Can you think of the time that you were most full of thanksgiving? A time when your heart was just overflowing with gratitude? When you couldn’t stop giving thanks to God for the miracles that unfolded? Once, when I was little, through a strange series of events, my mom thought, very briefly, that I had been kidnapped. I was actually out riding my bike around the streets of Westernville. But she’d lost track of where I went after delivering the newspaper on my street, and she thought she saw me in a van driving away from the house. I was oblivious to her terror, until my big brother found me and brought me home. I can still remember exactly how alarmed his expression was as he rode on his bike to find me. And I can remember my mother’s thankfulness that I was found, even though, to my mind, I hadn’t really even been lost. Only when I got older could I begin to imagine her fear and understand her overwhelming joy at being wrong. Her gratitude. When do you remember being most completely full of thanksgiving?
Today, we read of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. This story of Jesus being anointed appears in all four gospels in some form, though there are significant differences in all the tellings of it. In Mark and in Matthew, Jesus is said to be dining at the home of Simon the leper when an unidentified woman anoints his head. All the disciples in Matthew’s account, and just ‘some’ of the ones who were there in Mark’s telling complain about her extravagant actions. We might even think of her as prodigal, like we talked about last week – reckless and extreme in her use of costly resources. In Luke’s account, Jesus is eating with Pharisees, when a woman called ‘a sinner’ comes into the house and weeping, wipes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. There is no mention in Luke of the cost of the ointment the woman uses, and Jesus responds to criticism from the Pharisees with a parable about hospitality and forgiveness.
But here in John’s gospel, in the version of the story we study today, we find some different, interesting details. Here, we read that Jesus is visiting with Lazarus in Bethany just before the Passover, just before Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem. In other words, this occurs on the brink of what we have come to call Holy Week, just where we are now. Lazarus is brother to Mary and Martha, and already in the gospel of John we’ve encountered these sisters. Earlier in John, Martha is busy trying to prepare dinner for Jesus, and wanting Mary to help, but Jesus says Mary, listening at his feet to his teaching, has made a good choice. And then, Lazarus falls ill and dies. Jesus weeps for his dear friend. But he talks with Martha about being the resurrection and life, and Martha seems to understand, and Jesus raises Lazarus, dead and in his tomb for days, from his grave. Our text for today happens essentially immediately following the raising of Lazarus. Jesus is now back in their home, dining with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, along with the disciples. John clearly shows Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha as people with whom Jesus is very close. They are dear friends. Martha is (again) preparing dinner, and while Jesus and Lazarus talk, Mary takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, and anoints Jesus’ feet. She wipes them with her hair, and we read that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume, and we can almost smell the rich scent as we read. In John’s account, it is Judas who raises a fuss. We’re told that this is because he was the treasurer of the disciples, and was looking to steal money from their common purse. He criticizes Mary’s actions – “why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Jesus answers: “Leave her alone. She bought it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
In Jesus’ day washing your feet and anointing them was a common practice, as common as hand-washing today. People traveled on hot and dusty roads, and washing and anointing sore and dirty feet was just part of daily custom. A host would provide hot water and sometimes ointment and oil for arriving guests. But the guests would wash their own feet. The only one who would wash someone else’s feet was a slave. So for a person to voluntarily wash and anoint another’s feet would communicate a message that they were devoted enough to the person to act as the person’s slave. That’s what Mary is communicating to Jesus – extreme, complete devotion and commitment to Jesus, putting her life in Jesus’ hand. Otherwise, we can make no sense of her actions – for a woman to touch a man in this way in public, for a woman to let down her hair in public, for a woman to engage in what would have been considered inappropriately sensual – Mary must have had a strong motivation to act this way. And she did. Jesus had just raised her brother from the dead. He was dead. Mary was weeping over him, crushed, devastated, and Jesus brought him back to life. I can only imagine that Mary is feeling more thankful than she has ever felt in her entire life. Her gratitude – her brother was dead, and now he’s alive again – can we even imagine? In context, it is no wonder that Mary pours out a bottle of perfume on Jesus, no wonder she wipes his feet with her hair. It probably seems like hardly enough, in fact. Mary, already a disciple, a student of Jesus’ teaching – well, her commitment to Jesus had just increased 100 fold. What might you do in thanksgiving in exchange for your loved one brought back to life? Her deep motivation is to serve Jesus completely, to devote herself to him and his teachings entirely.
