Sermon: Grateful, Generous, Gallant, Greathearted
Text: John 12:1-8; Mark 14:6-9
Date: March 10, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Think of a number between one and ten million. I’ll narrow it down for you: What number represents roughly one year’s income for you? I presume it’s somewhere between one and ten million dollars. Do you have the number in mind? Ok, turn and share it with the people seated around you….just kidding. I don’t want to get run out of town on a rail by violating a sacred principle of polite capitalist society.
Back to the (top secret) number. The reason I asked you to call that number into consciousness is that the fragrant oil Mary poured out on Jesus in today’s scripture reading was so expensive it would have cost the average laborer a year’s wages. So take your number, one year’s income, and suppose you own a bottle of fragrant oil that cost whatever your year’s income is. Can you imagine pouring it all out on somebody’s feet? Even Jesus’ feet? Or suppose you took your year’s wages and spent it on a really fine bottle of wine that you’re going to open up at this dinner party for Jesus? There was a 1947 Cheval-Blanc that sold last year at auction for $304,000—and that was only the second most expensive wine of 2018. Can you imagine serving it, and enjoying the process?
It would have to be a rather special occasion, even if you’re obscenely wealthy, to pour out something so expensive–to pour it out to the last drop, all at once. It was a grand gesture. Was it a special occasion? Mary certainly thought so. In John’s telling of this story (a story recounted in some form in all four gospels) the setting is a dinner party. Presumably the party is hosted by a family Jesus loves—in the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Judas is the only disciple named but he probably wasn’t the only one. It’s probably a house full. Lazarus is at the table with Jesus and Martha is in her element, serving the guests. We don’t know whether Mary was reclining at the table with the menfolk, but we can certainly picture her in the room. I can see her gazing at her beloved brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had brought back from the dead, her eyes filling with tears as she contemplates the stunning miracle of having him back at their table after they thought all was lost. She sees Martha put a platter of lamb down in front of Lazarus and give him a kiss on the cheek as she leans toward the table; Martha’s so delighted to be feeding him again. Mary glances at Jesus, who seems happy to be here, but also burdened by what’s ahead. There’s an invisible weight on his shoulders. He must know about the rumors going around—the Temple leaders had plans to kill him and were looking for information as to his whereabouts. Would this be the last time he would be free to dine with his friends?
Mary takes it all in. Can you imagine the tide of emotion she must have experienced at this table, this moment when life and death were hinged together, when love and gratitude and fear and grief and joy were all swirling around the room for those sensitive enough to perceive it? Mary feels she must do something or burst. She dashes to her room to fetch the spikenard oil, and pours every last drop onto Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with the soft fullness of her hair. The whole house is perfumed with the fragrance.
Some notes I found on a Thomas Long lecture on this text say that we can see this dinner party scene as a Kingdom of God scene. In the gospel of John’s theology, the Kingdom of God is pulled like a canopy over ordinary time. One might see the Kingdom of God as something above us, being pulled down into the present like a sewing machine needle bringing down a thread from above the cloth; the Kingdom of God comes down into the here and now. Being faithful in John’s gospel is seeing what others don’t see, as the Kingdom is thrust into ordinary time by the revelation of Jesus. Where they see water, you faithful see wine; where they see a funeral, you faithful see the Resurrection and the Life. The gospel of John wants you to wear spiritual bifocals, to see ordinary life and eternal life as well.
The dinner table in John 12 is a Kingdom of God scene—the dead are raised, Jesus is the host, people of faith are serving, Mary is adoring. If you have ears to hear, listen; if you have eyes to see, look. The story adds another sensual dimension: if you have a nose to smell, sniff it. The sweet aroma of God’s kingdom is filling the house. It’s wafting through dimensions of time and space; it’s bringing a whiff of death and life together in the same scent.
Judas is operating only at a worldly, mundane level in this story. He’s not seeing/hearing/smelling what’s really going on at a transcendent level. He’s fixed and frozen in the current economy and the present moment. He’s so taken up with dollars and cents that he misses what is of infinite value. He’s so taken up with common sense that he can’t perceive the dimension of vast love and power that is on display right in front of him in the dynamic between Mary and Jesus. He’s watching this prophetic symbolic act and is probably thinking “girl germs” and “female foolishness.” We know it won’t be long before he betrays Jesus to the authorities. Greed might play into the betrayal since he receives some money, and this story paints Judas as greedy as well. But it seems to me that behind the betrayal must have been a deep sense of disappointment in Jesus—Jesus wasn’t militaristic enough, or swift enough, or politically astute enough, or something. At any rate, Judas does not appear to be feeling grateful for Jesus at this point. He’s lost faith in the promise of Jesus’ ministry somewhere along the line.
Judas is portrayed in contrast to Mary here, with Mary representing the ideal disciple. Even the thickest person can perceive that Judas is not, at this juncture, the ideal disciple. Rather than go into more of his limitations, let’s take a look at four of Mary’s qualities in this story that disclose excellence in discipleship—four “G” words. The first trait we notice in this story is “Grateful.” I mentioned before that a form of this story of a woman anointing Jesus appears in all four gospels, and while there are differences, the gratitude of the woman doing the anointing is apparent in all the recollections. Each woman is wanting to demonstrate gratitude to Jesus for something he has done or someone he has been for them. Forgiveness of sin is featured in Luke’s setting of this story; Matthew and Mark’s versions don’t reveal either the identity or the particular motivation of the woman. Somehow we know, though, that Jesus has made a deep impression on the woman, has done or said something remarkable that changed the course of her life. For Mary, she has Jesus to thank for bringing her brother back to life. In another gospel’s story of Mary, Jesus affirms her curiosity and her right to lay down the dust cloth and listen to what he has to teach. We don’t know what all Jesus might have given Mary and/or the unnamed woman who anoints him, but we can sense the depth of their gratitude.
