When I was growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. We weren’t poor. We managed to live from pay-cheque to pay-cheque; there wasn’t much money left towards the end of the week. When the pay-cheques came, sometimes they didn’t quite stretch far enough to pay all the bills. So, unexpected expenses could mean trouble. The kind of trouble where your parents are so worried about how they are going to make ends meet that tensions run pretty high. If something broke, my Dad was the first line of defense. If Dad couldn’t fix it, hopefully he knew a guy who could fix it. The idea of calling a repair man, who would present us with a bill for his services was simply out of the question. When the do-it-your-selfers required a part that required actual money to get, well they’d have to figure out some way of making do. If it couldn’t be fixed for free, it stayed broke, cause we were broke.
When a car broke down, my Dad could fix it with chewing gum and nylons if he had to. There wasn’t much Dad couldn’t fix. But when something came along that Dad couldn’t fix, like a car that simply couldn’t go another mile without several hundred dollars worth of parts, well that could mean that Dad and Mom wouldn’t be able to get to work, to earn the money, to fix the car, or pay the rent. So, each and every time something broke there’d be hell to pay; especially if I happened to be anywhere near it when it broke. Blame was directly related to proximity. Worrying about money and the lack there of, meant that tensions ran high. To this day, Carol will tell you, if something breaks around the house, I get a little crazy. I forget that we have money in the bank and good credit, so calling a repair person is a real possibility. I forget that my car is under warranty, or that we can afford to fix the water heater, and if worse comes to worse we can liquidate some equity to put a new roof on our house. All these situations would have been a major catastrophe when I was growing up, and try as I might, when stuff breaks, I still panic. Some fears die hard.
I remember when I first moved into the parsonage, the dishwasher wasn’t working. Money was tight, I had big student loans that had come do. But I didn’t own the dishwasher, you all did and there was money in the budget for parsonage repairs. But it took me two years to get up the courage to call a repairperson. I’d never called one before and I was afraid that it would cost more than I could afford. Besides there was a perfectly good sink, and I had two good hands, a dishwasher is an extravagance. So, two years passed, and even though I used the parsonage for all sorts of congregational events, I never called a repair person. It wasn’t until our chairperson found out that the dishwasher wasn’t working and told me that not using it could be bad for the dishwasher in the long run that I mustered up the courage to call a repair person. The bill for the repair was just $35.00. I was so delighted that I paid it myself. Not because I should, it wasn’t my dishwasher, it was the church’s bill, I paid it because I could. In the grand scheme of things, a dishwasher is an extravagance, but it was oh so sweet to line those dirty dishes up and push a few buttons, and hey presto, clean dishes! What an extravagance!!!
When I read the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we can John’s story about the anointing of Jesus, the word extravagance comes to mind. Extravagance in the face of danger and poverty. Of all the stories that this anonymous gospel-storyteller could have told about Jesus, why did he tell this one, and why did he tell it the way that he told it? What is the storyteller trying to tell us about the character of Jesus?
I’ve studied this passage for decades and I’m still surprised at how full and lush, how extravagant the details of this story are. I’m also aware that most of those lush and oh so extravagant details are all too often lost on 21st century ears. We are not first century Jews, so the pungency of this particular extravagance can all too easily elude us. There are details that first century Jews would have been overcome by, details that we need to sniff out if we want to smell the pungent aroma of the spikenard that oozes, soothes, and anoints the feet of the one we claim to follow. This story has but a dozen sentences, but each and every sentence positively oozes with details; details that can open us to a kind of extravagance of our own. “Six days before Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, the village of Lazarus, whose Jesus had raised from the dead.”
Six days before the Passover. Every first century Jew would have understood that six days before the Passover, the biggest festival of the year, the roads and pathways would have been crowded with people heading to Jerusalem to celebrate. Jesus too would have been on his way to Jerusalem; Jerusalem, each and every one of the anonymous gospel-storytellers’ listeners would have known all too well what happened in Jerusalem. They like us, knew exactly what kind of execution awaited the political trouble maker. Bethany, a small town just outside of Jerusalem, six days before the Passover and we all know that Jesus will not be passed-over. Jesus will be just like a lamb to the slaughter, when the Romans are done with him. There will be no Exodus for Jesus, no blood upon the lintels to save him.
Six days before Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, the village of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Lazarus, with his sisters Martha and Mary are the only three people in the bible who earn the distinction of being named as people, “Jesus loved.” Lazarus, the rumors where ripe about Jesus raising Lazarus from the tomb. “There they gave a banquet in Jesus’ honour, at which Martha served.”
Martha served; they would have heard of Martha’s service before. But do not think of housework here, the Greek word, dioconia is used here. At the end of the first century the greek word dioconia is a technical term used to refer to church leadership. Martha at the end of the first century would have been a name that the story-tellers listens would have been familiar with because Martha was a leader among the followers of the Way. Martha presided at the Passover, the Passover Meal the most important Jewish religious ritual of the first century.
Mary brought a loud of costly ointment, pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair. Mary one of the three people in named in the bible as being loved by Jesus. Mary of Bethany, Jesus beloved, the woman the gospel-storyteller’s listeners would have remembered because Jesus praised her for concerning herself with Jesus’ teaching. Mary a student, a disciple of Jesus, interrupts the most important Jewish ritual of the year with a pound of costly ointment; a point of pure nard; spikenard, incredibly expensive, a whole year’s wages in the first century. Pungent, the smell would have been over-powering.
All eyes on Mary; a woman, her hair down, first-century listeners would have had something to say about a woman in the company of men, with her hair down. She lets her hair down, no honourable woman would do such a thing, and with the pungent smell of expensive spikenard permeating the room.
