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Places of the Passion: Bethany

March 6, 2022 Speaker: Rev. Jack Meehan Series: Lent 2022: Places of the Passion

Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 26:6–26:13

The First Sunday in Lent

March 6, 2022

Matthew 26:6-13

 “Place of the Passion: Bethany”

In 1987, a Danish film was released entitled, “Babette’s Feast.” This movie told the story of one of the most talented chefs in Paris, a woman named Babette, who was forced to flee her home and work because of the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s. She sought refuge in a Danish fishing village, working as housekeeper for two elderly and very religious sisters. The whole community is filled with hard-hearted people whose lives are narrow, rigid, and cold. Their lives are all about getting; getting ahead, getting even. Babette serves as their maid and cook, but the villagers only want her to serve bland and tasteless food because that’s all they know. That, of course, is symbolic of their very lives. One day, Babette receives word that she has won a lottery in Paris, and in celebration she cooks a feast – a real feast, such as the people of the village had never experienced. Gourmet food, rare delicacies, excellent wine – all are Babette’s gift to the community. Old grudges and arguments are released through this experience. Past sins are forgiven. And when the evening is finished, everyone troops outside under the stars, join hands, and sings the Doxology. Babette, the outsider, had opened up these people to the joy of giving, rather than getting. She gave extravagantly and joyfully. In fact, Babette had spent all of the lottery money on the feast – not just a portion of it, but all of it. And in so doing, she closed the door to her own future. Now she could never return to Paris or her life as a chef there. That is Babette’s feast, in which she gave all. Today we hear about another person who gave extravagantly and joyfully. Today we meet the Babette of the Bible: Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anoints Jesus. Our Lenten series, “Places of the Passion,” takes us to Bethany. Week by week, we follow Jesus to the different places of his Passion that culminate in his suffering, death, and resurrection. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.

Jesus is now in Jerusalem, and the final week of his earthly life has begun. It is Passover week, and at this festival, the population of Jerusalem, normally around 30,000 swelled to six times that number – up to 180,000 people all coming together. There simply wasn’t enough room within the city itself, and so many people stayed in outlying areas, like Bethany, only about two miles from Jerusalem. Jesus is here staying at the home of Simon the leper. He wasn’t a leper anymore, but had been healed of his disease. Jesus and his disciples come to dinner, and so does Mary. Women didn’t join men to eat; they ate separately. And yet, there is Mary, the Babette of the Bible, who will teach us about what it means to give.

Matthew’s account of this doesn’t name the woman, but John’s Gospel does (John 12:3). She is identified as Mary who comes with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment. Her mission is to honor Jesus; to give a great gift out of her great love for him. Again, Matthew’s Gospel does not specify the ointment or its cost, but John’s Gospel does. It is pure nard, imported from India, and its cost was the equivalent of an entire year’s income. In today’s economy, the average annual salary in the Washington, D.C. area is $69,315 (Average Annual Salary in Washington, DC ($69,142 Avg | Feb 2022) - ZipRecruiter). Would you do that? Pour out a $70K bottle of perfume?  Mary does two extraordinary things: she pours out the entire contents of that very expensive perfume with total abandon. Without a doubt, this is the most valuable thing she has, but she freely opens it and empties it. The second thing Mary does is to pour all of it on Jesus’ head. The only people in the Old Testament whose heads were anointed were kings. Do you see the connection? By her action, Mary is acknowledging that Jesus is the King, over against all the pretenders to kingly power and authority. That is the main message of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2:2; 21:5), and will be the message that is posted above Jesus’ head on the cross: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). But the crown that King Jesus wears on the throne of the cross is not gold, but thorns. This is a different kind of king; One who has come not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45); One gives his life for the sake of his people. Mary understands that King Jesus came to give, not get, and she responds by giving him this great gift of love.

There is a stark contrast between Mary and the disciples that emerges here. She is generous and extravagant; over the top. The disciples are indignant and miserly. Mary sacrifices financially while the disciples contribute nothing. Mary shows her faith with action. The disciples talk a good game – giving money to the poor – but there’s no action; no follow-up. Mary is all about giving and the disciples are all about getting. What about us? Are more about getting than giving?

All of this leads to the cross, as Jesus makes clear to his misguided disciples and to us: “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial” (Matthew 26:10-12). Jesus knew where he was going: to his own suffering, death, and burial. Even before he was born, this was clear, as the angel spoke to Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And in that final Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples, his words come down to us today in the Lord’s Supper: “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Through the shedding of his own blood Jesus has saved us from our sins. Jesus continues to give that gift to us today as he comes to us in his holy Supper so that we may be encouraged and strengthened to give rather than get.

The sense of smell is powerful and connects to the emotional part of our brain. Words go to the thinking part of our brain, but smells can stir in us very powerful emotions, causing us to be transported back to experiences and memories of long ago. You may have experienced this in your own life. The lingering smell of that sweet perfume which Jesus received from Mary must have stayed with him through much of the week ahead – Holy Week – as he makes his way to the cross to give himself as the once-for-all sacrifice for each and every one of us. Jesus’ words remind us about Mary’s giving: “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13). And so it is still today, reminding us that the kingdom of God isn’t about hoarding and stockpiling. The kingdom of God is not being chintzy or cheap. The kingdom of God  isn’t about getting. It’s all about giving: Jesus giving himself to us, and we giving ourselves to one another in Jesus’ Name.

Mary, the Babette of the Bible, shows us that lavish, generous, joyful giving is never forgotten. Such giving, in whatever form it may take, flows out of Jesus’ giving his very life for us, and has the power to change lives, and thereby, to change the world. May it be so with each one of us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

More in Lent 2022: Places of the Passion

April 17, 2022

Places of the Passion: The Garden Tomb

April 15, 2022

Places of the Passion: Golgotha

April 14, 2022

Places of the Passion: The Upper Room