INTRO: Have you ever really splurged for the sake of love? Maybe it was a gift you gave, or an event you planned. Have you created no-going back moment that will either take you to a new place, or leave you way, way out on a limb. Ever been there?
OPENING: Today we get to overhear such a moment. Come with me.
Come with me, to Mary and Martha’s house. The oil lamps burn clear in the velvety twilight. Savory aromas waft in from the ovens. Our mouths water. The guests arrive in gladness. We are at a dinner party, a joyous celebration at the home shared by Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha.
They have cause for rejoicing; Lazarus, who died, now lives. As host he who was dead now presides at the table. Jesus sits next to him. His sister Martha, typically, is apparently out in the kitchen working too hard. Mary, typically, leaves Martha to the kitchen work while she herself basks in Jesus’ presence. Suddenly Mary excuses herself, she’s up to something, anyone can see that determined look in her eye. There she goes….
ASIDE: As we wait for her to come back, we should understand that Jesus not only restored the life of Lazarus, but in the process spared the lives of his sisters too. In that place women were not allowed to own a home or get a job. Had Lazarus died their home and living would have passed to the next nearest relative who would have been under no legal obligation to keep the house, or provide for the 2 sisters. Homeless and destitute, they would become easy marks for slave traders and worse. Jesus saved Mary and Martha no less than their brother.
Lazarus lives. Mary and Martha are safe. This is good. Yet the attention the resuscitation of Lazarus focused on Jesus caused his enemies to get deadly serious about putting an end to him. In less than a week, they will succeed.
In her possession Mary has a quantity of immensely valuable perfume called Nard. She keeps it in a flask, a litran, from which we get our word “litre.” Nard is made from an Asian herb related to what we know as Valerian. In the Old Testament Nard perfumes a bride and the bridal chamber on her wedding day. Some translations say Mary “bought” the nard, others that she “kept” it, perhaps as part of her own bridal dowry. However she came by it, Mary brings out her treasure for this occasion.
And here she comes. Mary enters the room holding a large flask carved from stone, maybe alabaster. She makes her way through the group of men reclining in the dining room, going directly to Jesus. That’s bold for a woman to do, she wouldn’t normally be in the room except to serve the food. What! She kneels at Jesus feet, She is opening the flask of nard and, oh this is unbelievable! She is actually pouring it over his bare feet, it’s literally dripping on the floor. Each drop more valuable than gold, and she’s pouring it out like water. Now she takes off her head-scarf, oh my, that just isn’t done, not at all. Oh my, she is using her unbound hair like a towel to wipe Jesus’ feet. Shocking, that’s the only word for it. The party goes silent. This woman has just poured away a fortune, enough to support a family for a year, it’s soaking into the floor, leaving behind only the heavy scent that will cling to Jesus for days to come.
II. Interpretation: That Splurge wasn’t in anybody’s playbook. The intimacy and the intensity of Mary’s action would make most people stare at the floor and squirm. Guests are wondering “What is she doing? Why isn’t somebody stopping her?” As the heady fragrance fills the house it seems no one knows what to say or do.
Singer-songwriter Billy Joel might croon “Leave a tender moment alone,” but not Judas. He who will be remembered for betraying Jesus with a kiss here objects to Mary’s display of affection. She just poured out the worth of a YEAR’s work for a minimum wage laborer. Crazy! Judas may have been crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but I can sympathize a little. In an awkward social vacuum somebody has to say something, right? Judas’ problem was that he followed the money and lost track of the love.
Jesus didn’t have that problem. If Mary’s gratitude and joy move her to splurge recklessly, who are we to fault her for it? Jesus suggests that Mary’s act has achieved a greater purpose that perhaps she intended, preparing for his burial. Jesus speaks quite gently to Judas, and to all of us who wonder if Mary’s apparent recklessness sets a dangerous precedent.
When Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you,” he in no way diminishes the imperative of care for the poor. Years ago, after I delivered what I imagined was an especially stirring sermon against hunger, the president of that congregation rebuked me, saying “Jesus said ‘the poor you shall always have with you,’ it’s not up to us to try to change that.” Maybe Jesus had in mind Deuteronomy 15:11 which commands generosity toward the poor precisely “since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” The effect of Jesus’ words is to show us that in faith and in love, there is a place for BOTH devotion and discipline.
The specter of Jesus’ death makes an outrageous splurge like Mary’s strangely appropriate. Like all the best gifts, it emanates from love and expresses understanding about the deepest needs of the other.
III. Application: Mark Skinner reminds us that the gospel writer has another point to make. For John, Mary’s splurge and Judas’ response contrast true and false discipleship, as well as true and false love. John creates a clear opposition between Judas and Mary. He is false; she is true. His critical stinginess contrasts with her lavish devotion. John warns against mistaking discipline for discipleship. John shows us an example of loving devotion that is nothing less than the costly, precious gift of one’s whole self—down to every last strand of hair.
That’s what makes this a real Splurge. There are things we call splurges things we buy because we feel down, or angry, or merely overlooked. At those moments Retail Therapy eases the pain, for a moment. There are splurges we make because the people who seem to be in a position we want to be have that kind of boat, own a vacation condo there, are seen at those sort of parties and events. Mary, by contrast, doesn’t care what anybody thinks. She holds nothing back.
Have you been there? Have you created no-going back moment that will either take you to a new place, or leave you way, way out on a limb? If you have ever really put yourself out there, with nothing held back, you were probably terrified. What if she doesn’t want me? What if he thinks I’m ridiculous? What if the almighty board members laugh me out of the room and ruin me?
If you have ever put yourself out there you know what it’s like. But you did it. Even though you were terrified, you moved from fear to love. Whether it was love of a single person, or love of a cause or an ideal, you splurged and put yourself on the line. In this scripture Jesus prepares for the greatest splurge of all time. Mary’s small splurge with the perfume helped him get ready. In Jesus’ life and death God went all out, held nothing back. God splurged.
If you have ever put yourself out there for love, you know the risks. Maybe it will be laughed off. Maybe it will be rejected. Maybe it will be ignored. Maybe the beloved will shrug with disgust and walk away. That’s precisely the risk God took when pouring out his life for us. It’s the risk God took when, in the person of Jesus, God took up a cross and allowed himself to be hung on it until dead. It’s the risk God still takes, with each and every one of us, every day. To be loved like that can change a person’s life in a million wonderful ways. We want that love…But honestly, being loved like that can also be pretty hard to take. Since God has put everything on the table, we dare not show up with less than out whole selves, right? But most of us naturally shy away from putting our whole selves on the line. Most of us shy away from saying God, I am totally yours, every moment, every breath, every dime, all yours. It still scares me sometimes. I’m still moving from fear to love. But here is the truth: In God there is no fear. In God there is only love, and it is for you.
God’s put it all out there, nothing held back: what are we going to do? It’s our move.