s157g98 Somerton Park 29/3/98 Lent 5
"Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"" John 12:4,5.
The story of the anointing at Bethany is one of the favourites in the gospel, for it puts the imprimatur of Jesus on our devotion to God. As we travel through life, and as often we find other people more than we can cope with, we can at least come to Church, we can express our devotion to God, knowing that God will accept this, without question, and without arguments.
We certainly don't forget the poor - but I find it so often hard to know which poor to give to - who should be helped and who should be encouraged to help themselves. The persons who often would most benefit from a little assistance are often the last to ask for help; whereas those who would benefit most from helping themselves are often the quickest to ask for handouts. It can be just too difficult. I myself wonder if I give to overseas children's aid organisations, how much that relieves the governments of some countries from the necessity to divert their attention from the wars they are fighting and start to care for their own. This is, of course, no criticism of the overseas aid agencies and the wonderful work that they do. Neither is it a criticism of those who have supported them, and found some joy in supporting an individual they have come to know and love. Yet the question remains how can those who can know them so much better, their kin and governments, fail to see the misery they are inflicting on their own, and to share similar feelings of concern. I pray that this is not just an excuse not to give.
However this incident picturesque and comforting as it is, has its sinister side also. It is important to put it in context. John has this action of Mary rather earlier than Matthew and Mark, and he follows it with the response of the chief priests, who " planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus." (John 10.9-10) This outpouring of devotion has it's reaction in jealousy in the religious authorities - jealousy sufficient to contrive not just the murder of Jesus, but also Lazarus.
The theme of jealousy sufficient to betray Jesus is reflected in the gospel of Matthew and Mark also. The anointing is particularly important for them for they both agree that it is the anointing at Bethany which is the trigger for Judas to betray Jesus.
John alone identifies and singles out Judas as the person who criticised the incident, whereas both Matthew and Mark say that a number of those present, including some disciples, joined the chorus of disapproval. So Judas was not alone in his disapproval, but it was Judas who is so jealous and offended he decides to betray Jesus.
In life jealousies and criticism are never far away, and here we have Judas and some others criticising. Were they criticising Mary for this overtly generous and seemingly wasteful expression of love, or were they criticising Jesus himself for accepting it? If it was the trigger for the betrayal, it was certainly a criticism of Jesus.
How frequently our human thoughts turn not just to God accepting our contribution, but God not accepting someone else's contribution. It is a theme which goes from one end of the Bible to the other, beginning with Cain and Abel.
Cain killed Abel because God it seemed had regard for Abel's offering rather than his own. Judas betrays Jesus because he accepted Mary's offering rather than his contribution. How powerful are the emotions invoked when offerings are accepted or seemingly rejected. And we cannot point to Judas alone - as if he alone had some character defect which made him different from the rest of humanity. Matthew and Mark agree that others of the disciple band agreed with Judas.
Modern female commentators point our attention to the overtly sexual nature of this action of Mary, and suggest that it was this aspect that caused such outrage amongst the male disciples. There is indeed nothing quite like sexuality to raise peoples ire. Indeed the suppression by the Church of the sexuality involved is similar. Yet Jesus was at most 33 years old - a bit of a spunk - not some poor, world weary, old Rector like me. Even if the action was not intended by Mary, or interpreted by Jesus as sexual in nature, it is highly likely that the male disciples came to different conclusions. It alerts us to the fact that jealousies determine much of what we do or don't do - a remarkably similar message to the story of the lost sons in last week's gospel.
God accepts our offerings and the offerings of all. The only offering God cannot accept is that which comes with strings attached, to reject someone else and their offering.
I have been reflecting recently on the Lord's Prayer. The disciples ask for the magic words - the "right" way to pray - so that they can be in a right relationship with God. Jesus calls them into a right relationship with their neighbour - "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us".
The story of the anointing tells us that God accepts our offerings, no matter who we are, or how they are expressed.
The story of the anointing tells us that humanity is far less ready to allow other's offerings to God to be acceptable.
As an example of this, let me quote a prayer, which is in fact the Collect for last Sunday, Lent 4, in our new A Prayer Book for Australia. I love the new book and especially the collects, of which there are a vast number and with amazing variety. I cannot speak highly enough in praise of the book. But last Sunday's Collect read:
"God of compassion, you are slow to anger, and full of mercy, welcoming sinners who return to you with penitent hearts: receive in your loving embrace all who come home to you, and seat them at your bountiful table, that, with all your children, they may feast with delight on all that satisfies the hungry heart. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Saviour, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."
I actually think that the gospel message is that God welcomes sinners, penitent hearts or no. And the real question is not whether we can turn the heart of this angry God to rather lovingly "embrace all who come home to you" - penitent or not - but will we accept "all who come". When put in this way, I know that there are people I would find it difficult to accept as having a place in God's kingdom. One has only to think of a rapist or a murderer of children for instance. The reality is that God is far more merciful than any of us and it is a blasphemy to suggest otherwise. "Penitence" is one of our conditions to make others acceptable to God, not one of God's conditions. Or perhaps penitence that we can see and measure, is one of our conditions to make others acceptable to God in our eyes, not one of God's conditions. How quickly we assume we are, in the words of the Collect, that we are one of "your children", and that, we through our prayers make God more merciful!
The action of Mary who "took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair" is an act of pure devotion - and it has no theological or moral significance to anyone else - and what others might give or choose not to give to God or others. It doesn't criticise others who might give to the poor - for giving to the poor is equally as acceptable to God as was Mary's actions.
It is criticism of others which is disregarded. It is the attitude which means that others have to live up to our expectations which cuts no ice with God.
And so the good news is that we don't have to live up to expectations. I have enough trouble living up to my own expectations, let alone anyone else's. God could inflict the longest set of expectations of all, yet all God really wants is for us to get along, one with another.
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