Lent 5c, March 13, 2016

March 14, 2016

Nard Times
John 12:1-8

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

I don’t guess dinner was ever ordinary when Jesus was on hand, but this dinner party was particularly poised for drama. We don’t know everyone that was there. It implies that there were several people on hand, but we know that it included Lazarus – who had recently been called back from the dead and out of the tomb by Jesus. And there was Judas – the disciple who was involved in the plot to send Jesus to his death. Martha was there to serve the dinner. And Mary was on hand to do the thing she seemed to understand better than anyone else – which was how to respond to Jesus in the most appropriate way possible.

Mary came forward with a pound of nard. Now I’ve never had any personal experience with nard, but those who have done the math on this would estimate that the value of that amount of nard was about a year’s worth of a laborer’s wage. If you think of that in our terms it would come to about $18,000.

Mary’s sister, Martha, was known for speaking her mind, and I think it’s worth noting that it wasn’t Martha who gave Mary a hard time for this unfathomably extravagant act. Along with her sister, Martha had come to understand the priceless value of the presence of Jesus. Jesus had brought her brother back to life, and she didn’t care how much nard her sister poured on Jesus’ feet. Martha got it. The presence of Jesus was worth everything. Mary and Martha both got it, but Judas didn’t.

Judas didn’t spare his thoughts about what Mary did, and he wasn’t happy about what she had chosen to do. According to John, Judas was disingenuous about his expressed concern for the way this valuable resource had been used. And this exchange highlights the extreme difference between the response of someone who loved Jesus and a person who was selfish and self-deceived.

Of course the last word came from Jesus, who identified what Mary had done as an act of great insight and devotion. But Jesus didn’t scold Judas as harshly as he could have. He didn’t expose Judas as the greedy traitor he would soon expose himself to be. He rather simply pointed out to him that he would have plenty of time to serve poor people after he was gone.

And he would be gone soon. According to this Gospel writer, the act of raising Lazarus from the dead was the last straw. The raising of Lazarus from death is what moved the chief priests and the Pharisees to plot his death. It’s not so easy for us to understand why this was such a scandal, but I think we do understand the way some people can become more attached to the way they want the world to operate than they are to the truth. The chief priests and the Pharisees and Judas chose to kill the very own Son of God because they didn’t want to hear what he had to say about the Kingdom of God. They were more interested in maintaining their own little kingdoms than in understanding what it meant to abide in God’s kingdom.

When these religious authorities realized that Jesus had come to redefine how people understood and related to God they were more intimidated by the consequences of what he was saying than captivated by the new possibilities that his words revealed. They could see what this was going to do to their carefully managed arrangement with the Roman empire, and that was what they were most interested in preserving.

In spite of all that Jesus had done to reveal his oneness with God they refused to trust that God was at work in his life. They had more concern about their own little empires than they had love for God, and this prevented them from being transformed by his miraculous work. They didn’t want dead things to come to life – it would ruin their operation.

I probably shouldn’t wade in to the toxic political environment that we are currently experiencing, but it probably serves as a good example of how ugly power-struggles can be. I’ll spare you my opinions about how we have arrived at this unfortunate place, but I just think it’s worth noting how ruthless people can get when the stakes seem to be so high. Candidates will say or do almost anything to win. And there’s no limit to how much some people will give in order for their candidate to get in to office. It’s not a pretty picture.

And what we’re witnessing helps me understand what was going on during those days leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. Powerful forces were coming up against each other. Some people were wanting to win at all costs. Some people were feeling like the world was spinning out of control. Somebody was going to die. The struggle was ugly, and Mary was moved to do something beautiful.

Has someone ever reached out to you with just the right thing at just the right time? Have you ever given a beautiful gift to someone who was ready to receive it? I’m guessing that none of us have ever had anyone rub $18,000 worth of nard on our feet. I doubt if any of us would list that as something we would one day hope to receive, but even small gestures can feel like such an outpouring of nard when they come to us at the right time and when they come with love. It’s not just the value of a gift that can make something so powerfully good – it’s the motivation, and the timing, and the context that blend together to turn our plain offerings in to invaluable quantities of nard.
One of the things that amazes me about what Mary did was her ability to not be drawn in and controlled by the expectations of the people who had gathered for that dinner. In some ways, what she did was absurd. Jesus certainly didn’t need that much nard to be poured on his road-worn feet, but in another way it made perfect sense. Mary wasn’t guided by the expectations of the people who were caught up in their own little agendas. Mary was living with nothing but sensitivity to the life of Jesus Christ, and it had become clear to her that Jesus probably wasn’t going to be coming back for dinner. There wasn’t any reason to withhold any nard.

But it takes effort to be a Mary in a world that rewards Judas’. Mary wasn’t particularly invested in the way things were going in Israel, but she wasn’t oblivious to the risk involved in being a true follower of Jesus Christ. Judas had clear words of condemnation for what she did, but she wasn’t distracted by the foolishness that surrounded her – she was focused on what was going on with the most important person in the room.

It may be that our biggest problem isn’t our unwillingness to be absurdly gracious in the most appropriate way. I like to think most of us are people who are more aligned with Mary and Martha than we are with Judas and the Pharisees. We aren’t advocates of agendas that are counter to the cause of Christ, but it’s pretty easy to be distracted from the most essential matters of our day.

My capacity to be oblivious to the most essential matter of the day became really clear to me several years ago when we took our daughter to college. Liza is our firstborn child, and she had decided to go to Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO. We got her all loaded up and we drove out there. We had made arrangements to stay in a hotel the night before we moved her in to her dorm. I remember sitting in that room watching some mindless tv before we went to bed that night. I was treating the situation like any other night until Sharla pointed out that it was the last night of our current living arrangement.

I wouldn’t have been much more startled if Sharla had hit me in the back of the head with a board. I went from being perfectly happy watching an Andy Griffith rerun to being in inconsolable grief. On some level I already knew what was going on, but I had allowed myself to maintain a safe amount of unawareness of what was about to happen. My awakening was painful, but I was so glad Sharla said something. I hate to think how I would have felt if I had remained unconscious of the significance of that moment.

I’m thinking it’s pretty easy for a lot of us to maintain unawareness about essential matters and significant moments. It’s not always fun to live with a lot of consciousness about important developments within our families, among our neighbors, and in this world. The truth is that it’s easy remain blissfully distracted. I think it’s always been possible to remain ignorant of the most important matters of the day, but these days we have so many ways to keep ourselves blissfully unaware.

I must admit I love being able to dial up an episode of Seinfeld whenever I don’t want to think about what might be going on in the world, but the devil is probably thrilled with our perpetual access to mindless entertainment. Of course even the act of staying informed can be an exercise in confirming what you already want to believe about what’s going on in the world. It’s not easy to be a person who really knows what’s going on and who responds in the most appropriate way. It’s not easy to be a Mary in a world that’s manipulated by Judas’ – people who have no interest in the truth and who seek to twist the most beautiful acts of generous love into foolish and wasteful gestures.

It’s not easy to be aware in a world that encourages us to remain ignorant and compliant. And it’s hard not to accept the easy answers that self-serving leaders are known to provide.

I’m not saying I know the tough answers or who the authentic leaders of our day really are, but those of us who claim to follow Jesus have a responsibility to seek the truth. Mary knew what to do when Jesus came to dinner because she wasn’t duped by the pseudo-religious leaders of her day. She was sensitive to the truth, and she knew to give all she had to the one she knew she could trust.

We don’t get endless opportunities to get fully caught up in holy moments. In fact it’s a rare gift to be positioned to act in a way that will fully reveal your love for God, for truth, or even for a neighbor. Those occasions are rare, but they happen, and when they do – don’t skimp on the nard!

Thanks be to God.


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