Sermon: On not being able to do the right thing

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
5th Sunday of Lent, 7th of April, 2019

John 12:1-8

Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus’ anointing. It was obviously a vitally important story to the first Christians; told in each of the four gospels in three different versions. As I have mentioned before, the church has often collated the three into one version which has led to poor Mary of Bethany being labelled a notorious sinner when there’s absolutely no evidence of that. Each version of the story of Jesus being anointed by a woman tells us something slightly different, although at the very least they all tell us that Jesus was comfortable with women and happy to receive their ministry.

In the gospel according to Luke the anointing happens early in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is in the house of a Pharisee called Simon and a woman of the city, a sinner, washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with ointment. Simon is horrified, and thinks to himself that if Jesus truly were a prophet he would know about the woman’s sin and not allow her to touch him. But Jesus points out that the greater the sin forgiven, the greater the love the sinner feels for the one who forgives: ‘I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Luke’s story of the anointing is about God’s forgiveness of sins. (Luke 7:36-50)

Mark and Matthew both tell the story of an anointing that happens in Jesus’ last week, in the house of Simon the Leper. An unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head, proclaiming his kingship, and some of those around complain about the waste. But Jesus says, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her’. And what she did is told in remembrance of her, but sadly we’re never told her name. (Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13.)

Then we have today’s story, the anointing as told by John. Like Luke’s story, it’s an anointing of Jesus’ feet rather than his head. Like Mark and Matthew’s story, it occurs in Jesus’ last week, and is connected with his death. But John has his own slant on the situation. Jesus is in Bethany, the home of Lazarus. Immediately before, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; which led many Jews to believe in him, and had the Council worrying: ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ They decide that it would be better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed, and from that day on they plot to kill Jesus. As Jesus and his disciples enjoy dinner in the house of Lazarus, death is approaching. But only Mary of Bethany responds to its approach.

Lazarus and both his sisters, Martha and Mary, act as disciples here. Martha serves, she literally ‘deacons’, and Lazarus sits at the table with Jesus and his other disciples. But it’s Mary who best models what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. She takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair. She offers Jesus her wealth; the perfume was worth about a year’s wages. She offers him her honour; unbinding her hair and touching Jesus’ feet. Mary shows great love; withholding nothing of herself from Jesus. The house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume she offers; filled with the love she is showing.

But Mary’s anointing is not just a sign of love. We are hearing this story in the fifth week of Lent and so we know that Jesus’ hour is looming. Here, while Jesus is having a meal with his friends, he’s also being prepared for his burial. In her anointing of his feet Mary prophetically shows how close Jesus’ death has come. This isn’t a royal anointing of Jesus’ head, but an anointing of his body for burial. In less than a week, the man who is now sitting and eating with disciples and friends will be dying on a cross. By anointing Jesus’ feet in preparation for his death Mary is acting as a prophet, recognising what the other disciples do not, that they will not always have Jesus with them.

In previous years, when the lectionary has given us this story, I have focused on Jesus’ statement about the poor being always with the disciples, or on the ministry of the women who anoint him. This year I have been thinking about those who protest the woman’s actions. In Luke’s version, Simon the Pharisee protests internally at Jesus allowing himself to be touched by a sinner. In the versions of the story told by Mark and Matthew, some of those watching protest the waste; the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. In today’s version, from the gospel according to John, we’re told that it was specifically Judas who protested and that he only did so because he would have stolen the proceeds had the nard been sold. But what if Judas had been serious? Mark and Matthew don’t suggest that those protesting the waste were dishonest in their desire to benefit the poor. At all other times selling the ointment and giving the money away would have been the right thing to do; it is only because Jesus is so soon to die that on this one occasion the right thing to do is to anoint him. Some times are not the right times to do what would otherwise be the right thing.

Some of you know that I have recently been in the process of trying to make what is called an ‘altruistic’ kidney donation, in which I would donate one of my kidneys to an unknown recipient. It all started late in 2017, and has involved a variety of medical tests, including three sessions with a psychiatrist to make sure that I wanted to donate for relatively mentally healthy reasons. This week I finally found out, after jumping through most of the medical hoops, that there is one hoop I can’t get through. Apparently my kidneys function at 70%, which is fine for me since I have two of them, but which means I do need to keep both.

Ever since I found out about the possibility of an altruistic donation I have been excited at the thought of being able to help save someone’s life. I am a blood donor; I’m on the bone marrow register; and I’ve signed up to give all my useful organs away if I die in a car accident. When I found that it was possible to give one of my organs away while I’m still alive it seemed to me to only make sense that I would do so. Every week, as I pray over the offering, I remind us all that everything we have comes from God and is given to us to share. I thought that a kidney might be one of the things I had been given by God to share, and I’ve found myself remarkably disappointed at the discovery that I can’t.

The disciples found that what would otherwise be the right thing, selling the perfume and giving the money away to the poor (even if that wasn’t really Judas’ intention), wasn’t the right thing to do at that particular moment, as Jesus approached his death. There are times in all our lives when we find that it isn’t the right time or place for us to do what we think is right, what we had planned, and we have to pause, take stock, change our minds. I have been reminded of what is true for all of us; we are not truly in control of our own lives. Nor, according to the old Methodist Covenant prayer, should we expect to be. That prayer tells us to say to God: ‘I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will … I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.’ How many of us can honestly pray that without caveat? Very few of us, I imagine.

Jesus did. In Holy Week we will see Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ As the Apostle Paul wrote, Jesus ‘humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’. This obedience to what God wants of us is one of the many things we can learn by looking at Jesus. As we journey with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, following him as he walks to his death and his rising, maybe we can seek to follow him in this, too; placing our lives in God’s hands so that God’s will may be done. Amen.

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