Precious in the Sight of the Lord

I have a favorite Aunt. Her name is Kitty. I actually should say, I had an Aunt Kitty because she died, bless her soul about 10 years ago. She was a faithful person—to our God and to her family and to her neighbors. Kitty was the last member of the family in that generation. She was, as we in the family said, on top of the heap.

One of the rewards for outlasting her parents (my grandparents) her sisters and her beloved husband, is that she became the repository of all the family photos, the table linens, tea pots, china and glass ware. She cherished it all because each piece had a special meaning. Each was attached to a memory. As her life began to dim, she marshaled her pragmatic self In order to begin the process of dividing her property among her many nieces and nephews.

Kitty wanted me to have the American pressed glass ware, assorted water glasses and matching bowls. I had always admired them behind the glass cabinet in her dining area. Kitty’s words were plain spoken, “Now, Deborah I want you to have these but you must not use them.” I am sure she thought I would smash every single piece the minute I use them but then I remembered that I never her use them either. They were precious and not for use.

So Jesus has come to the house of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, in the town of Bethany— that is just over the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. The days of Jesus are numbered, he knows this. Very recently Jesus had called Lazarus from the tomb where he had been buried for four days. It was a real headliner in Bethany and throughout Jerusalem it was the talk of the Temple perhaps the scandal of the hour. To the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Roman potentates, by raising Lazarus from the dead Jesus has graduated from the category y of “manageable nuisance” to “serious threat.”

The purpose of Jesus’ visit in Bethany is not stated but we know that that Martha and Mary and Lazarus are close friends. He is there with his disciples having come down from the Galilee in the north. The Evangelist is very specific, it was 6 days before the Passover—before Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the feast and, we know the rest, the arrest, the trial and the crucifixion.

Most likely Jesus and his disciples have come to Bethany For a rest and have a good meal that—And we can assume that Martha is in the kitchen putting together plates of humus, flat breads, yogurts and olives—perhaps a chicken or two.

Then, as the aroma of warm bread from the kitchen mingles with the human smell of travel, the scent of spikenard fills the room—a sharp scent halfway between mint and ginseng. It is the aroma of perfume let loose from the jar that Mary is holding. Then, the most amazing thing takes place. I think it might have taken a few seconds for the men in the room to register to what Mary was doing for in so many aspects it was bizarre. Mary had uncorked a jar of perfume paste and knelt down to wipe the feet of Jesus, not with a cloth, not with her hands, but with her hair. In this fleeting instance she does four remarkable things in a row.
First she loosens her hair in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does. Then she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which is also not done. The head, maybe–people do that to kings–but not the feet. Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet—also not done, not even among friends.
Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair-totally inexplicable–the bizarre end to an all around bizarre act.
Here is another bizarre piece to this story. Rather than any of the men in the room expressing horror at what is taking place, rather, than Martha flying out of the kitchen rebuking her sister, as she is prone to do, we have Judas stepping forward with a critique on the ill use of the perfume “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for a whole lot of money and given to the poor?” That’s what Judas wants to know.
And, least we forget, the evangelist, as an aside, reminds us that Judas didn’t give a fig for the poor, he just wanted the money for himself.

That being said, here is Jesus behaving also in an uncharacteristic way. Jesus has been consistently teaching about God’s love for the poor. The Kingdom message of justice and mercy and love is the core of Jesus’ preaching. And, here is Mary rubbing his feet with perfume so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year. Here is the champion of the poor, always putting their needs ahead of his, suddenly reversing course. And Jesus brushes Judas aside.
“Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”—which is just as odd a thing for him to say as what Mary did. Do we have here a question about the right use of economics?
Jesus has an answer to this question and he does so in the total acceptance of Mary’s actions, far from not caring for the poor, this is a gesture of passion, perhaps a wordless prophecy of what is to come in 6 days time and about what is. There will be nothing economical about this man’s death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life. In him, the extravagance of God’s love is made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest.

In this moment of anointing, Mary has filled the air with the precious scent of love that pushes the edges of propriety. Without reservation about what the others will think of her, she lavishes blessing in a way that is not in the least bit dignified but is motivated by her passion for Jesus—wordless and intimate. She gave it all to her Lord.

Mary has left me asking, what do I offer Jesus? How much do I give? Just a little? just enough to spare? What does Mary’s costly perfume represent? Is it my time, my money, my compassion, my talents, my honesty? What is it that so precious that it stays locked away to be viewed by my inner eye but not used?

Moving forward as we are into Holy Week, this line of questioning perhaps is at the center of our prayers. What do we offer in return for what we have been given? God’s own self, offered up for us, ushers us into a new creation, into a freedom to love and to be loved; Each of our lives precious in the sight of God.

Just think of it! If each of us carries the image of God implanted in us through our baptisms Then are we not called to express that image of the Almighty to one another in the various ways we are called to live.

So, take those glasses down from behind the cabinet door and Bring them out and put them on the table for your guest to use. Some of them might get broken—that’s life. But a life in Christ calls for some extravagance—to proclaim the amazing gift that Jesus Christ has gifted to us—not a life to be put behind a cabinet door but brought out Used and cherished In every manner and in every manner and being of our lives.

Lent 5, 2016 – Rev. Deborah M. Dresser

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