The gospel reading for last Sunday was the story from Saint John of Mary, Martha and Lazarus entertaining Jesus. And Mary pours perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. Here’s what I said.
In the name of the Living God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m going to begin with a story – a true story. It is told by William G Carter , a Presbyterian Pastor from Pennsylvania. He writes:
I will never forget the furor sparked at a stewardship conference at which an ecumenical group of pastors gathered to discuss generosity. One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God, and the clergy began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.” The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching that [banknote] go up in smoke as if it were perfume. One whispered it was illegal to burn currency. Another was heard to murmur, “If he is giving money away, perhaps he has a few more.” “Do you not understand,” said the speaker. “I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.”
Today’s gospel is about burning money.
The story we have heard today, from the gospel of Saint John, is in my opinion one of the most shocking in the whole of the gospels. And shocking for three very good reasons.
I want you to try and think yourselves back into first century Israel. Try and imagine that you are the next-door neighbour of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. You’ve known them for years. Nice, respectable people. Somewhat unusual, perhaps, for two sisters and a brother to be living together at their age when they all ought to be married – but pillars of the community nonetheless. To be honest, you’ve never been quite sure about Lazarus since that business of dying and then coming out of the tomb, but he seems to have got back to normal. And here they are, entertaining this travelling preacher and miracle-worker that everyone has talked about so much. So being only human you are doing your best to see what’s going on – no curtain-twitching, of course, as people didn’t have them. But the door was probably open – that was the usual custom when having an important person as a guest so that passers-by could see and hear what was going on.
As usual, it’s Martha who is doing all the work. And just as you are wondering what Mary is up to, here she comes. And instead of just listening and talking with Jesus and Lazarus at the dinner table off she goes and does something extra-ordinary. She pours a jar of perfume over the feet of Jesus and then wipes them with her hair. Very easy to do as it was the custom to recline for a meal like this so Jesus’ feet would have been stretched out. Don’t get a picture in your head of Mary crawling around under the table!
Well – there you are watching this amazing scene – what on earth do you make of all this! There’s really only one reaction that you can have – you would have been deeply shocked by the events and by Jesus’ reaction to it all.
Well – the first shock is that all this is happening in the first place. Each of the four gospel writers records a story of a woman anointing the feet of Jesus and wiping them with her hair. And perhaps we have preconceptions about the kind of woman who would behave like this. It is Saint Luke who records that the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair was a notorious sinner. And given the culture of the time you’d quite understandably assume that any woman who behaved in this way was at the very least morally dubious!
But you need to get Saint Luke’s account right out of your mind. Saint John isn’t telling us about some unknown woman coming in off the street. This is Mary – the sister of Martha and Lazarus – a well-respected and well-off member of the community. And she’s behaving in a way that no self-respecting woman ought to behave. Perhaps we don’t, today, in our culture where so often it seems that anything goes, grasp just how deeply shocking this act would have been. A woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband – never anyone else. And as for letting her hair down and wiping the feet of someone to whom she was not married – I suspect that no-one there could think of a thing to say, so taken aback would they have been. Her reputation would never recover.
The nearest equivalent I can think of is the attitude 50 years ago when, if – to use the terminology of the time – a girl got herself pregnant (yes, I know it takes two, but that’s not how people saw it then) it was a quick marriage before anyone would notice. I can imagine people thinking of Mary: well, what’s she going to do now – she’ll have to marry him, no other man will want to marry a woman who behaves like that!
It seems that everyone is – quite understandably – speechless. And then comes the second shock. It’s Judas who manages to find something to say. John tells us how Judas is shocked not by the act itself but about the cost of the perfume. Now, John tells us that the only reason that Judas was concerned was because he was a thief – he looked after the money of Jesus and the disciples and used to steal it. That might be the case, but I reckon that if you were there looking in on this scene, that as soon as you heard how much the perfume was worth you’d be with Judas on this one. What a waste. Give the money to the poor where it can do some good.
Well, how much are we talking about here. More, I suspect, than you realise. We are told that the perfume could have been sold for three hundred denarii, three hundred pence. How does that equate to today’s money? A labourer earned one denarii a day so – allowing for the Sabbath – we are talking of a year’s pay for an ordinary working man. Given the average working wage today this perfume was worth the equivalent of twenty to thirty thousand pounds. Bearing in mind that most of that went on living, this perfume had probably cost Mary her entire life’s savings. Every penny she has, spent on a jar of perfume to pour over the feet of Jesus. Every penny she has – gone, in a moment. Judas probably had a point – just think how much could be done for the poor with that kind of money for the poor.
Now thinking back again – you’re the neighbour of Mary and Martha and Lazarus – and having got this far you now waiting with baited breath because you want to hear what Jesus is going to say. Presumably however respectable Mary might be Jesus is going to tell her off – no-one who is doing the rounds as a teacher and healer, claiming to be a man of God, is going to want to be associated with this appalling behaviour. But no, Jesus says not a word and lets her carry on. And then when Judas raises the question of cost and possible other uses for the money, presumably Jesus – who after all has talked a lot about this kind of thing – is at the very least going to say, “Judas, you might have a point there!” But no. He says “Leave her alone.”
Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
And that’s the third shock. Jesus does not condemn this dreadful behaviour, this apparent profligacy, but says very clearly that Mary has done a good thing. Far from reacting in the way that we might have thought any normal person would, he positively encourages Mary. And he finishes with those enigmatic words about his burial and those perhaps uncomfortable words about the poor. Uncomfortable because they seem to imply that on this occasion we can put the poor to the backs of our minds and think only of Jesus. You’ll always have the poor, he says – and you can help them anytime; sometimes, as now, it’s fine to give everything you have to me when you are are motivated for the right reasons.
I began with the story of the person who burned a $100 dollar bill for God – and how people reacted. Just think what your reaction would have been if you had watched Mary take out, in front of Jesus, thirty thousand pounds in fifty pound notes. And she says to Jesus, this is for you, and promptly sets fire to it. And Jesus says that’s fine. Thirty thousand pounds, her life’s savings, all she has, up in smoke. Her reputation in tatters. And Jesus says that’s fine.
A shocking gospel story – and perhaps the biggest shock of all is when we think about ourselves and wonder whether we could do the same and we start to feel a little nervous about the prospect, a little lacking in courage. And we realise that this is a challenge that, if we’re honest, we don’t want to face. I don’t mind admitting that I find this challenge almost impossible to contemplate – and yet this is a challenge for me, and for you – for each and every one of us. For the challenge that Saint John gives us is: are you like Mary or Judas? And much as we know that we ought to say ‘Mary’ we know deep down inside that what Mary has done defies common sense. For who on earth in their right mind would give up their reputation and their life’s savings for a single act of love and devotion that would be over in minutes.
Yet this is what Saint John leaves us with – the challenge to be like Mary, to give up all that we have and all that we are to Jesus, no matter the consequences, no conditions attached, no matter what people might say. Simply because we love him.
 William G Carter, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania – writing in Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2 (published by Westminster John Knox Press) about this gospel reading.