resurrection power.
How do we ever say “Thank you!” for that baptismal “Gift Given” of Life Everlasting?? St. Paul says, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” of the “surpassing grace of God” (2 Corinthians 9:15, 14). How do we express our thanks to God?? Let’s remember one of the lessons Mary teaches in today’s Gospel: actions speak louder than words. Our soul-food-for-thought this next week:
· Are we even aware of the Lavish Love poured out upon us?
· Of what lavish love are we capable? Not as a “good work,” but in response to being so well-loved?
· What actions might best express our gratitude for the Gift Given, the indescribable gift, the surpassing grace of God?
· Mary perfumed Jesus’ feet. What form will our devotion, our lavish love take? Like hers, will it be soulful enough to point others to God’s Lavish Love??
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham