An Emotional Lent: Extravagance
March 21, 2010 Series: Lent 2010 - An Emotional Lent
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 12:1–12:8
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
“An Emotional Lent: Extravagance”
Back in the seventh or eighth grade, I remember getting ready to go to the big dance that our school would put on. Since these were one of the few boy-girl events that we’d had for our class, I wanted to make sure that I was prepared. How do you get ready for this kind of thing? You get the right clothes. You make sure your hair looks good. But you want to add something extra to the complete the overall effect, right? And what could be better than cologne! I wanted to impress the ladies, so I broke out a bottle that would be sure to please: Stetson. Inside this small glass container dwelled a scent that spoke of adventure, of confidence, of the untamed American West. So I sprayed on just a little bit. My dad, himself not being much of a cologne-wearer, had instructed me not to go overboard. But I thought to myself: “If a little is good, then a lot must be better.” And following that thinking, several generous sprays later, I was fully Stetson’d. Perfect! How could the girls not be impressed? My parents probably smelled me before they saw me turn a corner in the hallway. (In retrospect, I probably came across much like a fragrance-sample cards you’d find in a fashion magazine.) I don’t recall the dance going particularly well…
Extravagance: it is an unrestrained or fantastic excess of action or expenditure, as one definition put it. We’re usually pretty good at recognizing it when we see it. And today, our Gospel text presents an incident that is centered in an act of extravagance. Let’s take a moment to look at Mary, Judas, and Jesus, the three main players in the evangelist’s account of what happened in Bethany that day. What did they know about extravagance?
You’ve probably heard of Mary before. She and her family were friends of Jesus. She had been the one who chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen as he taught while Martha, her sister, was distracted with serving and attending to the needs of their guests. In John 11, not long before the event that we read about in today’s Gospel lesson, we heard how Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, had died, and how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead four days later. By the time that Jesus returned to Bethany, many other people had heard about what had happened – even talking with the once-dead Lazarus himself – so it makes sense that Jesus would be an honored guest. And on this day, the Saturday before what we know as Palm Sunday or the Sunday of the Passion, the people held a meal for Jesus. Sometime during the meal, while Jesus, Lazarus, the disciples, and the other attendees were reclining at the table, Mary takes this opportunity to perform her act of extravagance, anointing Jesus with an aromatic ointment. This ointment or perfume would have come from a plant that was native to northern India, so it was both exotic and exorbitantly expensive: this one jar would have been worth a whole year’s earnings for the average worker. (Imagine an eleven-ounce bottle of perfume that cost $60,000 to get an inkling of what this would have been.) We don’t know how Mary had obtained it; maybe their family was wealthy, or perhaps this was a family treasure that had been passed down from another generation. Either way, Mary pours it out on Jesus, and then humbly wipes his feet with her hair. As the fragrance of the perfume fills the house, the people attending this meal look on, amazed at what they are seeing.
At this point, Judas speaks up. If you’ve heard of Mary, I’m guessing that you’ve also heard of Judas Iscariot, the man who would soon betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. In questioning Mary’s action, Judas is probably expressing exactly what might have been going through the heads of the other witnesses: “Such waste! That wealth could have been used for so many other things!” This kind of extravagance would, no doubt, have seemed about as excessive as gold-plated toilets or $1,000 jeans might to us today.
But Jesus rebukes Judas. Perceiving the events to come in the week ahead, Jesus connects Mary’s fragrant offering with the preparation of his body for burial that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus would perform on Good Friday. We don’t have any evidence that Mary or anyone else understood that Jesus had to die before it came to pass on the cross. But like the high priest Caiaphas, who prophetically said that “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish,” Mary’s lavish action meant more than she could know. These friends of Jesus would not have him as they do for very much longer.
What motivated Mary’s extravagance? Why would she choose to give so much to honor Jesus in this way? If we look at her history with Jesus, I don’t think that it’d be too much of a leap to say that she knew who he was better than most others did: she had listened to Jesus teach, and she had seen him raise her brother from the dead, calling Lazarus out of his tomb! This Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God – no one else could have such authority. Given what Mary herself had witnessed, and how Jesus had returned her brother to her from the dead, isn’t Mary’s extravagance really the most proper offering? Seeing who Jesus is, Mary gave the best of what she had. In this instance she may have thought, “If a little is good, then a lot must be better,” pouring all of that precious perfume out in service, an unrestrained gift, to honor Jesus as Lord. What better thing is there than to be in Jesus’ presence, worshiping him?
So what about Judas and his reasons for speaking up, then? Though his words seem to express a pious and altruistic concern for the poor, the well-being of others is far from his mind. As John notes, Judas had been entrusted with the moneybag that the disciples would use to both pay for their expenses and give to the poor. However, he stole from that moneybag, using for himself that which was meant for others. A little here, a little there. And if a little is good, then a lot must be better. In Mary’s extravagance, he saw – and smelled – a world of wealth wasted, because he could not have it. He was like the hired hand who cared nothing for the sheep, only for himself. It’s almost as if Judas serves as a photo-negative to Mary’s attitude: though he has spent so much time in Jesus’ presence, he does not see Jesus as Lord, choosing instead to think of himself first. His extravagance focuses inward, unrestrained by cares for others, leading him to betray his responsibilities and, eventually, his Teacher.
Though it is only foreshadowed here, Jesus is the best example of one moved by extravagance that we will ever have. Throughout history, God had been faithful to His people: He brought the Hebrews out from slavery in Egypt and delivered them to the Promised Land; He brought victory against enemy nations; He sent the prophets time and time again to call the people back when they went astray. But all these things were comparatively little ways for God to be with His people. It’s almost as if God thought, “If a little is good, then a lot must be better!”, because He decided to be present in the most lavish way possible, being born as a baby through another Mary and living with us. And Jesus lived out His Father’s extravagant love by giving up his life on the cross, the most expensive gift that would ever be given.
More often than not, people today – us included – tend to be a bit like Judas. We might put on a good show, seeming to be concerned about the needs of others, when all the while we’re more concerned about our own well-being. This skewed “selflessness” shows up in how we use our time, our money, even our minds and bodies. Are we giving of ourselves or giving for ourselves? If we look at the ways in which we are extravagant in life, we’ll probably learn a good deal about what we find most important, for it is in the company of the important that extravagance like Mary’s would surface. Are we more like Judas than like Mary? Do we spend time in Jesus’ presence, even here in his house, but take it for granted? Do we miss the point of God’s selfless, unrestrained gift of Himself in Christ?
I have good news: God’s extravagant love is here for you today. Even now, it surrounds us like the fragrance of that precious ointment filled that house on Bethany. On the cross, Jesus paid the exorbitant price required to anoint you and me with that love. And now, Spirit moves us to extravagance in worshiping and honoring our Lord through acts of service. As God’s freed people, we can give of ourselves, rather than for ourselves, knowing that everything that we freely give in service – our time, our money, our minds and bodies – is given in Jesus’ name and to his glory, in thanks for the love that he has poured out on us.
As you look ahead in these last weeks of Lent to Holy Week and Easter, may you know and share our Lord’s extravagant love!