Dr. Bob Bushong
Senior Pastor/Minister of Preaching
March 21, 2010
In the city of Boston is a memorial to the Holocaust. On one of the clear plastic walls
of the memorial, built in a corridor that runs for about a city block, is a moving story
attributed to Gerda Weissman Klein, Jewish Holocaust survivor and acclaimed author.
Gerda experienced first-hand the horror of the German concentration camps in World War
II, for those of us who have never had such an experience clearly an unimaginable one.
However, in the midst of the hate and violence that she experienced she also experienced
firsthand a wonderful story of beauty and grace.
Gerda was befriended by a young Jewish girl named Ilse. One day coming home
from a work party Ilse found a perfectly ripened raspberry, a sheer delicacy in such an
environment. Ilse placed the raspberry in the ragged pocket of her overcoat in order to
share it with Gerda that night.
In response, Gerda writes, “Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one
raspberry and you decide to share it with a friend.”
Someone has written about this story that “Ilse left a lovely fragrance that helps
overcome the stench of hatred and evil from that terrible time in history.”
Our scripture reading this morning highlights another Jewish woman who left a
lovely fragrance in Jesus’ life during his last week on earth.
Frankly, I’ve never been particularly comfortable with this story. Here’s Mary
pouring all that perfume – nard, an expensive ointment prepared from the roots and hairy
stems of an aromatic herb found in India. Very expensive, three hundred denarii, says
Mark. A typical worker in Jesus’ day would have labored an entire day to earn one denarius
– and three hundred days wages for an average worker is what this ointment cost. Do the
math and you’ve got close to a year’s wages invested in this. Let’s just say about $30,000 in
today’s numbers. Go spend $30,000 on a bottle of perfume, pour it over somebody’s feet,
then go tell people about it and see what their reaction is.
All four gospels include this story. In Matthew, Mark and Luke everybody present is
astonished at what this woman does to Jesus. Only John names Judas specifically,
discrediting him with comments about his honesty. Understandably, folks are questioning
the appropriateness of this action.
Throughout my ministry I’ve been a part of wrestling with the issue of priorities
when it comes to spending money in the church and have heard many a debate in church
meetings about spending money on this and that. It might be thousands of dollars or it
might be millions of dollars and somebody in the debate is going to stand up and ask, “Why
are we spending all of this money on ourselves when we should give it to those who really
It’s not an inappropriate question to ask, is it? I mean, within the context of
Christian theology, as followers of Jesus, it might even be a question that we decide is
essential to ask. For followers of Jesus it’s an ethical question, a moral question. Church
people ought to be concerned about that. I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone
can be serious about being a follower of Jesus and spend extravagantly in the face of all the
misery in this world, all the poverty, especially among children, and not at least ask the
Who knows what Judas’ motives really were – John claims to know – but the
question that Judas verbalizes and that others present are asking more quietly is a good
Actually though, this story poses the question differently than it’s being asked. The
story really is asking, “Is there a time when extravagance is appropriate?”
Here’s some background to the story. Six days before the Passover Jesus comes to
Bethany, not far outside of Jerusalem, the home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the
dead. Lazarus is Mary and Martha’s brother. Anyone want to try to articulate the high level
of emotion that must have been present in the house when Jesus came there to visit?
Jesus had raised their brother from the dead, for goodness sake! The brother who
had been dead was now alive. Jesus gave Lazarus new life. Imagine that. What is the
appropriate response to someone who gives the gift of new life? In the context of this
sermon, focusing on this text from John, we need to be asking ourselves what is our
appropriate response to the God who gives us new life in Jesus Christ? How do we respond
to that question?
So here’s Jesus after raising Lazarus, invited by Mary and Martha to come over for
dinner. It was six days before the Passover. It will be on the Passover, according to John,
that Jesus will die. John presents Jesus as the Passover Lamb. He is the one who dies for
our sin. Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He dies on behalf
of all of us so we can live.
While the raising of Lazarus from the dead is in the background, the crucifixion of
Jesus is in the foreground.
Perhaps you remember that in another story in John’s Gospel Jesus makes a visit to
Mary and Martha’s house and the two sisters make a big to do over the visit. Martha is
busy in the kitchen, fussing over the meal and Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, taking in all that
Who knows? Perhaps after raising Lazarus from the dead Mary and Martha asked
Jesus, “How can we ever repay you for what you have done for our brother?”
