Tonight we hear of washing feet and a new commandment to love one another just as Christ loved us. Tonight I want you to hear of another dinner party involving feet and love poured out:
“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (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.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’”
All of the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus being anointed by a woman, but their details to not agree. In Matthew and Mark, the woman is from Bethany and anoints Jesus’ head at the home of Simon the leper. The anointing of the head with oil or perfume was a ritual act done by prophets who anointed the kings of Israel and Judah. This was not an act done by women! But in the upside down order of God’s kingdom, it is fitting that Jesus would be anointed “Christ” by a woman in the house of another outcast – a leper. Luke says the story happened at the home of Simon the Pharisee and the woman anoints Jesus’ feet. John appears to borrow from both traditions and names the woman – Mary, the one who sat at Jesus’ feet to learn and the sister of Martha … and Lazarus whom Jesus had just raised from the dead. I confess I find it frustrating that the gospel writers are so meticulous in getting the details about which man said what to whom and where but mostly neglect to even name the women who say or do anything.
But there is a connection and John is going to great lengths to make sure you see it. His framing of the anointing by Mary at Bethany happening “six days” before the Passover sets both the anointing and the foot washing within the same Sabbath cycle. Early Jewish Christians would have understood – John sees these two events as connected and wants us to see the connection too. Just as Mary anointed Jesus’ feet Jesus washes the disciple’s feet (even the feet of the one who would betray him). Both actions are those of extravagant and sacrificial love. John mentions the cost of the perfume: 300 denarii – a year’s wages! Mary may have been saving this perfume for her own burial or that of a loved one. But now, now she gives it all away – she is all in. She knows at some level that Jesus’ time is short. She lives in a world where she has learned you don’t confront the authorities and you go along to get along. Jesus has provoked the powers that be and nobody does that and lives to tell about it. She empties the jar of perfume without hesitation – and the fragrance fills the house! Likewise Jesus empties himself emotionally and spiritually to wash the feet of his disciples. He sacrifices his ego and his status as their teacher to take the role of a slave and tells them they are to do the same.
It is telling that both of them get pushback for their actions. Matthew and Mark say the disciples as a group were indignant and offended by the unnamed woman’s actions. Luke says Simon the Pharisee was offended. John appears to take Matthew and Mark’s account and assign it to Judas Iscariot – berating Mary for her extravagant waste. If you think about it … Peter is doing something similar this night. In a way, he is berating Jesus for extravagantly wasting his status and trying to preserve Jesus’ “dignity” in refusing to have his feet washed.
Extravagant love is messy. It makes us very uncomfortable. It disturbs our neatly ordered lives because it demands the death of our egos. It demands we let go of everything we think and believe about ourselves – our carefully crafted personas and the various privileges they confer on us. It demands we let go of all the attachments and addictions with which we desperately fill our lives in a futile attempt to avoid pain, suffering and death. Extravagant love is messy because in the end, it means we must die … and that’s the last thing we want to do.
“Love one another as I have loved you.” Love one another the way Mary loved Jesus. Love one another with the messy love that began this earthy journey amidst blood and water at a cradle and will end with a flow of blood and water on a cross. Love one another unto death.