Lent 5-C - John 12: 1-8
Kurt Vonnegut once preached on this very story. He calls it Spikenard Saturday. It’s the night before Palm Sunday in John’s gospel. In a sense it is about mercy – mercy now, not later. Although as the story unfolds Jesus allows that there will always be time for mercy now. Perhaps that is what is meant by The Eternal Now – being merciful yesterday, today and tomorrow; being merciful always and in all ways.
At the outset Vonnegut says the one good idea we have been given so far is to be merciful. Perhaps, he ponders, one day we will be given another good idea and then we will have two good ideas. In the meantime, he believes that music – that ineffable expression of the human heart almost hard to define and even harder to understand why it moves us so – music is that second good idea being born.
Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem and his inevitable showdown and march to the scaffold, has returned to Bethany and the house of Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus who had been as good as dead until Jesus, having mercy on him, called him out of the tomb and ordered the crowd to “unbind him and set him free.” Lazarus, of course, is a stand-in for all others, for all of us, who are bound by sin – the sin of whatever it is that separates us from the love of God as our prayer book defines it. Sin is what makes us unable to accept God’s mercy now.
Martha is serving dinner. No surprise there. Mary, now behaving much more like Martha, assumes the position of the lowest household slave and begins to anoint Jesus’ feet with nard – the costly ointment from the Spikenard plant. This is all at once humble, merciful and downright extravagant on Mary’s part. As Judas the Traitor would observe, this ointment could bring in 300 denarii on today’s market. One denarii was about one day’s wages. Nearly a year’s worth of wages being lavished on Jesus’ feet.
It takes someone like the late Kurt Vonnegut to see the humor in all of this. First off you have the King of Kings, Lord of Lords being anointed. But unlike the kings of old who were anointed meshia, messiah, God’s chosen, with oil on their heads with the oil flowing down through their beards, this King of Kings gets his feet anointed. Additionally you have a woman doing this – a woman who should not even be seen with men other than her husband in those days – let alone wiping his feet with her hair. And what of the irony (?) that it is Jesus who will, the night before Good Friday, assume the same posture as Mary to wash his disciples’ feet, rather than the disciples caring for their master. Something, as we say, is afoot.
And on both occasions there is a disciple, Judas on this night, Peter on Maundy Thursday, who protests just what is going on. Judas, who represents our inner Pharisee and inner Puritan, all of a sudden holier than the King of Kings himself! “No way! This cannot be right! Why don’t we sell the ointment and give the money to the poor?” Believing in his heart that he has finally understood what Jesus was about. And despite the unkind editorial remarks of the editors of the fourth gospel, we should admit that in fact he is not far from wrong. His mistake here is that he is simply not living in the moment as we might say nowadays.
Imagine, for just a moment, having walked nearly a hundred miles or so on the rocky and dusty highways and bi-ways of Israel without much more than sandals on your feet under the hot sun by day and through the cold, chill air at night. Now close your eyes and try to imagine someone like Mary massaging your feet with oil and wiping them with her hair. Is that a smile creeping across your face right about now? Can we allow ourselves some idea of just how Jesus, who knows that in a mere few days he will feel all the pain and suffering that a mortal can feel when he dies on the cross, might feel right then and there in Bethany? No doubt it feels really really good. Can anyone blame him at all for feeling that way?
It is a wonder that Jesus does not come out with anything more stern than his astute observation, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Of course by now we all know it was said in Aramaic, and may have sounded more like, “Don’t worry, Judas. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone. I have a tough road to go from here. Why not let her show me a little mercy now?”
Vonnegut says that’s it. That’s the joke. “Do you really think there won’t be enough poor people to serve after I’m gone?” might be the sense of it here. It is often hard to see the humor in the Bible because, well, it’s the Bible. And dark humor like this is often difficult to pick up even in real life. But what we are meant to do is laugh at ourselves and at the notion that there was no more time than that very moment to sell the oil and serve the poor when in fact it is our lifetime vocation as the body of Christ! “Don’t sweat it, Judas, you’ll have plenty of time and money to do that yourself. After all, as the editor says, you have the purse and all the money, AND you are a thief!” Do we get it now?
Judas did not get it. And neither do a lot of well-meaning Christians today. Verse 8 tends to be heard as something more like this, “Poor people are hopeless. We will always be stuck with them. Jesus said so.” Which then appears to give people warrant to say other things like the poor are helpless and hopeless because they are lazy, or dumb, or drink too much, or take drugs, and have too many children, and on and on it goes.
The Thursday following Spikenard Saturday Jesus takes Mary’s lead, gets on his knees with a wash basin and towel and begins washing feet and saying, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” That is, there is no end to a life of serving others as I have served you. There is no time for being merciful as important as the present moment. Show a little mercy now, not later.
If we could not understand it on Spikenard Saturday, surely when we see Jesus on his knees washing feet on the very night he would also say, “Do this in remembrance of me,” surely, he must be thinking, they will get it now. Surely we do, don’t we?
So let Jesus wash your feet. And know that when we wash others’ feet and take care of the poor that we are in fact joining ourselves with Mary of Bethany in anointing and caring for our Lord’s feet as well. As you do this for the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you do it for me. Amen.
Words and Music Mary Gauthier
My father could use a little mercy now
The fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground
His work is almost over it won't be long, he won't be around
I love my father, he could use some mercy now
My brother could use a little mercy now
He's a stranger to freedom, he's shackled to his fear and his doubt
The pain that he lives in it's almost more than living will allow
I love my brother, he could use some mercy now
My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit it's going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now
Every living thing could use a little mercy now
Only the hand of grace can end the race towards another mushroom cloud
People in power, they'll do anything to keep their crown
I love life and life itself could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it but we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance between hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now