Most of us had or have in our families, some character who is different in they tend to do things “over the top.” Their dress is excessive or they talk too much or too loudly. They give gifts way out of proportion to others or their Christmas light displays are a bit (or a lot) too much. They tend to be hoarders and they often are gossips. They have no use for moderation or convention. They love excess and extravagance. We often call them “eccentric.”
Each of those words—excess, extravagance, and eccentricity—have the sense of moving away from the norm. “Eccentricity” literally means behavior that does not have the same reference point as the norm. “Excess” comes from words meaning “to move out of.” And “extravagance” means literally “to wander outside.” It is a lovely word for “coloring outside the lines.”
We do not know if Mary of Bethany was what we would call an eccentric person. But we certainly catch her this morning in an excessive and extravagant act. It is not, however, the first act of extravagance in her and her siblings’ relationship with Jesus.
First of all the relationship of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus itself is certainly odd. Jesus seems to have a special bond with them, which on its own may be no big deal, but it is odd that he would be so close to people who lived so outside the norm. We do not, of course, know all that much about them, but they appear to be three adult unmarried siblings who live together. There was nothing normal about that in Jesus’ day. It would still be odd in ours. What’s going on with these people?
Then there is the event they have just all gone through. In chapter 11, immediately before this morning’s passage, Jesus gets notice that his friend Lazarus is gravely ill. Inexplicably he delays, muttering something about the works of God being displayed. His disciples are relieved because they have just left Jerusalem (Bethany is a “suburb” of Jerusalem) and they are no hurry to go back. The religious and civic authorities in Jerusalem want Jesus’ head.
After four days, Jesus suddenly decides to go, despite the fact Lazarus is in all likelihood dead. This somewhat eccentric decision is par for the course for the disciples, and off they all go, although there is a sense of doom in the air. Thomas expresses it, “Let us go to die with him.” Maybe if they keep a low profile, everything will be OK.
Well, you know what happens. Lazarus is indeed dead and Mary and Martha are very disappointed, if not angry, with Jesus. Jesus is deeply moved by it all, and in an act way beyond extravagant, calls Lazarus out of his tomb. It was not exactly the way to keep a low profile. There were witnesses and some of them alert the authorities who decide they have had enough. Jesus must die. Caiaphas, the high priest, says words that have rung through history, “It is better … to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
Jesus will die I order to hold the center, maintain order, keep the delicate balance that was the relationship between the Jews and Rome. His tendency toward extravagance will be his end.
So here we are at supper in Bethany not long after, a reunion among friends, and it must have been a joyous one. Lazarus still, no doubt, dazed by whatever it was that just happened to him; Mary and Martha bursting with gratitude and joy.
Mary decides to give thanks for an extravagant act with an extravagant act. She takes her supply of one of the most costly substances in the world at that time, an extravagantly aromatic ointment called “nard,” or “spikenard.” We are told it is enough of the stuff to have caused the average person a year’s worth of wages. She lavishes it on Jesus.
There are many things to notice about this act. First of all, Jesus lets her do it. There is no resistance at all. That speaks of the depth of their relationship. There is a great deal of trust here. Second of all, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. That means she wasn’t following any custom at all. If she wanted to show her gratitude, she should have anointed his head. In fact, when stories like this are told in the other gospels that is exactly what happens.
What is going on? Jesus gets it. Mary is showing her gratitude, but she is also being a prophet. She has figured out what has just happened—that Jesus has exchanged his own life for that of his friend Lazarus. She is smart enough to know that there is no way Jesus is going to be allowed to live after raising someone from the dead.
So Jesus says, “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” A day which, he implies, has come. And we know it has, and that Mary was right.
Judas gets his knickers twisted, and whether or not he is outraged by the extravagance because of all the poor who could have been fed or because the money could have lined his own pockets, it does not matter. His is the voice of reason, the voice that finds extravagance like this on any level at best distracting and frivolous and at worst destructive. And he is so repulsed that he himself decides to assist the authorities in bringing Jesus down. This circus has got to be stopped.
It is important that we wrap our minds around what is happening in these stories from the final days of Jesus’ life. What is happening is an echo of the prophets, including Isaiah of the Exile from whom we heard this morning.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the days of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Jesus was God doing a new thing: new things like befriending a most unusual family, and receiving and accepting not only the gratitude but the prophecy of a woman. New things like raising someone from the dead, but also new things like accepting his own death as the only way to demonstrate and seal God’s love for the world.
I sometimes get asked—and I bet you do also—“Is your church a Bible-believing church?” I am not afraid to say, “no.” I do offer something positive, however. “We are a God-believing church.” Or sometimes I’ll say “Jesus-believing” or even “Trinity-believing” depending on what mood I’m in. One time a couple years ago when I went through this exchange, the person’s next response was, “But if you are a real God-believing church than you have to be a Bible-believing church because the only way we know God is through the Bible.” My response was something like: I read the Bible every day and my church does every Sunday—a lot of it actually—and it is very important in forming our understanding of God, but that same Bible tells us that God is always doing a new thing and so we can’t always have our eyes in that book or we might just miss something.”
We are about to experience our annual celebration from Palm Sunday through Easter Day in which we tell the old, old story and we would be wise to listen carefully, no matter how many times we have heard it. But we also need to keep our eyes and ears and all the rest of our senses, and our hearts and minds open and ready, because out of these stories God wants to do a new thing among us and within us.
We will do a series of what have become very conventional things for us, and there is great comfort in them. But we must also be ready to meet our extravagant God, who does not color in the lines very well, and is always looking for fresh ways to lavish us with his love, his justice, and his peace, and allow him to turn us into his extravagant people who do precisely the same with one another.