A sermon on John 12:1-8 by Nathan Nettleton, 25 March 2007
Extravagant devotion to the crucified Christ is the foundation of our compassion and care for other victims of the world's callousness.
While I was reflecting on tonight's gospel reading, and trying to work out what angle to take in preaching on it, one of my dogs started licking my feet. I'm fairly sure he had no intention of enacting anything to do with the bible story. He had no way of knowing that I was thinking about lavishing affection on someone's feet as an expression devotion. But there he was, doing just that. Apart form the fact that it sometimes tickles a bit, I don't find it difficult to accept this expression of devotion from a dog. Maybe it is me expressing the arrogance of the human species, but the obvious subservience of it seems okay from a dog. When we get to the foot washing rite in the Maundy Thursday liturgy, I am much more uncomfortable allowing another human to gently wash my feet. It seems too much. Why should anyone be putting themselves in such a position for me? Maybe the fact that I can accept it from the dog makes it even harder to accept from a person. It makes me feel like I am treating someone like a dog.
Unlike me, Jesus seems quite comfortable to receive this expression of devotion from another human. In front of others, Mary gets down on the floor and massages fragrant oils into Jesus' feet, and wipes them with her hair. What is it that enables him to accept this so willingly, and so seemingly unselfconsciously? Doesn't he feel like he treating her like a dog? Is he able to accept this because he has such an inflated opinion of himself that he expects people to fawn like puppies at his feet? Well, the gospel writer is not going to allow us that interpretation, because on the very next page we find Jesus down on the floor with a bowl and a towel, washing the feet of his gathered followers. He is as comfortable to do this for others as he is to receive it himself. Clearly this is not arrogance or haughtiness then. Rather, as he says to his followers after washing their feet, this is the way he wishes all people to treat one another.
When Mary massages his feet, it is not just a physically and emotionally extravagant gesture of devotion, it is financially extravagant too. It may be a bit of poetic hyperbole but John tells us this perfumed oil was worth about a year's wages. I don't know about you, but if the foot massage itself wasn't enough to make me squirm, having something outrageously expensive wasted on me would have me protesting for sure. I'd be up there with Judas at that point, making the protest. Judas thunders that the stuff should have been sold and the proceeds used for the relief of poverty. His view is quite simple: what we are on about here is overcoming poverty, bringing economic good news to the poor. We are not on about high cost extravagant displays of devotion.
Now I would imagine that Judas thought he was on pretty safe ground here. Jesus has had lots to say about money and about the plight of the poor. He has had plenty of harsh words to say about conspicuous wealth, and about putting money into things that don't have any lasting benefit. He has had much to say about the poor and about the importance of responding to their needs with care and compassion and generosity. So you'd think that Judas would be expecting a pat on the back from Jesus for the stand he's taking here. But Jesus is quite comfortable receiving this expression of devotion from Mary, even if it is financially extravagant.
Not only is Jesus okay with it, but the gospel holds up Mary's action as the model of getting it right, and contrasts it with Judas's outburst, which is the model of getting it wrong. It is an interesting thing about the way John's gospel constructs its story. In the narrative structure of the gospel, this story occupies the same place as the one in the other gospels where Jesus asks "Who do you say that I am?" and Simon Peter says "You are the Messiah." In that story, Simon Peter gets the dubious distinction of being both the one who gets it, and then a moment later when he objects to Jesus' prediction of his imminent suffering and death, the one who doesn't get it. But both these stories are crucial turning points in their respective gospels. They are where Jesus starts talking openly about the impossibility of his mission ending up anywhere other than with his conviction and execution. And they show us contrasting images of those disciples who get it, and those who try to argue Jesus into changing course and doing things some other way.
