April 7, 2019

5th Sunday of Lent

John 12:1-11
Isaiah 43:16-21


“You will always have poor people with you, but you will not have me.”[1] What was Jesus thinking when he said such thing? Was he serious? Or, was he only making a joke? 

Well, Judas definitely had a very strong point. After all, amongst the group of Jesus’ disciples, he was the treasurer. He knew about money and how to handle it prudently. If he lived today, he definitely would have a degree in finance or accounting.

300 silver coins was roughly the amount of money a worker would receive as his wage in A YEAR! What kind of person would ‘waste’ half a liter of such an expensive perfume in a matter of seconds! Judas was right: Mary had definitely been out of her right mind. Such money could have been used to help the poor, instead of being ‘wasted’ on Jesus’ feet.

But, was Judas right? 

Most of you would know Bollywood. Yes, it is the multi-billion-dollar movie industry in India that challenges the dominance of Hollywood. Years ago, a Bollywood producer would start the production of a movie about Jesus’ childhood. The movie would be shot in Israel, but featured an all-Indian cast. 

The movie would even include seven devotional songs.

The most disturbing part of the movie, however, was the cost. The movie would cost around $US30 million. It was the biggest price tag ever for a Bollywood production then. The average cost to produce a movie in India then was around $US500.000. [2] It means this movie would cost six times of the average cost.

Now, hundreds of millions of people in India still live with less than $2 US a day. One should start to wonder whether or not the money is better spent to alleviate poverty there instead. After all, Jesus would not want people to spend millions of dollars for movies about him, would he? Would he? 

If he would not, then why did he rebuke Judas instead of Mary? And, it was not the first time Jesus came to Mary’s defence. You probably remember of another story told by Luke in his Gospel. When Jesus and his disciples visited Martha and Mary in their house, Martha was so busy. She was trying to make sure that their guests were well looked after.

But, Mary, her sister, chose to sit down at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching. She did not help Martha. But, Jesus did not rebuke Mary; he praised her instead.[3]

In our story today, everybody was once again busy in the house to entertain their special guest: Jesus. And Mary, once again, did something controversial. Instead of helping Martha, she took half-a-litre of a very expensive perfume. She then poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair!

Yet, once again, Jesus defended her! Are we missing something here? Why did Jesus continue defending Mary who seemed to have done something outrageous?  

Perhaps, we can find the answer in the man, sitting next to Jesus during the meal: Lazarus. He was the man who had been previously raised from death by Jesus. 

When Jesus raised Lazarus from death, everyone was so shocked. The religious leaders even plotted to kill Lazarus, because many believed in Jesus because of him. But, their main target was not Lazarus. They wanted to kill the man who brought Lazarus back to life. And, we know where the story went: to the cross.

But, at the time, nobody really knew how it would end. Not even Jesus’ closest disciples knew what would happen.  

Mary, however, knew. She had an insight only a woman like her could have. She ‘smelt’ the future. But, it was not a pleasant smell: she smelt a stench, a stench of a dead body. It was a similar kind of stench she had smelt before; the kind of smell that came from the grave where her brother, Lazarus, had been laid for days.[4] But, this time, the stench did not come from Lazarus; it came from her beloved teacher, Jesus. 

So, she took her precious treasure: an expensive perfume she had kept for special occasions. She took half a litre of the perfume and poured it generously on Jesus’ feet. She wanted to get rid off that smell from Jesus’ body with a very expensive perfume. 

She did not stop there: she wiped the perfume from Jesus’ feet with her own hair. Her own hair! If you are a woman, you would understand how important hair is. Hair signifies beauty.

In Muslim societies, hair is the most precious thing a grown-up woman could offer to her husband. So, women cover their hair with a scarf whenever they are in public places. Even in Paul’s time, a woman was expected to cover her hair in public gatherings. 

Feet, on the other hand, were the dirtiest parts of human body in Jesus’ time. Ancient roads were covered with dust and animals’ droppings. And, the ancient Jewish people wore nothing more than sandals to cover their feet. When a guest visited a house, it was understandable that he must wash his feet first. And, it was the job of the slaves to wash the guests’ feet with water. 

So, to clean someone’s dirty feet with one’s hair must have been degrading to many people. But, not to Mary. Jesus soon would be laid dead inside of a tomb, just like her brother Lazarus before. Mary knew it, deep in her heart. So, she wanted to show her love to Jesus before it was all too late. And, what better way to show one’s love to someone than to give the best one had. 

Mary was not alone. What about the white marble wonder of the world in India that we call the Taj Mahal? Was it not built by a grief-stricken emperor who mourned the death of his beloved wife? Was it not built to commemorate her and his love to her? The wealth used to build such a monument could have been used to help the poor. Yet, he chose to use his richness to honour his beloved wife and their love. Today, the monument still stands as a testimony of their love.

What about the poor farmers in Bali? They dare to borrow a lot of money so they can have proper Balinese funerals for their loved ones. What about the parents who scrape the barrel so they can take their terminally ill child to Disneyland; to a trip of a lifetime, meeting her favourite characters she has only met before in movies or in her dreams? These are acts of love and they can’t be measured by money.

Judas thus missed the point because he only saw the economic value of the perfume. But, he failed to value Mary’s love to Jesus.

So, Jesus’ words need to be understood within the proper context. When he said, “You will always have poor people with you, but you will not have me,” he did not dismiss the plight of the poor. What he dismissed was the misplaced critique that Judas directed at Mary. 

But, there is something more to the story. Mary generously poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet not only to prepare him for his death. She was preparing him for something beyond his death, namely his resurrection!

Yes, Mary saw beyond the tomb. The story would not end on the cross or the tomb. Mary knew it. As Lazarus, her brother, was raised from the dead, she knew that Jesus too would rise from death.  She must have remembered Jesus’ words before: “I am the resurrection and the life.”[5] Yes, Jesus is the resurrection itself. He is life itself. Thus, no tomb could ever contain him. 

Indeed, God would make something completely new. When the people of Israel were in captivity, a prophet asked them to never lose hope. He asked them to remember the way God rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. But, this time, God would do something even better than what God did in the past!  Likewise, Lazarus’ resurrection from death pointed to something greater on Easter day.

Friends, Lent is a journey with Jesus to his cross. But, the journey in Lent does not end there. It ends in an empty tomb! Today, we are invited to join Mary in her journey of tear, mourning for the suffering and death of Jesus. But, also with Mary, we are invited to join in the journey of hope;

a journey where our weeping will surely be turned into joy; where death, in whatever form it may manifest itself in our life, will surely be defeated by life. We knew this because we have seen this in the one whose main business are resurrection and life.

Toby Keva

[1] Mark 12:8 (Good News Translation)

[2] Bollywood movie about Jesus to be filmed in Israel, an article on www.adelaidenow.com (published on September 1, 2010 at 10:47am)

[3] Luke 10:38-42

[4] Read John 11:38-39

[5] John 11:25 (Good News Translation)