While I drink my beer the Gospel runs its course
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. (John 12:1-2)
I heard tell of a dinner party that took place to celebrate a particular couple’s 50th wedding anniversary! All the family and friends were there, including the couple’s only daughter – a middle-aged woman herself – and as the evening progressed and as speeches were made, the daughter was struck by the way that her dad always referred to her mum as ‘dear’ or ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’. When she got a moment alone with him she said to him, “Dad, I want to tell you that I am really touched by the way you always refer to mum using those affectionate terms – ‘sweetie’ and ‘dear’ and ‘honey’”, to which her father replied, “well … it might be different if I could just remember her damn name!”
Things are not always as they appear. This is something that we are all familiar with. I don’t mean that we are all familiar with forgetting our partner’s name (though if you’ve been hit in the head as often as I have you may struggle) but I suspect we are all familiar with those sorts of dinner parties where things are warm and friendly on the surface but where there is seething cauldron of emotion lying below the surface.
Not every party is like that. I was at Bill’s 60th last night and I wasn’t aware of any deep undercurrents of hostility or passion lurking beneath the surface, though that may only indicate that I didn’t know the people there well enough! Either way, I suspect we have all been at parties like that. We may have been at church gatherings like that!
If you’ve ever watched a session of Parliament on TV, Parliament is always like that! I often think that with political gatherings, their dress-code, which is always so conservative and sophisticated, must be designed to counter-balance the primitive and often violent nature of the underlying emotions! Parties are often like that too, with everybody making an effort in the way they present themselves, and speaking pleasantly to each other and smiling politely, while beneath the surface …
I have a Facebook friend who lives on the shore of Loch Ness in Scotland and I’ve seen amongst her pictures numerous images of the calm waters of the loch. I don’t know whether she’s ever seen the legendary monster that apparently lurks beneath the surface, but if it’s there at all, it is clearly pretty good at staying out of sight.
That’s how most parties work too. If there are monsters lurking beneath the surface they generally do a good job of staying out of sight, but then sometimes you get an incident, where all the pretences of sophistication and serenity suddenly evaporate, and I guess it should not surprise us to find Jesus at the centre of such an incident!
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. (John 12:3)
This is one of those incidents that the host could not conceal! If you’d been standing in another section of the room, chatting away and making new friends, you’d have noticed a deathly silence fall over the whole house! Someone shrieks and drops their cocktail glass! You wonder what is going on and then the smell of nard hits you!
This incident completely transforms the party! What did Mary think she was doing?! In terms of appropriate behaviour for a hostess, her actions are as difficult to excuse as they are to explain.
This story of a woman anointing the feet of Jesus and wiping His feet with her hair turns up in all four of our Gospels, and no wonder it stuck in the minds of each of those who recorded the stories of Jesus. The incident is outrageous!
It would still be outrageous if it happened today. I won’t bother trying to depict a similar incident taking place at one of our church barbeques, with some local girl coming up and pouring ointment all over my feet (or, better still, over the feet of the Archbishop when he visited us) but, in truth, it is ridiculous to think that such a thing could ever happen! Do you think it was any less ridiculous in first century Judea?
What was Mary thinking? We are told that Mary had around half a kilo of ‘real nard’, which is intended to distinguish it from the fake nard that you could pick up at the Bethany markets for a couple of shekels. Real nard apparently came from the mountains of northern India which explains why it was so expensive, and it’s suggested that the amount Mary poured out that night would have been worth the equivalent of a year’s wages for a normal working person!
Mary’s action is outrageously extravagant, though at the same time it’s all a bit cheap, or at least she seems to be cheapening herself in the way she performs – falling all over Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair! As I say, it would be outrageous were this to happen at one of our gatherings. Can you imagine how this would go down in a culture where women weren’t permitted to let their hair down in public?!
I remember a couple of years ago that they had to re-route the Palestinian Marathon so that it by-passed Gaza as the Hamas authorities in Gaza, being conservative religious souls, would not permit men and women to run together! They weren’t permitted to run together in Jesus’ day either! They weren’t even permitted to speak together in public in those days, and they certainly weren’t permitted to fall all over each other in public and rub their feet with their hair!
In Luke’s retelling of this story (or, at least we assume it is a retelling of the same incident) the woman is unnamed and simply referred to as ‘a sinner’ (Luke 7:36) – the assumption being that she is a sex-worker. This would be the natural assumption you would make if you saw a young woman behaving in this way!
And what is Jesus doing while this woman is putting on her performance – potentially destroying His reputation along with her own? Is he wildly objecting and desperately trying to fend her off while lecturing her on propitious behaviour for single women, and perhaps threatening to file a sexual harassment claim if she doesn’t desist? On the contrary, Jesus is lying back and enjoying every second of it! You can see the smile and hear the groan of contentment as Mary massages and anoints His aching joints and pours out her affection on Him!
Was this something that happened spontaneously? Surely Mary hadn’t planned on behaving like this? Was it just her gratitude to Jesus for having restored the life of her beloved brother or was it more than that? Was she besotted with Jesus?
The latter explanation seems intuitively attractive of course, and it fits with the earlier story we get of Mary (in Luke 10:38-42), sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to His teachings. We can imagine her sitting there, starry-eyed, besotted. Poor thing! She was only young. How could she resist falling in love with Jesus? Even so, surely she could have shown a little greater self-control in the way she expressed that love.
Now I appreciate that I am starting to speculate, and perhaps we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about Mary’s emotional state. Even so, Mary’s actions are hard to understand, and the only thing harder to fathom here than Mary’s outrageous expression of love is why Jesus doesn’t put a stop to it for the sake of Mary and for the sake of the rest of her family, even if He’s not worried about His own reputation!