And then we have Judas. Judas has always been the most intriguing disciple to me, stemming, as I think you know, from my longtime love of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Ever since I first saw the production in junior high, I’ve always wondered exactly what made Judas do what he did – what were his motivations? And I’ve always felt that we better pay attention to Judas, because we’re not always so far from taking actions to betray God ourselves. The gospel writer John, however, doesn’t share my sympathetic look at Judas. For John, Judas is just the betrayer, plain and simple. But even from John’s straightforward presentation, we can learn something about ourselves. In this text, John sets up Judas and Mary to clearly illustrate two paths. Mary and Judas are symbolic of two paths we can choose. Mary shows her complete devotion to following Jesus. Judas, on the other hand, shows self-interest in the guise of caring about the poor. His argument sounds good – Mary’s act of devotion is quite extravagant – she spends a year’s salary on perfume for a man’s feet. But John lets us know what he sees in Judas’ heart.
Through John’s eyes, from his perspective, Judas is good at masquerading as a follower of Jesus. For years, Judas followed Jesus, heard him preaching, was sent out by Jesus to be in ministry himself with the other disciples, and no one suspected him to be any different than any of the other disciples. We can guess that Jesus saw into his true heart, but nowhere else do we find the other disciples questioning him or wondering what he is doing among the twelve. He blends right in. And yet we know what John tells us: Judas’ motivations are all wrong. He’s looking out for himself and his own interests.
Judas has his eye on what following Jesus is costing him – literally and figuratively, it seems. But Mary, she can only see that she has gained everything from following Jesus, and thus is willing to spend more. What does it cost to follow Jesus? On the one hand, we know that grace is free. God’s love is offered to us without price. That’s a promise God makes to us, and keeps. But on the other hand, discipleship is also costly. Jesus says, “take up the cross,” that instrument of my death, and follow me. That’s a costly path he’s calling us to take. Free grace. Costly discipleship. We understand this paradox better than we think. We know the saying that the best things in life are free. Love, for example, a most treasured thing – it’s a free gift we share with one another. But love is also very costly. If we love someone, that love will cost us a lot – patience, courage, commitment, strength. But, when we love, truly love, despite the cost, we don’t spend our time tallying up how much we’ve spent. Love is free, and costly. But we experience it, I hope, as a gain, not a loss, as a gift, not an expense. So it is with grace: Grace is free, but our response to grace, a life of discipleship, is costly. But in the way of Jesus, as we lose everything, spend everything, give everything to following Jesus, we always seem to come away with more than when we started. We gain life, even as we lose it in discipleship.
I think Mary sees that following Jesus will cost her everything, and she’s willing, ready, to pay that price because Jesus offers life, real, abundant life in return. She’s seen this gift of real life with her own eyes when her own brother Lazarus was raised by Jesus, and when Jesus told her sister Martha that he was the resurrection and the life – not for later, at some distant time, but right now. After what she’s experienced, she would spend anything and spend it with joy in her heart – because the gift Jesus offers – has given her – is a priceless treasure.
Somehow, after years with Jesus, Judas looks over everything, and sees only his losses. Mary sees only what she’s gained. After getting her brother’s life returned to her, she can hardly see anything else. What about us? What do you see when you look at your life with Christ? Perhaps we haven’t experienced our loved one being literally brought back to life. But I think that Jesus is resurrecting us, if we let him, all the time. Bringing life to us where there were only dead places in our hearts. What value can you place on the gifts Jesus gives us? What gratitude stirs in your heart for one who can bring life out of death? How far will you follow the one who can do that – bring life out of the death in your life? Each of us must discover the cost of following Jesus, what we’re willing to spend. Judas receives 30 silver coins to betray Jesus, and Mary spends a year’s wages on perfume for Jesus’ feet. Mary was willing to give all for her discipleship – but Mary makes the better deal, doesn’t she? She chooses discipleship, which costs everything, but she gains everything. Judas gets 30 silver coins, but loses his whole life.
What is it costing you to be a disciple? The cost of discipleship is our whole lives, our whole selves, offered to God, a response to the extravagant grace we’ve been given. The cost is high. But it’s worth every penny. Are you willing to pay the price?