March 13, 2016 – John 12:3
How do we express our love towards each other? What way is the best way? Do different people express love in different ways?
A Christian counselor and popular author, Dr. Gary Chapman, has a best-selling book and series of videos and in-depth studies on how to express love in the way that your loved one understands the best. Each individual has a slightly different view on how to best communicate love to another person. These different ways fall into several basic categories, such as: through physical touch, acts of service, words of kindness and affirmation, spending quality time with one another, or through gifts.
As we consider our Gospel reading from John 12 today, verse 1 paints a backdrop for our action. Jesus pays a kind visit to His good friends at Bethany, a town quite near to Jerusalem. The time is six days before the Passover. And, Jesus stayed at the house of His friend Lazarus, whom He had just raised from the dead.
Martha, Lazarus’s sister, puts on a special dinner. You had better believe that all three siblings were extremely grateful to Jesus for what He had recently done!
In today’s reading, we have three actors in this scene in Bethany. First, Jesus, the guest of honor at the festive occasion. Second, Mary, the sister of Martha, the one giving the special dinner. And third, Judas, one of Jesus’s disciples.
Both Martha and Mary express their love to Jesus. Martha, through the special dinner she hosts. Remember what John writes in his Gospel? “2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Him.” But, Mary? Mary goes over and above anything loving and thankful Martha could have done in the kitchen and with the food. The reading today tells exactly what Mary did: “3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet.”
Before we consider the extravagant love Mary showed to Jesus, let’s talk about the perfume Mary had. The Gospel calls it “pure nard, an expensive perfume.” This perfume is not just expensive, say, $100, maybe $200, for a tiny little bottle. No. This perfume is astronomically expensive. Unbelievably costly.
Nard comes from the high pasture lands of the Himalayas. It was extremely difficult to manufacture, and traveled a long way over the Silk Road across central Asia to Palestine. At that time, nard cost up to as much as a laborer would earn in a year. I suspect Mary intended this gift as a token of her extravagant love for Jesus. We know Jesus had given real expressions of His love to her and her family, in the raising of Lazarus.
Can you believe, spending a whole year’s wages on a small bottle of perfume? As I said, astronomically expensive. Do you begin to understand why I called Mary’s expression a gift of extravagant love?
Jesus knows exactly what Mary is doing. He sits there calmly, receives the extravagant gift of extravagant love. I suspect He talked softly with Mary while she was anointing His feet, too. John’s Gospel says “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
Just a short number of days before, the house of Martha and Mary was filled with the stench of death. Deep grief, weeping, and wailing. Lazarus had died. Yet, Jesus had raised their beloved brother back to life, and now the house was filled with the scent of pure nard. An unbelievably expensive aroma, a scent of richness and beauty.
Enter the third actor in this scene, the disciple Judas. Judas shames Mary for such expense. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” It’s true. That expensive perfume could have fed countless mouths, could have funded several missionaries, could have clothed many needy families.
Ah, but the reader sees which one practices poor stewardship. The one who talked out of both sides of his mouth; the one who secretly was a thief; the one who used to steal from the community fund which was held by Judas in common for all the disciples. So, not only was Judas making off with the group’s money, but he held up “the poor.” He used them as an outright shaming device! Imagine, shaming a loving woman for doing what she felt needed to be done: to love Jesus, extravagantly.
Let me tell you a story.
“Several years ago, the Seattle Art Museum hosted photographer Annie Leibovitz’s “Women” exhibit. … One black & white photo had an almost magnetic power to draw in the passersby. It was a serene photo of an aging African-American woman – her head slightly tilted, her soft eyes and smile welcoming. She was Oseola McCarty, an 87-year-old washerwoman from Mississippi who gave the bulk ($150,000) of her life-savings to ensure that African-American students would have the college education that she couldn’t.”
“Leaving school in the sixth grade to take care of her ailing aunt, Ms. McCarty spent the next 75 years washing other people’s clothes and saving every dime she earned. Towards the end of her life she commented, ‘You can’t do nothing nowadays without an education. I don’t regret one penny I gave. I just wish I had more to give.’ She couldn’t understand others’ amazement at her ability to save so much from her meager earnings or her willingness to give it all away. “It wasn’t hard,” she said simply, ‘I didn’t buy things I didn’t need… The Lord helped me . . . It’s an honor to be blessed like that.’”
“Many have questioned the “hows” and “whys” behind Ms. McCarty’s extravagance towards complete strangers. The fact of the matter is: she saw her ability to engage in such extravagance as complete blessing – an outpouring of gratitude for the life of “enough” that God had given her. Her extravagance mirrors Mary’s extravagant gift of anointing (in this week’s Gospel reading) as well as gifts of grace from an extravagant God.” 
Finally, Jesus steps up to Mary’s defense. “7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of My burial.” He stops short of outright shaming Judas, but it’s like Jesus put His arm around Mary, faced Judas, and said, “Hey! Stop picking on my friend Mary! Leave her alone!”
We know that Jesus knew very well what He intended to do, in just a short time. Yes, He was attending a celebratory dinner, celebrating His good friend Lazarus being alive. But—His face was set toward Jerusalem. Palm Sunday was not far away. Moreover, Jesus realized what extravagant love Mary was showing towards Him.
I think Mary understood the warnings Jesus had been giving, about very soon entering Jerusalem. About the path He must travel—to the cross. Passover was coming! The Gospel tells us, only a week away. She is not only showing her extravagant love, but preparing Jesus for whatever it is that He will face—very soon.
Those who love Christ truly love Him so much better than this world as to be willing to lay out the best they have for Him.
Do we love Jesus that much? Are we willing to lay down a year’s salary? Are we willing to do as much as Ms. Oseola McCarty? Are you and I willing to show such extravagant love? Jesus showed extravagant love to us. In the Passion Week. On the cross. Truly, extravagant love.
Let us pray. Lord, help me to show a portion of such amazing, extravagant love to You, and to many others. Amen.
 Radical Gratitude, lectionary-based stewardship, Northwest United Methodist Foundation. http://www.nwumf.org/images/radical_gratitude/year_c/radical_gratitude_mar1907.pdf
I would also like to express my appreciation for Matthew Henry’s excellent Commentary on the Whole Bible, Volume V (Matthew through John). http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc5.John.xiii.html From Matthew Henry’s Commentary. (I received a great deal of assistance with this sermon from this commentary.)