Friday, April 15, 2011

You're the simple tune I only write variations to.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But 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?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. 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.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well.
- John 12:1-10

Mary knew Jesus. And before we say more, let’s get straight that this is not Jesus’ mother Mary we’re talking about here, but Mary of Bethany, who may or may not also have been Mary Magdalene—that’s a topic of considerable scholarly debate. There are so many Marys in the Gospels, you could certainly be forgiven for confusing them. But Mary of Bethany definitely knew Jesus. This Mary shirked her housekeeping duties (to the dismay of her sister Martha) in order to listen to Jesus’ teachings. This Mary grieved with her sister Martha over the death of their brother Lazarus, and then rejoiced when Jesus frightened death away. It seems that, spiritually, Mary was a step ahead of the game.

Jesus and the disciples have come to Bethany because it is their launch point. Bethany is a mere two miles from Jerusalem. On Sunday morning, Jesus will ride into the city on a borrowed donkey, and the events of Holy Week will begin. But tonight, Mary surprises everyone. She graces Jesus’ feet with spikenard perfume worth a worker’s wages for a year—a year! And then she scandalously caresses Jesus with her hair and, I imagine, with free-flowing tears.

Mary understands that in the days to come, Jesus is going to give himself away until there’s nothing left. And until he does, Mary intends to stay as close to him as she can. She’s going to anoint his body for burial while he’s still alive, so she can inhale the fragrance that will always remind her of her Lord. Mary knows Jesus so well that she knows his days are numbered, and she’s already grieving. Why is this so hard for Judas to understand?

Oh, but I’ve been Judas. I totally get where he’s coming from. When’s the last time you dropped a year’s wages on a bottle of wine, no matter how important the occasion? And if you had, don’t you think some good Christian would have objected to a $20,000 Chateau Lafite?

Now, I don’t believe this aside about Judas being a thief. He may have been stingy, and he may have totally misunderstood Jesus’ mission and purpose. But Judas was so passionate about law and order that he turned Jesus in for incitement, and his conscience wouldn’t even let him keep the blood money. And then he hanged himself over it! No, Judas was a slave to the law—he was no thief. It’s a shame that the writers of John’s Gospel felt the need to slander Judas, as if his name wasn’t already reviled worldwide. Feel free to disagree with me—that’s OK.

So where was I? Oh yes. Mary knew she had one last chance to show Jesus how much she loved him. Have you ever given an extravagant gift—more extravagant than the situation called for? Whether you’ve had the means to donate a lot of money to a good cause, or you’ve just splurged on a present for your spouse without an occasion, it’s kind of fun, isn’t it? Because deep down, the one receiving the gift knows it’s not about the money. It’s just that you couldn’t pass up the perfect gift.

In Mary’s case, the gift is so perfect it’s prophetic. What’s a year’s wages compared to Jesus? Can you answer that for yourself? Mary knows Jesus well enough to understand that he is worth more than anything money can buy.

I think Judas had the mindset we often have when Christmas shopping: Well, he’s only my cousin. Is $25 too much to spend? Twenty? What about a gift for my brother’s girlfriend? Fifteen? If they get engaged first, should I up it to thirty? So I’d like to ask Judas: How much nard would have been an appropriate amount for Jesus? Maybe an eighth of that? Or a month’s wages? Is Jesus worth more than a diamond engagement ring? Where would you draw the line, Judas?

See, Judas is the fun police. He’s well-intentioned, but he’s insufferable. I’ve known people like him, and I’ve got enough bleeding-heart tendencies to slip into that attitude myself occasionally: somewhere in the world right now, someone is suffering. And as long as that’s true, none of us is allowed to have any fun!

But it’s no use, don’t you see? There will be many other opportunities to help the poor. Tonight, Jesus is moving inexorably from life toward death, and Mary knows it. Judas knows it, too. Judas is already wondering, “What if he’s not the Messiah after all? Mary may have thrown away a year’s wages, but I’ve thrown away three years of hard work and passionate hope! What if the only way for me to stay in control of this situation is to turn Jesus in?”

Mary has a different perspective. She may not know how any good could possibly come from Jesus’ death, but she is relinquishing control. Mary knows the words from the Prophet Isaiah:

    Do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.
    I am about to do a new thing;
    Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
    I will make a way in the wilderness
    And rivers in the desert.

And maybe this psalm was on her lips too as she worked to ease the fire in Jesus’ head and feet:

    Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
    Like the watercourses of the Negev.
    Those who sowed with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
    Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
    will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Mary will go out weeping, carrying the seed of faith that is to be buried in the ground, dead to the world. She doesn’t know how God’s grace will work—just that it will work. It has to, because it comes from God.

Here’s a song I always imagine as one for Mary: “Melody of You” by Sixpence None the Richer.

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