And perhaps Jesus responded by saying, “How about another one of those
To which Mary responded, “No problem. Martha will be glad to fix a nice dinner for
John tells us that at the meal itself Martha serves and Lazarus sits at the table with
Jesus. Then in the middle of the meal Mary gets up, leaves the room, comes back in, and
kneels at the feet of Jesus. In those days they reclined at meals, in the style of the Greeks.
Also when they came in the house, they removed their sandals and servants would wash
their feet. So Jesus is reclining at the dinner table with bare feet.
Mary enters the room, moves over to Jesus, kneels, and pours the perfume on his
feet. Then she does something that would have been pretty close to unthinkable in that
day. She lets her hair down and wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Doesn’t that seem rather
shocking to you? Everyone there certainly would have been shocked to see a woman do
this to a man who was not her husband.
In what Mary does in anointing Jesus with the expensive perfume, Jesus sees her as
anointing his body for the burial that will occur in just a few more days.
One biblical scholar takes this conclusion of Jesus to mean that this woman alone –
of all those who heard Jesus’ prophecies about his death and resurrection that he shared on
numerous occasions – that she alone believed him and understood what was about to
happen. None of the others seem to grasp what Jesus has been telling them. Mary does.
She gets it, and she is moved to respond to what she understands to be happening.
And of course her action brings a heated response about what some see as this
wasteful extravagance. Think what this amount of money could do for the poor, they say.
In fact some biblical scholars suggest that Mary’s action and Jesus’ defense of it is the
proverbial final straw that sets Judas on the path to his betrayal of Jesus.
But the poor are always with us, says Jesus.
Huh? Does that sound like Jesus? What’s he saying here anyway? It strikes me that
the controversy present in this text reflects the constant tension in the church about the
use of funds given for its ministries. Should we build nice buildings or should the funds be
given to Habitat for Humanity to build homes for the disadvantaged?
In one contemporary book that focuses largely on the call of Christ to reach out to
the poor the author makes a very strong statement about a church that put funds into
creating a stained glass window. He is adamant that in his opinion building that window
was the wrong thing to do. Apparently an image of Jesus is in the window because the
author writes about it this way: “I stared at that window and I longed for Jesus to break out
of it, to free himself.”
Should we build stained glass windows in grand sanctuaries or should those funds
be used only for those in need? The biblical answer appears to be that both are
The sick need to be cared for. The hungry need to be fed. Those in prison need to be
visited and have the love of God shared with them. And the truth is that no individual, no
organization, no institution, no government, including our own has been responsible for
meeting the physical needs of humanity throughout the centuries more than the church of
Jesus Christ. No one has built more hospitals, cared for more orphans, fed more hungry
people, met many other needs of various kinds than the church in its variety of expressions
throughout the world. That need is there, and Jesus draws attention to it over and over
In this story Mary is recognizing a different need. It’s the need to satisfy the deepest
longings of the heart and soul, the need to express gratitude and devotion to God. Jesus is
not going back on his teaching about the poor, nor is he minimizing it in any way
whatsoever. In fact, it’s significant that Jesus is anointed by a woman, in that day a
marginalized member of society, when he says what he says. The poor and marginalized of
the world are indeed all around him. Mary is one of them. Mary is one of “the least of
these” to which Jesus refers in another passage.
Far from suggesting that we cut slack in responding to the needs of the poor, Jesus is
saying that the church, that his body, that those who follow him faithfully, by definition will
always live close to those who suffer. Any secular nation will always produce poor people.
And poor people always have a home in the church of Jesus Christ. They are always
citizens in the kingdom of God. We will always see the face of Jesus most clearly in the
faces of those who suffer and we will always respond to Jesus most faithfully when we
respond to them.
And yet… and yet… we learn much from the act of this humble woman, this person
who really did get it in terms of what Jesus was saying, and who gave her finest treasure in
order to make a statement to the world around her that Jesus is the King of Kings and that
he warrants her complete devotion and the extravagance that that implies. Mary is filled
with joyful exuberance in her encounter with Jesus, and the spirit within her simply has to
express it. Maybe she overdid it. If it had not been with the expensive ointment, she would
have found another way. Different people express their devotion in different ways.
Jesus has modeled for us the unrestricted extravagance of the love of God. If we only
look we will see it all around us in very tangible forms.
The story in John calls us to ask ourselves about our devotion to Christ. How deep is
it? How extravagantly are we willing to express it? And with our lives undergirded by and
rooted in that devotion, what kind of fragrance do our lives leave in the world around us?