A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 14: The First Sunday of Lent
Exodus 30:30-33, 1 Samuel 16:11-13, Mark 14:1-9
A woman named Mary, twelve seasoned disciples, a room filled with fragrance, a broken alabaster flask, and a Savior drenched and dripping with the most precious perfume. You’ve heard this story before. It was Holy Week. Jesus was only a few days from arrest and trial and crucifixion. But tonight, it was a celebration. Not long before this night Lazarus had been dead and buried. But tonight he was sitting at the table with Jesus—his sisters Martha and Mary were close by. It was a happy night. But we don’t hear about that. No, this evening meal is recorded in the gospels as one of shock and disbelief over what Mary did. Remember, Mary had already made her mark on the gospels when she sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to every word from his mouth, while her blessed sister ran around the house preparing a meal for them.
But, tonight, Mary really did it! Sometime, while everyone was reclining around the table, Mary came to Jesus with an extraordinary gift. Nard was imported from Northern India, the essential oil of a rare plant. Mary probably had about ten or twelve ounces of the stuff, worth a full year’s wages; today, her alabaster jar of oil would be worth tens of thousands of dollars today. And this precious nard was bottled in a glass-like, translucent alabaster flask with no lid. The bottle was sealed as one piece, the nard encased within. It did not have a screw top, a wax plug, or a cork. There was only one way to open it…break it. It was a single-use dispenser and there was no way to use just a little bit and save the rest for later. So Mary used it, pouring it, all of it, over Jesus’ body.
We’re actually not told exactly why Mary did it. We’re given no definite clues about her motivation. Was it love for her Lord? Was it gratitude for the resurrection and healing of her brother Lazarus? Was it an act of worship? We can’t know for sure. We just know what she did…and we know what the disciples thought about it.
Mark’s telling of story just says that ‘they’ rebuked her; John’s and Matthew’s telling of story single out Judas as the one who disciplined her. The disciples were shocked and simply could not believe what they were seeing. Snap! Just like that Mary had broken the alabaster jar and poured the whole thing on Jesus. Thousands of dollars, years worth of labor, were now dripping off of Jesus’ clothes. I think they were right to be shocked. Sitting and listening to Jesus while her sister did all the work on dinner, that is one thing; but this was much bigger, much more expensive. It is hard to fault the disciples for calling her to task. It is only later that we take Mary’s side because we know how the story ends, how Jesus turned on the disciples and gave them a dose of their own disciplinary medicine.
Which makes me wonder: was it so wrong for the disciples to point out that the money from the perfume could have gone to better use among the poor? It is hard to reject the force of their argument even though their spokesperson was Judas, the least honest among them. Jesus himself teaches the lesson over and over again in his ministry: deny yourself, avoid foolish indulgences of this world, scorn vanity, focus on the needs of others, pay attention to the poor and the outcast. This is the full weight of the Gospel. So, why not take that luxury, that obscenely priced perfume, and sell it so that the money could be used for something important? With that kind of funding they could have fed half the city; they could have built a few new homes; they could have erected a new church or school. Even if it was to honor Jesus, maybe she could have used a little less? The disciples cannot justify simply pouring it out in one fleeting moment.
And its hard to argue with them. They had sound reason, common sense, even biblical mandates on their side. They were being wise, and careful, and even spiritual. The disciples were being conservative, and I don’t mean politically; they were being conservers, conserving their limited resources. They had a solid, airtight case, and Mary knew no limits. The disciples saw Mary as a misguided fool at best, and a thief at worst, taking food from the mouths of starving children to fuel her extravagant demonstration.
There is no doubt about it—in this story we find ourselves, more times than not, lined up on the side of the disciples, the conservers who know how to play it safe and how to do what God wants in controlled and careful ways. It’s tough to admit, but we desire praise from Jesus just as much as the disciples did, and we’ll do just about the same things they did to receive it. We like to do what is controlled and reasonable and frugal and careful and responsible. Sudden extravagance, whether it is of the financial or edible or sexual kind, is the exact opposite of all those good things. It doesn't seem too smart to give all you’ve got all at once so that you end up with nothing left. It doesn't seem very wise to give without any thought about tomorrow.
The result of wanting praise from Jesus is that we give, we do, what we can and consider that a great feat—we believe Jesus is happy with that and we’re happy when Jesus is happy. But what’s the big deal if you’re only doing what you can afford, financially or physically? What are you saving for? A gadget? A thing? A few more sacred hours in front of the TV? Some one-on-one time with your backyard? A few extra, undisturbed morning hours of fellowship with your pillow? Playing it safe, doing the usual to feel as if Jesus is happy with you, may win you lots of points with your insurance company, your financial advisor, and your doctor, but it leaves Jesus unimpressed.
