pure nard

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

There are three components in the gospel today that I want to address this morning. They are: the labeling of Judas, the use of hair to wipe the feet, and the last line by Jesus today “You can help the poor anytime, for they will always be with you, but I will not.”

Let’s start with John’s description and putting these words on Judas solely today.

Before Judas is allowed to speak to his concern of the value of the ointment being used, value that surely could’ve been traded for furthering the ministry they have been engaged in this whole time, we are reminded by John that Judas is the disciple who will betray Jesus.

It’s interesting to me that John chooses to cast this statement from Judas, and Judas only as we’ll discuss later, in the light of his eventual betrayal.

John of course is writing this gospel account much further removed from the story than the other three gospel accounts, so John makes a point of emphasizing certain aspects within the stories to make a greater narrative point in order to convince others that this story that has been shared has a lasting importance, a lasting message, a divine connection that has continued after Jesus walked among us.

The earliest followers, reading the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, are already aware of the betrayal by Judas, so John takes this betrayal a step further and puts Judas forward as a conniving, even manipulative character.

Of course Judas has to betray Christ, because clearly Jesus isn’t concerned about the mission and ministry they have been doing, otherwise he wouldn’t have wasted this ointment. That is the point of Judas today in John’s gospel.

But, what stands out to me, is considering this objection as if we don’t know Judas’ intent later in the story, or considering this objection as if it came from a different disciple (Peter most likely, it’s always Peter) who isn’t quite getting it yet.

“This could have been traded for a year’s wages and given to the poor.”

This is a completely valid and logical objection on face value.

In fact, this moment of expensive oil being used to anoint Jesus is present in all four gospels, but in Mark and Matthew, it is the disciples as a collective who respond in anger and confusion.

Even if it wasn’t given over to the poor, it still could’ve supported the ministry so the collective would’ve been able to continue in their work of caring for the poor and downtrodden.

And yet, that misses the point of what is happening at this moment.

That misses the point of what Mary does here for Jesus.

“Mary…broke it and poured the sweet-smelling ointment on the feet of Jesus…She then wiped his feet with her hair.”

Mary has reserved this costly ointment, this perfume made of pure nard, for a specific ritualistic purpose.

This is not perfume that you would break a whole jars worth over someone for the simple act of cleaning.

Mary today is anointing Jesus.

Mary today is recognizing the ministry that Jesus has led, offers thanks for the presence of Jesus in her life, and is honoring the sacrifice that Jesus is about to make, even if she isn’t fully aware of what that will all entail quite yet.

This is her decision, her jar of perfume, her act of humbling and service, her act of worship before Jesus.

This is why we are given this image of not only the jar of pure nard, but the wiping of his feet with her hair.

The wiping of the feet with hair is an echoing of this story of expensive perfume anointing Christ in the gospel of Luke (in Mark and Matthew the oil is poured over Christ’s head).

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is challenged by a pharisee witnessing this event:

“If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

John is echoing this version of the story from Luke, but placing it among the characters we know intimately in his own telling of the story: the person of Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. And, in making this an intimate story, it makes sense that John would place the objection solely on Judas, for it creates a clear picture of this event happening here, in this home, at this table, at this moment before Jesus is betrayed.

In echoing the story from Luke, we know that Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair is an act of humble service, a full expression of love and compassion for this teacher, this friend, who carries the burdens of the world upon him, upon these very feet that have traversed throughout the region, that will soon carry his own cross up to his final act of sacrifice.

So, we arrive at the final piece of the gospel today, “You can help the poor anytime, for they will always be with you, but I will not.”

Again, John is echoing Mark and Matthew, not only in this statement of condemnation of creation, but the reality that this act of anointing is done in preparation for Jesus’ death and burial.

Jesus is clear to all who are listening that he is not long for this creation.

Jesus is clear that his ministry, his teaching, his presence in this creation, is going to cause an extreme reaction from the creation as it struggles with the message that Jesus has brought to shatter the reality of our lived experience and challenge us to something different, something more.

And, as he makes this statement today, Jesus is fully aware that creation will rise up betray, kill him, soon, and because this is the reality, the creation will also always struggle to reach its full potential, reach the hope that God had for creation in our very creation, and so Jesus very bluntly lets us know that we are going to struggle with even the basic tenets of his teaching: to love our neighbor as ourselves, so fully and completely that the reality of there being rich and poor is no more.

 However, this shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to not work to end this reality of creation.

This is a condemnation, not a prophetic statement.

This is Jesus passing judgment on creation and challenging us to prove him wrong.

This does not have to be the reality of our world, if we can come together as creation, if we can live into the call we have received from God, to care for one another, to love one another, to exist with one another in harmony.

This feels almost unattainable, partly because many have taken this statement from Jesus as an excuse to focus inwardly and only on themselves and those who fit into their very narrow definitions of how the world should work, but that is not what Jesus is doing today.

That is not the compassion, service, and love modeled by Mary today.

We are called today to honor our savior Jesus Christ, to give all that we have in service to Christ, and to know that in serving Christ we can begin to change the understanding of the world, so that one day, when the Kingdom of God comes to this creation, there will no longer be rich or poor but simply neighbor.

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