Mary proceeds to wipe Jesus feet with her hair. His feet, she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet. His feet, that would have sent tongues to wagging. In the Hebrew scriptures, the word for a man’s feet is often used as a euphemism for another, part of a man’s anatomy which, you simply would not refer to in polite company. Those first century listeners would have been wondering, his feet, does this story-teller mean Jesus’ feet, or does he mean feet? You know what I’m talking about??? “Feet.” A woman who Jesus loves, pours a year’s worth of wages, over Jesus feet, and then has the audacity to wipe the oil with her hair. Wait a just a minute, you mean to tell us, that she anointed Jesus feet with oil, his feet, in the middle of a religious ritual, his head maybe, people do that for kings, but not the feet. Only the dead have their feet anointed with oil. What is this gospel-storyteller trying to tell us about Jesus?
“The house was full of the scent of the ointment.” Nard is not the only thing that smells here. Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples—the one who was to betray Jesus—protested. Judas Iscariot, by the end of the first century the very mention of Judas Iscariot would have raised the hackles of any audience who knew of the execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans, the Romans who had by the end of the first century, executed tens of thousands in Palestine, destroyed the Temple, burnt Jerusalem to the ground, and sent each and every Jew into exile. The name Judas Iscariot had in just a few sort decades become synonymous with the word betrayer. Whether or not Judas Iscariot ever existed, or was simply, as our fiend Jack Spong teaches, simply a literary character designed to stand in for every betrayer who has every betrayed,
you can be sure that the gospel-storyteller’s audience would have perked up at the mere mention of Judas. Just imagine the audacity of this character, selling Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver, and here he is protesting the use of a costly ointment as if he cares about the poor. “Why wasn’t this ointment sold? It could have brought nearly a year’s wages, and the money given to the poor.” Even the gospel-storyteller can’t keep up the pretense when he adds: “Judas didn’t say this because he was concerned for poor people, but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the common fund and would help himself to it.”
All these centuries later, we can hear them sniggering, Judas worried about the poor indeed; pull the other one. It is at this point that the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call John, shows just what kind of storyteller he or she was when she/or he has Jesus say, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.”
We know that, Jesus is about to die, and Mary is doing what needs to be done, the problem is not the ritual, the problem is the extravagance of the ritual. “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.” Here’s the rub, pardon the pun. The gospel story-teller has Jesus, Jesus of all people say: “You have the poor people with you always. But you won’t have me.”
Jesus, the champion of the poor, can he really be saying don’t worry about the poor because the poor aren’t going away. Of course not!!! Jesus was, is, and forever shall be a Jew. The anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call John was Jewish. The first-century audiences would have been Jewish, or God-fearers, who were Jew’s in all but circumcision; the few Gentiles in the group would have been schooled in the Hebrew scriptures. What our 21st century ears rarely hear is the echo of the scriptures which would have sounded loudly and clearly to our first century ancestors. Remember, Jews learned their scriptures by heart. They could recite the words of Deuteronomy in the same way we can recite the words of commercials. So, hear what they would have heard, when the heard the words, “You have the poor with you always.” Hear the words of the 15th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that YAHWEH is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near.”and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing: your neighbor might cry to YAHWEH against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account YAHWEH will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
The poor you will have with you always, but you will not have me with you always. You know exactly what to do about the poor, enough said, take care of the poor. You know what you need to do about the poor. You have no idea what to do about me.
There’s the rub. How do we deal with Jesus? What are we to do about Jesus? Poverty and extravagance, two realities. What are we who claim to follow Jesus to do about poverty and extravagance?
Well I can tell you what were not supposed to do. We are not supposed to deal with the poor as if we don’t have enough to help the poor. All too often, we act as if we are poor ourselves, as if we can’t afford to help. We are among the wealthiest people on the planet and still we worry about whether or not we can afford to help the poor. We earn more than our ancestors could ever dream of earning, we have more than our forebears ever had, and still we want to pay less taxes, and spend less money for the common good. We live as if we scarcely have enough to get by let alone help a neighbour or follow Jesus into the streets to feed the hungry, and heal the sick. We have all been trained to worry and to be conservative, and to act like tomorrow it will all be taken from us. It is not in us to be extravagant. And yet, just look at the extravagance in Creation. Every single time I see a flower, I’m blown away by Creation’s extravagance, just one variety of flower would have been amazing, half a dozen varieties of flowers would have been wondrous, but the sheer number of varieties and colours is positively extravagant. We are surrounded by such beautiful pungent extravagant examples of the wealth of nature. Yes, we are called to be good stewards of all our many blessings. But we are also called to breathe deeply and feel the soothing healing balm that our blessings are. Yes, the poor will always be with us. But we know what we are supposed to do about the poor. So, let’s take care of the poor. We have more than enough to take care of everyone’s needs. We also have more than enough to breathe deeply of our blessings and be extravagant. Extravagant with the poor and extravagant with all those, who like Jesus won’t always be with us.
Extravagance doesn’t always cost money. Sometimes extravagance is about time. Sometimes extravagance is about talent. Sometimes extravagance is about listening. Sometimes extravagance is about the pure joy of loving and being loved. So, let’s be extravagant for Christ’s sake. Let’s be extravagant because as my dear old Nannie used to say, “You’re a long time dead!”
The gospel-storyteller reminds us that Jesus will not always be with us, and neither will you. Let it be said of us, that we were extravagant with the poor, extravagant with one another, extravagant with those we love and extravagant with ourselves. Extravagant for Christ’s sake! Amen!