I can’t think of a single time in the entire Scriptural witness when anyone was ever commended or praised by God for playing it safe. And since the Scriptural witness is the very foundation of our lived faith, that is significant. Abraham, Moses, Deborah, Esther, David, and Elijah—these are just a few folks from the Old Testament who did anything but take it easy. Andrew, Philip, Levi, Matthew, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, and Joanna—these are just a few folks from the New Testament who put it all on the line for Jesus. On the other side you have the faithless servant who took some money from his master and buried it in the ground, while his companions invested theirs and were highly rewarded. Or Ananias and Saphira who met a grizzly end in the book of Acts for being so miserly. One of John’s worst visions in the Book of Revelation is of the lukewarm, ‘blah’ church in Laodicean. God is not impressed with a play-it-safe attitude. The disciples, with this attitude, miss the point entirely and fail their Lord.
In just a few days they're going to fail the Lord again, but this time it won’t be around a dinner table. This time it will be in a garden, when Jesus asks them to stay awake with him through the night. They sleep as if they had never slept before, and when the guards come to arrest Jesus, they turn tail and run. At Golgotha, where Jesus is crucified, John is the only disciple who musters the courage to make a brief appearance—the rest are nowhere to be found. It was a dangerous place to be, better play it safe. But they were wrong. They were wrong in the garden and at the crucifixion, and they were wrong in blasting Mary for what she did.
Mary was 100% right. She was completely vindicated. Jesus did not play the role of mediator when the disciples attacked her…he did nothing to try to pacify the sides of this confrontation. He didn’t even throw a dry bone to the disciples, with their calls for ‘play-it-safe’ faith. Jesus did not talk to Mary about habits or balance; he did not even talk to her about trying to avoid extremes. Jesus took Mary’s side completely. It was not an issue of neglecting the poor, because Jesus’ ministry proves his love and concern for the least of these. And it was not an issue of making choices between competing goods. It was simple: this was an issue of a broken container, a vessel that had to be broken and now could only be used completely with nothing held back.
And the vessel that was broken, the vessel that won the praise of Jesus was Mary herself. The broken alabaster jar was only a tangible representation of a much more significant breaking that had already happened. In her love for Jesus, and in her singular desire to serve and honor him, Mary was holding nothing back—she was broken open to him. Like the broken jar that had to be used completely once it was broken, Mary could not keep one thing back in her devotion to Jesus. She did not give herself halfway. She did not give only a part. She did not do what was safe, or reasonable, or even efficient. She did what she knew she had to do, and gave herself completely and unreservedly. That’s what was going on there at the table in Bethany. Mary was a broken vessel pouring herself out in eager service to her Lord. Once she had been broken, there was no option—she gave it all. And Jesus praises her because that total surrender, that complete giving, that all-out life is precisely what he wants for his people.
Mary did it. The disciples…well…they still didn't get it. They were still playing it safe and doing discipleship arithmetic, trying to figure out the best way to do the job—the least expensive, most practical way to get it done. They were working the angles and being reasonable, while Mary was doing exactly what broken vessels do—they give everything. Mary had it right.
This is not a comfortable conclusion to reach, is it? There is no talk here of balance or caution or careful planning. No, the point of this text is the very opposite—broken vessels, broken people, all-out, nothing held back. That is what Jesus praised, and how we apply this to our own lives of discipleship is both obvious and painfully demanding.
Jesus is not content with careful, play-it-safe disciples. He wants people who spend everything in their service, people who are broken and are pouring themselves out without limit. Jesus calls you and me to a life like that. That’s the obvious part.
The painfully demanding part is that this is not a life of careful calculating and prudent spending; it is certainly not a life of caution or conservation. It is a life of abandon, and there may be no more of a counter-cultural message than that. Does this mean that Jesus is looking for you to go out and buy a $40,000 bottle of perfume, and then go looking for a likely candidate to pour it over? Probably not. But it does mean that perhaps it is time now to pull out all the stops and to knock down the safety barriers and to go all-out in living for God. I mean, what are we saving for? What are we waiting for? If Mary had waited just a week, she’d have missed her chance...Jesus would have been dead. Mary gave of herself and all she had, while and when she could—Jesus wants and expects the same from me and you.
The great poet Wendell Berry says it like this:
...every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and love the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias…Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered the facts…Go with your love to the fields. Lie down in the shade. Rest your head in her lap. Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts. As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.
Break yourselves open today, like the alabaster jar Mary held in her hands. Break yourself open to the good news of the Gospel and God's unending love for you. The smell of your openness, your devotion, your all-out discipleship will fill the air and be so very pleasing to God. You are a precious vessel, created in the perfect image of God, filled with every good and perfect thing that comes from heaven. Break yourselves open today: to God, to Jesus Christ, and to the world. Do something that won’t compute. Practice resurrection. Amen.