Revised Common Lectionary Reflection for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 3, 2022*
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 give to the poor?” John 12:3-5
Poor Judas! He just didn’t get it. He is so focused on hoarding and amassing and “bean-counting” that he misses the entire point of life. The fourth evangelist makes it clear to us that Judas’ self-proclaimed emphasis on providing for the poor has little if nothing to do with his actual practice. Why in the world would anyone just “throw away” the equivalent of about a year’s worth of wages for the average laborer.
But Mary sees something more. Mary lives in the moment. She has seen her brother dead and stinking, and she has seen him resurrected. No one’s next breath is guaranteed; each moment is sheer gift. More than that, Mary knows instinctively that she is in the presence of Divine grace, love, and light. Remember, this is the same woman who sat at the feet of Jesus while her sister Martha went about the “busyness” of preparing a meal (Guess who’s still preparing the meal today?). Mary somehow intuits that this moment requires a grateful response and that she must offer the very best of herself to Jesus. Her love and her gift are lavish. She holds nothing back and saves nothing for another day or a better time or the proper context.
If asked whether Judas or Mary is the better steward of that pound of pricey essential oil, most of us would readily choose Mary. We hold the long view of history, we see Jesus through the lens of established Christian tradition, and we know this story well. Of course it makes sense to give our best to the Lord!
Yet can we say that with certainty? What if we replaced the extravagant perfume offering with a year’s worth of our own time and/or wages? Would we respond more like Judas or Mary? What else in our individual lives or in our corporate lives might be the 21st century equivalent of Mary’s lavish gift of prodigal love and complete trust? Think of how long it might have taken her to save up the necessary funds to purchase that amount of nard.
Do we really give God our very best, or do we give God the leftovers of our lives? Are we truly willing to trust God with all that we have and every fiber of our being, or do we hold back and play it safe out of fear or selfishness? This week’s odd gospel story invites us to consider what it means to be a faithful disciples and steward of God’s gifts. Perhaps we ought to think, too, of how willing we are to pour out our congregational resources in mission and ministry? Do we hoard our resources in fear of having to close our doors, or do we act with a mixture of wisdom and bold faith to meet the needs around us, prayerfully trusting in the process that God’s will be done? How many of our congregations are equipping the faithful to consider not only the weekly offering plate and annual stewardship drive but also planning for legacy giving and a faithful conclusion to this portion of the eternal journey?
As you think about preaching and teaching this week, consider how you might lift up questions of faithful stewardship through this brief story in John’s gospel. In light of Judas’ and Mary’s choices and attitudes, what can we learn and where do we wish to locate ourselves in the story? God has promised to be faithful and to provide for our needs. Are you ready to be lavish with your love, with your faith, and with your life in response to this amazing gift?
Invite people in the congregation to share stories of God’s lavish provisions in response to faithful discipleship. You might be surprised at just how many stories surface. If possible find one story to “prime the pump” or lead with an example from your own life. Consider having people identify what would be the equivalent of Mary’s costly and lavish gift of nard. You might close your sermon by having the congregation sing “We Are an Offering” by Dwight Liles ©1984 Word Music, LLC. (For ELCA Lutherans the hymn is #692 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.)
Why not consider Paul’s words from Philippians 3:4b-14. Paul had all the right credentials, the cool connections, and the proper pedigree. Once Christ encountered him, however, he gave up everything that had held meaning for him and turned his eyes toward Jesus. Instead of too cool, Paul became a holy fool in the eyes of the world. He turned from striving for power and prestige to pressing on toward the prize of eternal life. His faith has set him free to chart a different course, to follow Christ at all costs.
What might it mean for teens today to “…press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus”? What are the challenges? What are the rewards? How and where do they find strength to press on?
If you want to work with Psalm 126, talk to the children about how God has been turning sadness to smiles for a long, long time. Give them a brief overview of the suffering of the Israelites, God’s chosen people. Granted they brought the suffering on themselves, but God was always there Waiting to turn their sorrow to joy. Consider giving them a handout with two round faces. For the one on the left make the “smiley” mouth upside down and maybe even draw a tear. Invite the children to turn the frown upside down in the second picture. Be sure to print Psalm 126:5-6 on the sheet, too.
Another option is to talk about St. Patrick. I plan to make oatmeal shortbread cookies to give to the children after I share Patrick’s story. Here’s the recipe:
Oatmeal Shortbread Cut-Outs
1 cup butter, softened
1 t. vanilla extract
2/3 cup sugar
2 ½ cup sifted, all-purpose flour
1 cup oats
Beat butter until creamy; beat in sugar gradually. Blend in egg and vanilla. Gradually add flour, mixing thoroughly. Stir in oats. Chill dough. Roll out on lightly floured board to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into desired shapes with cutters. Bake on greased sheets in preheated 350 degree oven for 8-10 minutes. When cool frost with decorator icing (Combine 2 cups powdered sugar, 2 T +/- milk, and 1 t. vanilla extract or almond extract in a bowl until blended. Add milk as needed one T at a time until desired consistency is reached. Spread on cookies to frost.)
*This reflection was first published in 2013.