Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Years ago, when I was first exposed to this passage, it was incomprehensible to me that anyone would spend a year’s salary (the equivalent value of 300 denarii) to anoint someone’s feet. Who among us would spend a years salary in such a way? The gift was exuberant, extravagant and supremely impractical. Judas’ question, regardless of his motivation seemed absolutely valid. How do reconcile adoration and service? Is not building a temple self indulgent in the face of human need?
I have just returned from ten days in France and am still sifting through my impressions but throughout the trip, this passage served as a background for my experience.
The churches in France are filled with majesty. The cathedrals were typically hundreds of years old and often took over a hundred years to build. The physical effort, the craftsmanship and the dedication to a task that would not be completed for generations is beyond imagining. Yet by the third or fourth Cathedral, my photographs started becoming indistinguishable. If I didn’t take a picture of a plaque, I would have no idea which was which. Our guide referred to such cathedral fatigue as ABC—another bloody church. (It was difficult, at least for me, to experience the alternate translation—another beautiful church—because, while true, it was like looking at a majestic peak or waterfall—the awe starts to wear off after the twenty third time.
How easy it is to take awe (and life) for granted—and lose it. In terms of faith in real life, this reality was driven home in the grief group at our church. Each of the members have lost an integral part of their lives. The moments they now longed for were barely noticeable when they occurred but had become sharp stabs in their absence. All of the clichés about living in the present—no matter what it is—are all true. We often cannot know what is precious until it is no longer there. The reverse is equally true. Many of our early priorities become dead ends as we look retrospectively. It takes quite a bit of living to sort out what really matters in our lives.
Of course in real life, there are many competing priorities and it is hard to figure out in real time what will be more important. Is savoring a cup of coffee with your spouse more important than getting to work on time? If it will cost you your job and put your family in jeopardy—not so much. If it is an oasis of connection that feeds your relationship and your day, what else would you do? But the choices are rarely that clear—nor do we actually consider that we are making choices. More than likely we are following a routine and are inconvenienced by making a choice. We choose one side of a dilemma and go with it. Unfortunately, either/or choices are almost always artificial. Cathedrals versus homeless shelter are but one example of a false dichotomy.
One of the more noticeable features of many of the cathedrals we visited was the defacement of the statues and carving. Every headless statue was a reminder of human self-righteousness. In the name of ‘true’ faith, damage of every kind has been perpetrated. If it isn’t Islamic extremist, it is Protestant or Catholic extremist who justify doing harm in the name of God. Such certainty is as idolatrous as any statue. It solves the problem of right and wrong (which is which depends entirely on whose ox is getting gored) but it betrays loving. When we self-righteously defend our choices as if we were right, life can only be adversarial and ultimately the enemy of loving.
Loving requires we live in ambiguity, uncertainty and humility. Some days, it is most loving to get to work. Other days, it is most loving to sip the coffee. In real life we can not be certain. We let love guide us and we live real life in the space between. Even if we later discover we erred in our choice, it is our willingness to give up our way in order to leave room for God that we live and move in faith. For Christians, this is the core of confession.
In my serpentine way, this brings me back to Jesus, Mary and Judas. Mary shattered every gender-based taboo in her century—and ours. It was unheard of, and probably uncomfortably sensual, for a woman to initiate such intimate physical contact with a man—in public. What woman among you would ever do such a thing? It is a dimension of adoration that is beyond our imagining. It is unseemly. And when we the add the cost of the oil to the equation, it is impractical and exorbitant. But there is a dimension of love that is all of those things.
We saw similar rule breaking in last week’s text — the ‘Prodigal Son’. An often missed detail of the story is that ‘while he was far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion… (Luke 15:20). Love was offered without regard to what was ‘fair’, right or expected. The boy did not even have time to give his prepared speech. There is no report of what happened after the feast. We only know that on that day, the father’s joy knew no bounds.
The human element in the story is Judas questioning the ‘appropriateness’ of such extravagance. Most of us praise the idea of unconditional love but such love is very uncomfortable. Ask the elder brother or anyone watching Mary. Don’t we all say a silent yes, but…. when promised God’s love. We want rules and we want standards—so we will know where we stand. But God doesn’t play by our rules.
Service and adoration cannot be separated. The time for love is now. The time for unbounded love is now. Don’t wait till after the one you love is dead. (She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.) In ordinary relationships, we all need to be treasured and we are all called to inconvenience ourselves on behalf of those we love. Loving is not either/or —we all must serve but we cannot only serve. Nor can we only be adored.
Jesus’ whole life was about inclusion and loving the unlovable. The poor were always with him. The needs of others never cease but that truth does not contradict that Jesus, too, needed to be loved. If he didn’t, he wasn’t human. Every human being needs to be cherished. That is God’s promise to us.
While sitting quietly in Notre Dame cathedral, I felt awe. There is more detail and ornamentation than my eye could take in. (It was like trying to photograph the Grand Canyon—you can get the picture but not the experience). I’m sure the peasants, artisans and architects had many, many motives but I would like to think some of the motivation was the same as Mary—exuberant impractical head over heels gratitude and love.
That said, the irony that a nation that self identifies as 60% Catholic has only 6% attending mass does not escape me. Many places of worship have become museums—literally and figuratively. There is a reason the great commandment comes in two parts—”Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and strength AND love your neighbor as yourself.” Adoration should never preclude service nor service preclude adoration.
Trust God’s love. It is quite impractical. Love one another deeply, from the heart. That too is impractical, costly and difficult. But it is what finally matters. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling forover 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.