In commending Mary's action, Jesus offers a particular interpretation of it. He suggests that she is anointing his body for burial. In other words, she gets it. She is not fighting him like Peter and Judas, suggesting that he should find some other way, some way of triumph and defeating the enemies. No, she gets it. She sees that there is no other way. His championing of life for all in the face of the forces of death will inevitably have them turning their sights on him. His insistence that there are no insiders and outsiders, no clean and unclean, no worthy and unworthy, no deserving and unlawful non-citizens, can only end in provoking the fury and bitterness of those who maintain order and control by dividing and sacrificing. Such provocation will inevitably make him the one who needs to be sacrificed. There is no question of this in John's telling of the story, because the page before this incident, Caiaphas the High Priest has just told his cohorts that "it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed," and given orders that if anyone knew where Jesus was, they were to call the terrorism hotline and report him so he could be arrested. Mary gets it, and Jesus describes her loving foot massage as her knowing preparation of him for burial.
But why would Judas's plea on behalf of the poor be dismissed as "not getting it" ? Surely he too is on the right track in understanding what Jesus is on about? Well sort of, but not really. Judas's approach is turning care of the poor into a legalism that robs it of joy and drains the life out of it. "You can't do this. It's too expensive. You must think of the poor instead." It becomes simply a stifling burden, and when that happens, it soon ends up not happening at all. And what Judas is not seeing is that what Mary is doing is precisely where service of the poor in the name of God begins. For in lavishing her gifts in lovingly preparing the sacrificial victim for his burial, she is serving the poor. She is attending to the one who represents all the victims of the callousness and greed of this violent world.
Real service of the poor is always actual service of particular people. It is not just general distant do-gooding. And while there are times and places when we need to be sober and measured and careful so as to ensure that our resources meet the most urgent needs of as many as possible, most of the time, the gospel call to love others as Jesus loves us means to lavish whatever we have on those who are in front of us right now. Extravagant generosity to one might not bring an end to poverty, but it is a sign of new culture of God. And that's what Jesus was saying when he said "you will always have the poor with you." This is not a statement of resignation. He is not saying, "O well there is nothing you can do to end poverty, so don't worry about it." Rather he is saying you will never be without opportunities to serve the poor, so understand where true care and compassion begin. They begin in knowing the love and freedom of God. They begin in experiencing the freedom to respond in extravagant devotion to the one who would rather get himself nailed by the powers that be than allow the violence of their exploitation and impoverishing to go unchallenged. For it is when we truly grasp how extravagantly generous he has been to us, and how reciprocating that generosity to others - to the least of these my brothers and sisters - is actually showering our love and devotion on him, that we will find ourselves really growing in compassion and motivated to care for the needy and the victims of this world. It is from such a place of love and freedom that a lasting commitment to the ways of mercy and social service is born.
What we are doing here tonight is pretty extravagant, when you think about it. We are spending a couple of valuable hours expressing our love and devotion to the crucified and risen Messiah. We choose to do that in ways which are somewhat lavish and could perhaps be accused of being wasteful. Some might even say that spending two hours like this is wasteful when we could be in the streets and lanes doing something useful for people in need. But Jesus said it was Mary who got it, not Judas. But we'd better not be just hiding behind that either. Jesus affirmed her in her honouring of his pathway of the cross and her devotion to him as the one who carried the pain of all the broken victims, of all the poor and needy. And if we are getting it too, as she got it, then the apparent extravagance of our worship here will give birth to a compassion that takes flesh in the service of others.
As we gather at this table, it is Jesus who gets to his knees and washes our feet. Receiving the bread and wine, we receive his gifts of himself, lavished upon us with an abundance that these morsels can only hint at. And the proof that we "get it" will come when we are found on our knees, with bowl and towel, and with joy and freedom, lavishing the love we have received on the Christ we meet in the broken victims of a violent world. And at that point, the giving and the receiving all become one in Christ, for we too are the victims, and as uncomfortable as it might sometimes make us, others will serve Christ in ministering love to us. And while Jesus could say to Mary and Judas, "you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me" , now in the giving and receiving of his love in compassionate service of others, we find that the poor with us and Jesus with us have become one and the same thing, and no gift is too costly and no devotion to outrageous. Sometimes I think my dog gets that a lot better than I do, but here we are, recklessly entrusting ourselves to the one whose love and compassion alone can sustain the fires of justice and mercy until all the world is healed of its wounds and saved from its enemies.