Monday, September 17, 2012

The Extravagance of Love

And the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went from the country up to Jerusalem before the Passover, to purify themselves. Then they sought Jesus, and spoke among themselves as they stood in the temple, "What do you think -- that He will not come to the feast?" Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a command, that if anyone knew where He was, he should report it, that they might seize Him.

Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper, and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, who would betray Him, said, "Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always."

- John 11:55-12:8

In last week's readings, we read about the raising of Lazarus, Jesus' seventh and final sign in John's Gospels. For the story of Lazarus' raising, see Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick; Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died; and Lazarus, come forth! In Saturday's reading, we learned of the aftermath of this sign, the most powerful and potent of all. At the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, many mourners had come from Jerusalem. They were among those of the people who followed the leadership in the temple. After this sign, many of them believed, but others among them went and told the Pharisees the things that Jesus did. The Pharisees and the chief priests made a council. They asked, "What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation." Caiaphas was the high priest that year. He told them, "You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish." Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad. Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death. Jesus then went into the country near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim.

And the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went from the country up to Jerusalem before the Passover, to purify themselves. Then they sought Jesus, and spoke among themselves as they stood in the temple, "What do you think -- that He will not come to the feast?" Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a command, that if anyone knew where He was, he should report it, that they might seize Him. Jesus has attended two Passover festivals already in John's Gospel. This will be His third, and final, in His ministry. For these readings, we remember that the term "the Jews" is generally used in John's Gospel to denote those who prevail in the leadership at the temple, and their followers. By now Jesus knows they wish to put Him to death, and hasn't walked among these people. My study bible has a note: "Because Jesus is the Lamb of God (1:29), the connection between the Passover and the death of Jesus is important, and John emphasizes it over and over again (see 2:13, 23; 6:4; 12:1; 13:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14, 42)."

Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper, and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Here is a picture for us, a kind of icon. The family of Lazarus prepare a supper. Naturally, Martha is serving. In all stories of these sisters, it is Martha who is busy with duties of hospitality. Jesus' disciples sit with Lazarus at the table, one who has been raised, formerly dead. It is a kind of picture of salvation, of family in Jesus' name. There are all kinds of ways in which we may in some sense or aspect be dead, but Jesus, as He has said, is the resurrection and the life. These are Jesus words' to Martha from Thursday's reading: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live." Through Him, we sit at table among His followers, and we live. It is also a kind of picture of the Resurrection itself, in which all that lives in Him is transfigured and glorified. Bethany, we remember is about two miles east of Jerusalem. Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem for the Passover.

Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. This act of deep love and true devotion is referenced already in John's Gospel, in Wednesday's reading. So powerful is this symbol, so great is this act of love, that it was obviously widely known among the believers at the time John wrote his Gospel. It has often been referenced as the "extravagance of love." That the whole house is filled with the fragrance of the oil is a kind of reference to prayer. Her act of deep love is one that will reverberate everywhere, to others, even beyond space and time. Prayer is like a fragrance that ascends to God.

But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, who would betray Him, said, "Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always." My study bible notes: "The account of the anointing contrasts Mary's act of devotion -- the 'extravagance of love' -- with Judas's bitter cynicism. Anticipating His death, Jesus considers the anointing to be a symbol of preparation of his body for burial (vv. 7, 8)."

Judas doesn't seem capable of understanding Mary's great act of love, of devotion to Christ. We know of the love that was between Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus. The Gospel has told us so repeatedly over the past few readings (see last week's as noted above). Luke's Gospel has also given us an account of Mary, and her character, and the ways that Jesus viewed her. For the early Church, she clearly remained an important and even a towering figure, as she does in the Gospels. But, even so, Mary is the one who sits in mourning, who sits at the feet of Jesus. who listens and chooses the good part. She responds quickly when secretly called to Him. And here, she pours the expensive fragrance on His feet, wiping them with her hair. Her act of love then becomes an anointing also for her, the fragrance a kind of symbol of her spiritual purity, what is truly in her heart, in her love for God. Why does Judas not understand this love? This language of love and its fragrance, its real spiritual devotion, is not something he can understand nor grasp when Jesus tells it to him. John's Gospel tells us he's avaricious, but there's much more to it than that. Judas will respond to this rebuke by betrayal. There's a depth to love that Jesus calls us toward. It's much more than doing good deeds, counting up what we can do like notches in a tablet. Love asks us much more, and that is the whole devotion of our hearts. And in that love is the language of God, the very relationships God will establish. This is a place much, much deeper than the things that we can count and measure on our terms. It is a place where God can be at work in our lives, moving us to the true good works that God wants of us, not what we can calculate on our terms. So, where does that language of love come from in you? How does its spiritual fragrance come to you and infuse your life?