A sermon preached on Monday of Holy Week by Graham Low on 3rd April 2023
This morning’s passage from John’s gospel is rich in symbolism, in the ways of family and community relationships, reflections on wealth and the poor, on the truth, and on the path that Jesus will follow in the coming days.
A word first about anointing of people or things, usually with oil, within some kind of liturgical setting. This has been a feature of many religions over millennia. It is chiefly used either to bring about healing or restoration of a person who is sick, or suffering in some way, or, to effect the consecration or sanctification of a person or an object, setting them aside for a holy purpose. Thus we often anoint people before medical procedures. And we anoint people at their ordination as priests, or when they become a king or queen, or in baptism. In each case there is an important setting aside for holy activity. And we also anoint church buildings when they are new, and we anoint altars when they are new, again, setting them aside for holy purposes. The oils used are usually fragrant, using many different and sometimes costly spices and other agents. The oil to be used at King Charles’ coronation is a particular example. And there is a very old tradition that holy oils are generously and even extravagantly used.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus has come for a celebration meal in the house of Lazarus, who he has recently raised from the dead. Martha serves the meal while, in the middle of the meal, her sister Mary extravagantly lets her hair down and begins to use it to anoint Jesus with highly costly and fragrant oil, thus setting him aside for the holy purposes he is to follow in his passion and eventual death. It is an audacious, even scandalous, act of love and thanksgiving. The house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume, an emphasis which perhaps is intended to contrast with the stench from Lazarus dead body a few days earlier. And the use of an extremely large amount of oil is similar to the very large amount of water turned into wine at the Wedding in Cana. Until now we may imagine that this is an intimate and happy occasion. And we see the close relationship between Jesus and Mary.
But suddenly the mood changes. Judas reacts with hostility to Mary’s attitude and posture. “What a waste of money. Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii – about a years’ wages in those days – and the money given to the poor?”. The other disciples look on with embarrassment, but Jesus’ comment to Judas is telling and prophetic. Even though they are in Bethany (which means house of the poor), and even though Jesus often spoke about the poor, it seems that Jesus believes that his coming death will be the action through which the world as a whole, and including the world of poverty, will be put to rights. We who live beyond his death and resurrection still face a world of poverty and crippling debt, and wonder how the world has still not put things right. We may ask what part the church has played, or failed to play in this.
The stand off between Mary and Judas is a prompt to each of us to ask: where are you in this situation?
Are you with the shameless Mary, worshipping Jesus and risking the wrath of her sister who has done the hard work, or the onlooking men who don’t quite trust their feelings when a woman lets down her hair in public, or the sneer of Judas who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing?
Or are you with the apparently cautious, prudent and reliable Judas, as he must seem to most present, looking after the limited resources of the group to keep them going as well as giving to the poor? Even at the last supper it seemed possible that Judas left the meal to give something to the poor. We need to put ourselves aside from our natural inclination to distance ourselves from Judas. Even at that that last moment none of the other disciples had suspected him of treachery. Is there something of Judas as we glance in our own mirror?
Or are you back in the kitchen with Martha? If that is where you are, how do you feel about both Mary and Judas? And how do you feel about Jesus and what he said?
As we make our way with the key figures in holy week, may they lead us to new understanding of our inner lives. And so may we find time this week to renew ourselves by setting ourselves apart, by aligning ourselves more closely with Jesus in his passion and resurrection. Amen.