Grace Means Lavish Love
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 12:1-8
I want to put this gospel reading into context, because it drops us right into the middle of a very intense situation. Just before this, Jesus has raised his good friend Lazarus from the dead. For Mary, who is Lazarus’ sister, this is more than a miracle. This is getting her family back.
For Jesus, this kicks off his journey to the cross. After he brings back Lazarus, the religious authorities are horrified. And honestly, they have some valid reasons. They say, “If we let Jesus go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” This was actually a very real possibility. The Roman occupiers tolerated the Jews so long as they stayed in line and didn’t push against the status quo. Jesus was definitely a threat to the status quo.
They were afraid of what the Romans would do to them if Jesus empowered the Jews of the land to rise up. So they started making plans to prevent that.
So that’s what happens before the passage we just heard. What happens right after is Palm Sunday, Jesus riding into Jerusalem, being betrayed, getting arrested, and finally being crucified.
Today’s gospel is a rich and beautiful moment, actually. There’s a tenderness with which the gospels talk about Lazarus and his sister Mary. Lazarus is called Jesus’ friend, and Jesus wept alongside Mary when Lazarus had died. And Mary—not his mother, and not Mary Magdalene, but a different Mary—had been an attentive, loving presence to Jesus.
And so, with religious authorities threatening him and as he was looking straight into a terrifying future, Jesus goes to have dinner with those who we might call his chosen family. And Judas. I guess Judas was invited, too. After all, he was a disciple, presumably a friend, as well, though probably not as close as Lazarus and Mary.
So there are many plausible reasons for Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. Perhaps out of deep gratitude for Jesus bringing her brother back. Or perhaps she saw the stress and fear in Jesus’ face when he came to the door, and she wanted to comfort him, pour her love out for her friend.
So she takes a pound of perfume, she pours it over Jesus’ feet, and she wipes them with her hair. It is a deeply intimate and caring gesture.
But what does Judas see in this gesture? “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?”
And first of all, I don’t like how John makes a caricature of Judas. John writes, “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.” We all know how Judas betrays Jesus. We also know that he kills himself afterwards, which reveals to me that Judas was in turmoil. We don’t know what was going on inside him, but I think it was complicated. We can acknowledge his brokenness and suffering without excusing the ways he hurt people.
Whether or not he planned on stealing from the common purse, the problem with Judas’ take on Mary’s gesture is that it misses the point.
It misses a few points, actually. Judas misses the point on poverty, and he misses the point on the weight of gestures. Because Judas doesn’t understand abundance.
He thinks that poverty is about money. And, granted, 300 denarii in his time was the equivalent of a year’s wages. So that was some luxury perfume Mary used. But a lifetime of wages donated wouldn’t solve poverty. Not then, not now. It’s not lack of money that keeps people in poverty. Because there’s actually enough for all of us to live well. It’s the lack of will to lean into love and abundance that causes poverty, the lack of will to care just as much about the thriving of others as we care about our own thriving.
Jesus doesn’t say “you always have the poor with you” because he thinks that’s the natural order of things. In fact, he’s referring to a passage in Deuteronomy that says, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’
The fact is, we often don’t open our hands as widely as we could. We don’t build up the part of our imagination that can conjure a completely different way of being where everyone has what they need, a world built on God’s abundance. We will have the poor with us so long as there is scarcity among us, so long as there is sin among us.
Poverty isn’t about money, and neither is abundance. That’s the other point Judas misses.
Mary pouring perfume onto the feet of her weary and frightened friend is an outpouring of abundance. An abundance of care. An abundance of love. She lavishes him with the soothing feel and smell of that extravagant perfume. Puts him at ease. Creates space for rest and respite. And then she wipes his feet with her hair, an unbelievably intimate and vulnerable act.
But aren’t intimacy and vulnerability acts of abundance? Holding nothing back, trusting completely in another, giving freely and fully of oneself. Making space for the fullness of a particular experience, for the fullness of another person.
In washing Jesus’ feet, I think Mary sets the stage for—or maybe even inspires—Jesus’ own act of total vulnerability on the cross: giving all of himself, not knowing what might come of it, but trusting that nothing, not even the sin of the world, the sin that would send him to that cross, can overcome God’s love.
We can choose to turn away from that love, to ignore it, but nothing can separate us from it. That is the very definition of grace.
I feel for Judas that he doesn’t seem to understand grace. He seems always to be questioning God’s abundant love, and it leads him to betray his friend and teacher, even to end his own life. It breaks my heart that he doesn't know that God’s grace is so wide that it could hold even him, with all his flaws and mistakes.
I don’t want any of you to go through life like that. To feel such scarcity that you feel like you have to take away from someone else in order to have what you need. To feel so broken that you can’t imagine that God’s love could possibly extend to you.
I wish a little bit of Mary had rubbed off on Judas. Mary seems to just know that grace, that abundance in her bones. It’s so present for her that it’s easy to lavish that abundance on others, on Jesus. She knows grace, so she embodies grace, she extends that grace to others.
That’s all I want for each of you, and for myself. To know God’s grace in our bones, so that it comes easy to lavish it on every person we encounter. Amen.