Toorak Uniting Church

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A spendthrift lover

Psalm 126     Isaiah 43: 16 – 21     John 12: 1 – 8
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
28 March 2004

Gangland killings, a sixteen year old ready to blow himself up, terrorism, war, what, in the middle of all that, do we do with the delicate story of Mary and Jesus we’ve read this morning? A woman and a man, costly perfume, and an intimate gesture of love……
Aren’t they worlds apart?

I think not.

The man is Jesus, a holy man, bringing peace, healing and wholeness to people. A righteous man, full of God’s love, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. A man sharing a meal with his friends at the house of friends, one of whom he has brought back from the grave after three days.

A man living under the cloud of looming disaster and certain death at the hands of people that are planning his execution because they think it "prudent" to be rid of him. (John 11:50)
A lonely man, travelling with a group of friends who fail to understand what he is on about. Who do not listen when he tries to tell them what is going to happen, tries to prepare them for suffering and death, and comfort them with the certainty of new beginnings after.
A man despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; one from whom people will turn away. Bearing our infirmities and carrying our diseases; (Isaiah 53:3-5)

The woman is Mary, the sister of Lazarus, probably the same Mary that is in other gospels called a sinful woman (Luke 7: 36,37), and probably the same woman who was healed from evil spirits by Jesus (Luke 8:2). A prostitute, a woman with a history of madness, a woman without any status or standing.

They are surrounded by friends, looking on from a distance. Silent except for one: "We could have sold that and given it to the poor!" says Judas, the thief and traitor.
Not because of the poor but of his own greed.
Surrounded also by Pharisees and other dignitaries who have come to see the miracle: Lazarus, raised from the dead, a walking, talking testimony of Jesus power, of what God can do, of what is still in store at this instance.

And around that a world full of violence, need, and pain. People crying out for healing, crowding in on Jesus with every step he takes. While at the same time jealousy and hate and plain evil plan the death of this gentle healing and life affirming man.
A world not so much different from the way it is today.

The nard a costly perfume that was imported from India. 300 denarii about the average annual wage of a skilled labourer. But not only that. A "brand" of perfume speaking of more than just extravagant and irresponsible wasting. (Two poor families could have easily lived on the amount of money wasted for a whole year! A soup kitchen could have been set up, feeding probably more than 5000 with bread and fish. A hospital, support for lepers, the possibilities with that kind of money mind boggling!).

Nard was used for the anointing of Kings, was brought by the wise man from the East when they followed the star to the King born in Bethlehem. It was also used by any well to do couple preparing for their wedding night. Perhaps while reciting the romantic poetry of the Song of Songs where nard is part of the passionate love making of two true lovers. Perfume used, sparingly, by expensive prostitutes to surround an act of love for sale with the heavy scent of luxurious indulgence. And last but definitely not least: A perfume that played a part in the preparing of a loved one for burial. A perfume that speaks volumes in a story where words are only very sparingly used.

Mary anoints Jesus King in front of his friends, just before they themselves will burst into loud hosannas and welcome him into Jerusalem with palm leaves and a carpet of cloaks.

From the richness of extravagant love Mary pours a fortune over the feet of her beloved. Wiping them with her unbound hair in utter and intimate rapture. A gesture that many would have felt, at the time, inappropriate and more fitted to the privacy of a bedroom to take place between man and wife, or between passionate lovers. Definitely not something to put on display, for everyone to see. An excessive and improper gesture from a woman with a dubious background.

Mary, the prostitute, unbinding her hair in the presence of a group of men, another sure sign of her deprivation, using one of the tools of her trade to express her profound love for a man who could hardly be expected to be pleased with such a gesture.

The story is far more shocking then most of us would at first sight think!

Last but not least, and this is what Jesus takes up, it is Mary preparing her Lord for burial long before anybody else in the room has had the courage to realise that this is the reality they are going to face. In spite of Jesus himself who has been preparing them for his passion and death for a while now.

Deep felt love, a desire to express it, a courageous acknowledgment of what is about the happen (only six days in John between this anointing and the cross), an unbound generosity which must have seemed to others completely out of proportion with the occasion and the relationship of Mary and her friend and master.

"You could have given it to the poor…….."
You could at least have tried to solve a few of the world’s problems. Instead of embarrassing yourself, Jesus and us, his followers, by this silly wasting of resources.


Mary only sees the man. Sees Jesus whom she must have loved deeply. The man who liberated her from evil forces that were ruling her life. The man who raised her brother from the dead. The man who changed her life, that of her sister and brother and many others. The man who took her seriously and healed her even though she was a sinner that was looked down upon by others. A man who is now desperately lonely, facing a journey that will lead him through worse than hell. Not understood by his friends, hated by his enemies, doing nothing but good, ready to bear his cross and drink the cup that is being prepared for him.
And she acts. She pushes all convention aside, brushes past the shocked faces of those attending the meal, and gives as generous as God Himself has given to her.

She gives a fortune, but not only that, she gives herself, all she has got, all she has to offer, all she is, and was, all her insight and understanding, all the support she can muster, all the pastoral care her imagination gives her to give to this man she loves so much.

It was at this point my thoughts went back to the morning we spent on grief and bereavement Saturday a week ago in this Church. Where we talked about how, when we were lonely, grieving and bereft we had been helped by others who would put aside convention to be with us, who took the risk of offering help and support where they felt there was need. Or how we ourselves had sometimes been touched by the sadness and despair of others and been moved to acts of support and love that had helped and supported those in need.

Mary discerns a great need in Jesus, and rightly so. She is the first and only one in the gospel that faces the truth of what is coming with him and comes beside him to support him in his hour of need. A woman with a deep intuition and a pure and true understanding of the agony this man is going to go through. Is going through at that very moment. His eyes on the cross, his friends in denial.

Shouldn’t the poor be helped first? Could she not just have said a few encouraging words? A supportive nod maybe? Wouldn’t that have done?

"The poor will always be with you, but you do not always have me" says Jesus, "she kept this for my burial….."

She’s understood is what Jesus says, and by her extravagant gesture I know that she’s understood to the full extent of my suffering. She’s looked past today and seen a future you lot cannot imagine yet. She has faced death, and burial, and the agony of losing me, her friend and saviour. But beyond that the resurrection, her brother Lazarus a foretaste of what is to come, she crowned me King, threw herself at my feet, long before I will be lifted up and sit at the right hand of the father who will put the world under the feet she has anointed and wiped with her hair in a gesture of utter submissiveness.

It is all there, in this one gesture of Mary. The anointing of the King, the salvation of sinners, the suffering and death of her Lord, the love and surrender of a true disciple. Something the others cannot yet see, something Judas even smirks at.

"The poor will always be with you". But wasn’t it Jesus who said that it is in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the lonely, the captives, we meet him? Doesn’t that mean that this is a call then to tend to him in them in the same way Mary tended to him in that last week of his life on earth?

Murder, violence, injustice, grief, bereavement, death. It is all there in this story. The world where Mary expresses her love and Jesus travels to the cross not so very different from the world that is surrounding us today.

The passionate love and care of one makes all the difference to the other though. An example worth following.
Not to hold back where our Lord is concerned, but to love recklessly and generously, as he, loves us. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004

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