Today begins the season within a season that we call Passiontide - taking us from today, the 5th Sunday in Lent, through Holy Week to the cross and the tomb. Within these fourteen days there are many themes on which to reflect, many emotions with which we come into contact. That’s true even in the two readings we’ve heard this morning. Neither of them actually mentions the cross, but the cross stands at the heart of what each of them has to say. We hear Paul defending his Jewish credentials against those who it seems have been saying he’s a traitor to his Jewish faith. On the contrary, he says, I’ve found the answer to a question my faith as I once knew it could never answer. And that answer is Christ Jesus. We’ll come back to Paul the Pharisee, and what changed him, a bit later.
First let’s think about our Gospel reading, where Jesus is anointed with costly oil, and Judas is mightily offended by it. It’s a story of generous giving, it’s a story about love; and there’s perhaps a hint that those friends of Jesus at Bethany, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, knew more or suspected more about what lay ahead for Jesus than did his disciples.
The giving - and, more to the point, the receiving - of gifts can be a minefield in public service. Take these words from the guidelines regarding the Planning Inspectorate, for example. “It is an overarching principle that individuals working for the Inspectorate must adhere to the highest standards of public service. Dealing with offers of gifts, benefit or hospitality - if ever in doubt a polite but firm refusal is the right action. The Civil Service Code states that Civil Servants must not accept gifts or hospitality or receive other benefits from anyone which might reasonably be seen to compromise their personal judgement or integrity.” Which might reasonably be seen by whom, I wonder? And when? What might seem an innocent act of friendship now might look very different with hindsight, especially where something goes wrong.
Anyway, the reasoning behind these kind of rules is clearly sensible: an expensive gift could be seen as a bribe even if it was just given out of friendship. And even then it could influence a decision. But suspicion regarding generous giving isn’t restricted to the Civil Service. All of us probably tend to look a bit askance at acts of open extravagance, of money or expensive gifts being thrown around. We might mistrust the impulse behind the gift, or feel at a loss because we’re not in a position to be equally lavish in response: either way it can leave us feeling uncomfortable. So even without John’s rather snide remarks about Judas being a thief, the extravagant giving of Mary, filling the whole house with perfume, might have left us as uncomfortable, were we there, as it did Judas.
Our Gospel story unfolds with a sense of tension in the air. Jerusalem was a dangerous place, and though the disciples were convinced Jesus was going there as Messiah, and therefore bound to win the day, they also knew it was going to be pretty tough.
The previous chapter in John’s Gospel tells the story of Lazarus raised from the dead. That story must have spread widely and quickly, and it won’t always have been heard gladly. There were those who wanted rid of this man before he stirred things up any more. Some among the Pharisees were plotting to have Jesus killed; they believed that if they didn’t stop him the Romans would destroy the nation itself. So maybe Mary knew enough to fear she might be about to lose her dearest friend.
Our Lenten journey takes us toward Jerusalem, week by week. That’s especially true this year; most of our readings come from Luke’s Gospel, and that journey to Jerusalem is one of Luke’s great themes. We know that Jerusalem will be a place of challenge and pain and ultimately of a terrible and degrading death. And now we’re near the end of the journey. Next week we’ll stand at the foot of the cross to see our Lord breathe his last. But we know how the story ends, so we’re already planning for Easter.
That wasn’t so for the people gathered at Bethany that night. The disciples had dreams of a military victory and thrones from which they would share in the government of Israel. But Mary perhaps could think only of death; and maybe this anointing was her last desperate attempt to hold on to Jesus. Of course we can’t know, and the story doesn’t tell us. But we do know that while Jesus had only a little time left of his earthly journey, and maybe Mary could sense that, what he was going to do in Jerusalem would prove God’s abundant grace and boundless love. This is the God who restores the hopeless, who makes rivers flow in the desert.
And - as Jesus’ response makes clear - Mary’s generous gift is itself a testimony to and a reflection of that wonderful abundant grace, the amazing grace of which John Newton sang. In this Gospel we see two contrasting ways of responding to the problems and challenges of life. Mary, in gratitude for her brother Lazarus’ life, but maybe also aware that Jesus will die in Jerusalem, gives with absurd generosity; and with abandonment too - see how she wipes his feet with her hair. The disciples would have been very disturbed to see such a flagrant declaration of love. It won’t only have been Judas who felt uncomfortable.
And meanwhile, just off the edge of the picture, we have the Pharisees, and others who joined them – and eventually, the Roman authorities too – responding in a way that’s all too familiar. They are privileged people who feel their power base to be under threat. So they do whatever they can to tighten their grip and reassert control. And if that requires a death, then so be it. The end, it seems, will justify any means to hand.
Mary’s way is to give all we’ve got; while the Pharisees and their allies aim to do whatever it takes to keep control. We instinctively label the Pharisees as the baddies, and it’s clear that John had it in for Judas when he set this story down; but, be honest: most of us, in a similar boat, might also opt for their way, and to do what we can to keep control.
We might even find ourselves agreeing with Judas. “It’s such a waste! Think how much good could have been done with all the money that oil cost!” And then of course there was Mary’s sensuous and abandoned behaviour: no respectable woman would wear her hair down in company, let alone use it in such a flagrant fashion.
And, as I’ve said, we may well feel discomforted by acts of excessive generosity. Our culture encourages us to take only measured risks, and of course, in many ways that’s wise. But our God has no use for cost-benefit analysis, he’s profligate in the generosity of his grace; we see his grace in Jesus, who calls us to be like he is and to do as he does: to take the risk: give without counting the cost, love one another as I love you.
And this seems to lead me back to Paul. In his former existence as a sincere and zealous Pharisee, Paul thought he was serving God by doing all he could to keep control, and by persecuting the followers of this dangerous man Jesus of Nazareth. He was getting it badly wrong, but he did what he did because he wanted to do what he thought God wanted. And by keeping control and working to fulfil every point of the Law, he thought he was getting it right.
He had to meet Jesus on the road to Damascus before he could see the truth, that ultimately those who aim to keep control lose it, and lose it for ever. Even the most zealous keeper of the Law will still fall short of the perfection of God; and those who live by the Law can only be judged by the Law.
That’s where Paul was until, as he put it, “Christ took hold of me.” He came to see that what happened on the cross begins a new story: a story of generous love, the love that’s mirrored in that lavish gift of perfumed oil that filled the house with fragrance. God’s love is like that, only much, much more. So may we embrace the impulse we usually deny, to give as abundantly as we can. We know how the story ends: God makes rivers flow in the driest desert. So shouldn’t we be kneeling with Mary in that perfumed room rather than standing with the Pharisees in their quest to keep control?