The reaction of the disciples is a little more predictable. Judas is credited as being the one to voice disapproval but I imagine that each one of Jesus’ disciples would have been squirming in his seat. Judas – ever the one for political correctness – makes no reference to the sensual nature of Mary’s actions but only refers to her extravagance: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5)
Judas’ comment once again reveals that there are things going on beneath the surface of this dinner party. There are tensions between Jesus and the disciples, and there were obviously tensions between the disciples themselves!
The Gospel writer adds a parenthetical comment of his own at this point, explaining that Judas didn’t really give a damn about poor but was interested in keeping the money for himself, and this comment does indeed help fill out the picture of greed and betrayal that was underlying the happy party-scene. Even so, this should not distract us from the fact that Judas’ question in and of itself was a pretty good one! Indeed, if it hadn’t been for John’s comments and for Jesus’ response you’d be forgiven for thinking, ‘hey, the disciples are really starting to get the message!’
Why hadn’t this outrageously expensive perfume been sold and given the money to the poor? It’s a fair question, and Jesus’ response is (again) one that makes you squirm! “The poor you will always have with you” says Jesus (John 12:8)
It’s not exactly “let them eat cake” but it does make Jesus look unconcerned about the plight of the suffering poor!
It’s probably helpful, of course, to realise that Jesus is quoting – “The poor you will always have with you. Therefore, I command you, Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11) Taken in this context, the statement “the poor you will always have with you” may not be so much an attempt to dismiss the needs of the suffering poor as it is a reminder of the fact that the poor will still be there requiring our attention when the party is over, but that there is nonetheless a time for partying too!
Jesus evidently didn’t see any tension between pouring Himself out for the poor and partying like there was no tomorrow! That’s not a balance many of us find easy to accommodate. If you’re a workaholic like me, you don’t party much, and in my more self-righteous moments I like to see this as a sign of my deep piety – ‘My Heavenly Father is always working, and so am I.’ (John 5:17) – and yet the truth is that Jesus partied a lot! He didn’t get his reputation as a glutton and a drunkard from nowhere! (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34)
It is to my shame, indeed, that I actually left Bill’s party last night to work on this sermon. I have a feeling that, in my situation, the Lord Jesus would have prioritised partying over sermonising, and this despite the fact that Jesus’ parties were to Bill’s party much as Loch Ness is to Enmore Pool!
Mind you, I don’t really mean to compare Mary to a raging sea-monster, though she clearly was a woman of raging passion. Yet there were other monsters there that night, and some of them come to the surface right at the end of the narrative.
“When the great crowd of the Jews learned that [Lazarus] 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, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:9-11)
This comment from John comes almost as a footnote to our narrative, but again it reminds us of some of the things that were going on below the surface while Jesus was partying. Jesus and His friends may have been having a good time, but in the background there were people plotting on how they would kill Him, and Lazarus too!
The calculations of the religious authorities are cold and clinical – almost Nazi-like – as they make their decisions as to who will live and who must die, and the contrast with the spontaneous passion of Mary could not be greater! These two figures – the passionate woman on the one hand and the clinical religious authorities on the other – represent two extremes in terms of the response people make to Jesus; the paradox being, of course, that it’s the uncontrollable woman who is our model of godly love, and the pious religious leaders who embody demonic hatred and death.
Between these two extremes float the hapless disciples. Some, like Peter, gradually grow to more closely imitate the saintly Mary, while others, like Judas, demonstrate a growing affinity with the establishment. And between these two archetypal extremes we 21st century disciples vacillate still!
This is the story within the story that we read today. Behind the relatively superficial story of partying and good times, a far more serious drama is being played out! Just beneath the surface there is a deeper narrative, and yet I believe that the key to really grasping our Gospel reading today is to recognise that beneath that deeper narrative there is a deeper narrative still!
For when we read this story, not simply in the context of the other dynamics that were operating at that party, but in the context of the broader story of the Gospel – of the broader story of what God was doing in and through Jesus at this point in history – we realise that beneath all the turmoil of darkness and betrayal and murder and passion and love and confusion … God is writing His own story!
This whole scene takes place within a fortnight of the crucifixion, and things start to unravel really rapidly from this point on! Judas is going to do what he must do and the authorities are going to have their way and the disciples will flee and the women will weep and Jesus will be killed!
All the hidden agendas are coming to the surface and all the participants in this drama will play their part, but as the human actors each come to the end of their scripts at the crucifixion, we discover that there has been another actor at work, or perhaps we should say ‘another agent directing the action!’ God has been working His purpose out in and through the partying and the love and the blood and the suffering, and it is God’s script that is ultimately going to decide how this story ends!
Things are not always what they seem! This isn’t just true of parties. It’s true of all of life! You can live life on the surface if you want and just enjoy the good times, but if you poke a little deeper you’ll uncover darkness and pain, passion and confusion, and that’s a scary place to be, but if you look a little deeper again … there’s a light shining in that darkness!
This is the Gospel. This is the Good News! This is the story behind the story, and it’s the story behind our story – our beacon of hope! For wherever our journey is taking us, in the end it will be God who determines how the story ends!
Now the sermon ends at this point. I decided while writing this last night that, rather than work on coming up with a crowning illustration that would effectively drive this final point home, I should return to Bill’s party, and I did, and I had another glass of beer, and my capacity for researching dynamic sermon illustrations was long-gone by the time I returned home. What can I say? It was one of those ‘What would Jesus do?’ moments.
A statement attributed to Martin Luther did though come to mind: “While I drink my glass of Wittenberg beer, the gospel runs its course.”
While we party and while we pray, God is working His purpose out. Through the pain and the passion, the violence and the joy, His will be done. His Kingdom come. Amen.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 13 of March, 2016.
Click here for the audio.