From Prodigal to Prodigal – Lent 5C – Jn. 12:1-8 [11:55-57; 12:9-11]
St. Mark’s – 3/13/16 – Lorraine Ljunggren
We human beings are people of stories. Stories tell us of our origins. Stories give us a framework on which we hang our past and from which we embark on our futures. Stories help us mark the milestones of life and they help us imagine the possibilities yet to unfold.
Peoples of all faith traditions have this reality in common. All people of faith rely on stories to anchor our roots and to guide our choices yet to be made.
The primary stories on which we rely in the Christian tradition are those found in the Old and New Testaments and some sandwiched in between in what are called Intertestamental Writings, or the Apocrypha. In these stories we hear over and over again that there is a loving God who calls us to love in return and more. We are also to love our neighbors – all of our neighbors – all of God’s people. We – you and I – are all people of these stories – part of the Jesus story.
These are stories which challenge us and, at the same time, remind us that in all circumstances God is present, calling us to remember who and whose we are.
Last week we engaged a parable Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel of a son whose choices tell us he loses sight of who he is and who God creates him to be. He becomes disconnected from his sacred story, the one grounded in love of God and respect for family, the one grounded in making wise and moral choices. We acknowledge his story is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
We met an older son whose heart is so mired in pain that anger is the only way he seems able to cope. This son also loses sight of who he is and who God creates him to be.
In our exploration of their story we discovered anew the word ‘prodigal’ means more than wasteful and reckless. ‘Prodigal’ also means bounteous, yielding abundantly, profuse, riotous and teeming as in teeming with life! Or, might we better say, teeming with love.
The parents, particularly the father, keep strong the connection to the sacred stories which anchor their roots and which guide their choices. Their story shows how deep and abiding love can restore relationships – how deep and abiding love can at least offer the restoration of relationships. The father’s love is prodigal.
Today in John’s Gospel we leap from one prodigal to another. John casts us deep into a dramatic part of the Jesus story – the story which is the source of what grows out of Jesus’s Jewish faith to eventually become Christianity.
We find ourselves with Jesus and some of his close friends and at least one, if not more, disciples. We enter upon an evening meal in Bethany, a mere two miles from Jerusalem. It is now only six days before the Festival of Passover. Passover is a liturgical rite which springs from the story of liberation and love which anchors Jewish people at all times and in all places. The story of God’s faithful love for God’s people. The Passover is Jesus’ story, too. It anchors his roots and guides the choices he makes.
Today’s Gospel reading is set in between two important and very short pieces of the story. Just prior to today’s verses, the Gospel writer says that some people in Jerusalem “…were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’” (Jn. 11:56-57)
The people are asking those questions because John’s Gospel also says, “…the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” (Jn. 11:57)
We are poised on the edge of Jesus’ entering into the Holy City to face – well – to face the power, the insecurity, and the cruelty of the Roman Empire.
The second important piece of information has to do with the hosts of this evening’s dinner. The home belongs to a brother and two sisters: Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. It’s very important to remember or learn that very recently Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead! Lazarus was already entombed for four days when Jesus arrived on that scene and worked what is calmly called one of Jesus’ signs. In other words, a sign pointing to who he is as the incarnation of God.
Can we imagine how we would feel if we learned someone dead and buried three days is suddenly alive again?!
To learn that Jesus of Nazareth is credited with that drastic shake-up of the created order, shakes up some of the religious authorities living in Jerusalem. If we read just a little farther than today’s lesson, we discover that there is also a plan to put Lazarus to death. Clearly Jesus’ actions are risk-taking to the ‘nth-degree.’
Back to this evening’s meal!
Mary, over in Luke’s Gospel, is portrayed as studying at the feet of Jesus – that is, listening and learning from his teachings. A role more often associated with men of that time. Though, this seems a sort of ‘proof’ that the role of women is much broader than some of our brothers and even sisters in other Jesus traditions might think.
Out of the blue Mary, becomes our other ‘prodigal!’ She brings to the table a profuse amount – a pound – a pound of very, very expensive ointment called ‘nard,’ which, in its perfume form, yields a fragrance so abundant it is breath-taking. It is expensive because the plant is generally found in the Himalayas, some three thousand miles away from Bethany! Interestingly enough, the plant’s root is said to have healing properties as well as being a source of a perfumed ointment.
Mary is our prodigal because she takes the nard and uses it to anoint Jesus’ feet.
It must catch everyone off guard – it must cause everyone in the house to sit up and take notice! Perhaps to look around to find the source of the sudden fragrance. The question, ‘What’s going on here?’ must certainly spring to mind among everyone in the house even if it isn’t spoken aloud.
We are caught off guard as well. We want to ask, “Mary, we know you are a disciple – a faithful follower of Jesus, but what are you doing?! Guests are accustomed to having their feet washed when entering a home, but that takes place by the door and it isn’t something a homeowner such as yourself is ever expected to do. And here you are, with everyone reclining around the table, and you are anointing Jesus’ feet?!” (pause)
Mary’s respect and love for Jesus is, indeed, prodigal. It is abundantly generous. It is totally unexpected and leaves everyone speechless.
Well, not everyone.
Judas protests that the perfume could be sold for the equivalent of an entire year’s wages and the money used to benefit the poor. A follower of Jesus, Judas is also rooted in the stories of Judaism. He knows, undoubtedly, that helping those in need is part of their heritage and part of Jesus’ ministry.
Then, as an aside, John’s Gospel warns us that Judas will betray Jesus. John’s Gospel throws an additional curve in the story by claiming Judas steals from the provisions made for the poor. … Perhaps.
In any case, another voice – this time belonging to Jesus – says, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” (Jn. 12:7)
We want to say, “But, Jesus, this is not the day of your burial.”
Mary the prodigal is wiser than we may realize. She can’t ignore the warning signs that Jesus is about to run head-on into – into worldly powers which, when feeling threatened, can wreak havoc on an individual or an entire nation.
In this act of discipleship we can wonder if Mary’s prodigal anointing of Jesus’ feet is to prepare us for Jesus washing the feet of his disciples the night he will be betrayed. A betrayal which lurks only days away.
Looking back through time and tradition, we can see the parallels. Love acted out in as humble a form of service as we can imagine.
Mary’s frankly outrageous act of anointing Jesus’ feet asks us to consider how deeply we feel anchored in the story of God’s love for God’s people. It asks us to consider how much a part of our inner being and outer actions is our love for Jesus. It asks us to consider if Jesus’ story is, in fact, our story.
We get to choose. The stories of the world in our day are not so different from those in Jesus’ day. There are modern day empires which would lure us into stories which do not appear rooted in the love of God and neighbor. There are those who are prodigals in the sense they are reckless and wasteful and disregard the needs of so many so clearly evident in the world. There are powers still which can and do wreak havoc on individuals or entire nations.
We get to choose the story of which we are a part.
We can give thanks that there are still those among us – and hopefully us, ourselves – whose life stories reveal a prodigal love of God and love of our neighbors – all of our neighbors – all of God’s people. With God’s help, we – you and I – are all people of the ancient and sacred stories of prodigal love – with God’s help we are part of the Jesus story. Amen.