The second “G” word is one you can guess based on what a big deal is made over the expense of the fragrant oil—“Generous.” I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that a jar of this pricey oil was meant to be doled out in dibs and dabs at the burials of loved ones or other occasions where this rich fragrant oil was needed. Perhaps it was meant to last for years. To pour out every last drop in a moment was generous to the point of outlandish extravagance. One of the common features of the way this story is recounted in the four gospels is that someone in each is appalled by the extravagance of the oil being poured out all at once. The men choking on the woman’s generous gift all wish she had held something back, either for good or nefarious purposes.
Jesus defends her generosity in each telling of the story. He refers to a verse from Deuteronomy in answer to their objections—one of the best remembered and most often quoted gospel verses ever, I suspect: “You will always have the poor with you.” It’s extremely ironic that some folks to this day use this as a cover for not being generous with people living in poverty; Jesus would be rolling in his grave if he was in a grave. The verse to which he refers is in no way a blanket excuse for being parsimonious; it says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” [Deuteronomy 15:11] Jesus was generous to poor and rich alike in his ministry. He wasn’t trying to tell people not to be generous. I believe he was trying to say that his time on earth was limited, as everyone’s time on earth is limited, and doling out what we have to share in dibs and dabs is not necessarily faithful discipleship. There are occasions for letting go of what we have without counting the cost, without worrying about saving some for the future, because the moment for pouring out what we have in wild, abandoned generosity is NOW. There is often transcendent, holy joy in such giving that can’t be experienced fifty cents at a time.
Those of us who have been following the story of kidneys being given and received in this congregation in recent weeks have caught a little whiff of the joy that comes from donating an organ for the benefit of another, be it friend or stranger. Talk about pouring something priceless out, giving away a living part of yourself! One member gave a kidney to the exchange out of love for and respect for her friend, who also happens to be a part of our faith community. Hers wasn’t a match for him, so hers went to another person whose kidney was failing while he received one from a stranger named Stevie. Stevie is an “altruistic donor;” that is, he didn’t have a friend or relative in mind when he gave his kidney. He had been inspired by stories of other people who donated kidneys, and was aware that an average of 12 people die each day waiting for a kidney transplant. His account of his decision and experience is humble, practical, and suffused with joy. Joy is written all over our sister Wendy as well, before, during and after her operation. Both kidney recipients were, of course, deeply touched by these donors’ gestures of generosity–just as Jesus was deeply touched by the gift of fragrant oil he received. He didn’t say, “It’s too much.” He just received what was given to him, no doubt with gratitude, and affirmed the generosity that is an essential part of faithful and joyful discipleship.
We’ve noticed that Mary, portrayed as ideal disciple, was Grateful and Generous. There’s a third quality I want to lift up: she was Gallant. I admit I came up with that word “Gallant” because I like playing with words and I wanted to find another “g” word. I had to pause and wonder if a woman could be said to be gallant since it’s most often associated with manly men like knights of the round table acting all courtly. But it means brave and heroic, so of course it applies to women as well as men. Here’s what I think was especially gallant about Mary’s action: she’s facing Jesus’s death with him. She’s looking death squarely in the eye with her friend Jesus, knowing his hour is drawing near, not flinching. Jesus says the oil she poured out was for his burial, but she’s using it now to honor him.
There’s gallantry in acknowledging the inescapable approach of death and facing it bravely, whether it’s your own death or the impending death of a friend. Jesus was irritated or downright angry with the disciples on occasions when he tried to tell them his life was to be forfeited and they argued with him or refused to face it. Here Mary is doing the opposite. One scholar I read said the only reason you anoint feet with fragrant oil in that culture is at a burial. This action of hers could be interpreted as her saying “I know what’s about to happen, and I see you and love you, and I am not going to hide from the hard truth. I’m going to accompany you in facing this hard truth.” She will not be crucified with him but she will not leave him to wrestle with his fate alone while others deny and hide. That’s gallant.
Mary appears to share Jesus’ faith in the resurrection, faith that what he will endure will not be the end. Such faith makes facing death easier, but not easy. Still, I imagine Jesus needed friends who shared his faith that God would conquer death somehow while he was in his waning days. There’s another word under “courage” I found while unearthing “Gallant”—“Greathearted.” That synonym speaks to me of more than courage; it speaks of a heart big enough to hold faith in the very face of death and other human limitations. Greathearted suggests room for possibilities other than what can be seen with the eye, mysteries underlying the evident world. Mary seemed to have that “G-word” going for her as well.
The synoptic gospels all conclude this anointing story with a promise that wherever the good news of the gospel is shared, the story of the woman who pours out her gift of oil will be told in memory of her. Paradoxically, her name is forgotten in three out of four gospels. Such oversights are all too common; probably why we call it “history” rather than “herstory.” But we can take that promise, that what she did will be told where the good news is proclaimed, as a signal that true discipleship is on display in this dramatic act. The ideal disciple is grateful, generous, gallant, and greathearted. Her story may inspire our stories as disciples today, moving us to gratitude, generosity, gallantry, and greatheartedness. What stories, I wonder, will be told in memory of us, of our generation of disciples? May the stories of our lives be fragrant, redolent of love that fills the house and wafts out into the wide world.