I trust that the palm branches have been ordered by now because next Sunday we’ll be waving them at Jesus. He’ll be riding into Jerusalem on a donkey while his feet are awkwardly scraping the ground. But the people don’t care: they reach for a headscarf, a piece of cloth, a tree branch, and they’re waving them with exuberance, while some even fling their overcoat in the donkey’s path.
The crowd is shouting. They’re welcoming their presumed new king, while Jesus knows differently. He won’t be the type of king they expect. He won’t be leaving Jerusalem alive, for he soon would be tried there for treason, convicted there, and put to death.
Today’s story takes place shortly before Jesus straddles that donkey. You might say it’s the eve of Palm Sunday. And since Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem, he stops by the house of some of his closest friends. It’s the house of Martha, of Mary, of Lazarus, located in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem.
And at the house, there is a meal, as there had been many times before. You see again Martha busying herself with the cooking and the serving. Their brother Lazarus is there also, newly brought back from the dead. And then there is Mary, who predictably sits at Jesus’ feet. Only this time, she’s not there to listen but to do something else.
The Gospel says that Mary “took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and she anointed the feet of Jesus, and then she wiped his feet with her hair.” Now, the nard came from the spikenard plant, and typically only royalty or those in holy office were anointed with it. It was kept in a sealed jar made of alabaster or marble, and thereby could last for decades. Once opened, though, the nard would spoil and lose its pungency.
Mary owns such a precious jar. But rather than keeping it for herself, she breaks the seal and she opens it. And then she spreads some over Jesus’ feet while the rest she would end up using shortly at Jesus’ burial. Right now, though, Mary only anoints Jesus’ feet. It is the place she is closest to, right there on the ground, in a position that you and I assume also whenever we pray on our knees.
The ointment, we are told, is worth three hundred denarii, the savings of a lifetime. And not only that, but May now wipes the remainder off with her hair. Mary is pouring her savings unto Jesus, letting her hands and her hair do the talking as if to say: “I’m pouring out to you my entire life.”
To pour ourselves out for someone. Have you ever done that, or are you doing it still? If you are a parent or grandparent, or a caregiver, you can relate. You pour yourself out for them, don’t you? You do with less to boost their finances, their college fund, pay their rent, buy their vehicle. You cut your vacation short so you can babysit. You move closer to them so as to be in a better position to help out. Do you record all this in a ledger expecting to get something in return? I bet you don’t.
And that’s how it is with us, with you and me and Jesus. We pour ourselves out for his sake and for the sake of his church. We give away talents and skills, we give away help and assistance, and we part with money, fully aware that what we are giving is not to the pastor, not to the staff, not to the board of directors or the session or the trustees, but we’re giving to Christ.
Who would think of tallying up the hours that we spend each week - phone calls made, note cards written, meals served at the shelter, groceries stocked and shelved at the pantry, the lesson plan studied, the agenda outlined for committee meeting, the minutes written up, the communion table and sanctuary decorated, the contractors’ quotes compared, the worship service and sermon prepared, the staff responsibilities coordinated, and the disagreements and tensions in the church settled, or now?
Who of you keeps a ledger of what counts for ministry? Like Mary, we just do. We just do by opening that jar of gifts and pouring something of ourselves out without expecting a return.
And still, whatever jar we open for Jesus will not go unnoticed. It says here in the scripture that the perfume “filled” the entire house. It worked its way into the four corners of the room. It wafted under the table and over cushions; it billowed into drawers and cabinets, and it made its presence known. Do you know that your works of mercy, your works of love, do just that? They issue an aroma that’s pleasant like aromatherapy, so people in the room breathe easier and take a sigh of relief. Ask yourself sometime: do people breathe easier because of you?
Not everyone is happy with the perfumed room though. “Frivolous women’s nonsense,” Judas says. He says that about Mary’s extravagance. And it’s not just Judas, because the other three Gospels report that all twelve disciples take issue with her. What do you think you are doing? they are saying. What a waste of money! But Mary knows what she is doing. She knows why she is pouring herself out. I think you can probably guess. She does it because earlier Mary had sat at Jesus’ feet, had spent time listening, yielding to him and had made Jesus’ words her own.
Friends, think about that. All our ministry, all our volunteer efforts, every offering given, every good deed done in the name of Christ is the result of first having sat at Jesus’ feet, of having communed with him, pondered his words and made them our own. For then, then we know why we do what we do, and that Jesus is worth the cost. Amen.
Let us pray.
O God, let me be your servant and open my treasure box for you. But first I want to sit at your feet and listen. Let me feel close to you in happiness as in heartbreak, in success as in failure. For your presence gives me comfort and the conviction that you are worth serving with all I’ve got. Amen.