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“A Costly Choice”
John 12: 1-8
April 3, 2022
Fifth Sunday in Lent
In the midst of the horror and tragedy of the war in Ukraine, there are acts of incredible generosity. You may have seen the stories of people opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees. A woman in Bulgaria was sitting in her living room watching the news: “I was...thinking about all the people [fleeing] their country,” she said. “I was looking at my couch, thinking I’d really love to offer it to someone in need.” She set up a Facebook group called “Accommodation, Help and Shelter for Ukraine,” expecting a modest response; the group now has over 80,000 members.
People who normally rented rooms or apartments or vacation homes through Air-BNB and other sources are providing them to refugees free of charge. Owners of vacation rental companies set up platforms to connect people offering property with Ukrainians in need. For many of these people, renting accommodations is their livelihood! An article noted, “While the travel industry was hit hard by the pandemic, many people in it....are now donating their accommodations to Ukrainian refugees.”
They are doing this at great cost to themselves. Seeing the need during this great human crisis, they made the choice to give up their income to provide shelter for people who had none. One woman who offered two bedrooms in her home, as well as donating a rental home on her property said, “I have absolutely no idea of the emotions, insecurity and fear these people are going through; I’ve never been remotely in that situation. But I know what it feels like when someone puts out their hand and props you up, or is kind and helps you feel safe. That’s what I want to do,” she said.1
These people have made costly choices---to take the risk of welcoming strangers into their homes, to forego income from renting the properties, choices born out of compassion and selflessness.
Our lectionary text today is a passage about costly choices. There is the choice of Mary, giving something precious for Jesus. There is the choice of Judas---a choice that had its own cost. And there is Jesus’ choice: to go to Jerusalem and the cross that awaits. Costly choices.
This passage invites us into an intimate moment in Jesus’ life. Jesus and his disciples are at a dinner party at the home of some of his closest friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The party is in Jesus’ honor; not long before, as we read in the previous chapter, Jesus miraculously raised Lazarus from the dead!
Although that brought joy to the hearts of many, it brought fear into the minds of others. The chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting. They feared that when the Romans heard what Jesus had done, and how as a result people were talking about signs of power and coming kingdoms, they would come down hard on the Jewish people. In the passage immediately preceding this, Caiaphas, the high priest that year, said, “It is better for one man to die than to have the whole nation perish.” And so they gave orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should report to them, so that they might arrest him.
Because of that, Jesus no longer walked about openly, but stayed near the wilderness with his disciples. But six days before Passover, Jesus decided to go back to Bethany, back to the home of Lazarus and Mary and Martha. Although there was risk in that decision--Bethany was only two miles from Jerusalem—it is clear that this is where Jesus wants to be. After this, he will go on into the city, and he knows what awaits him there. This time with his friends is a precious time, as they share this meal together. Imagine being there, reclining at the table, in the warm lamplight, sharing a wonderful meal---Martha, after all, is a fabulous host.
And then, Mary does something unexpected! In her hand, she holds an alabaster jar, glowing softly in the yellow light. She takes it and bends down over Jesus’ feet while he is reclining on his cushion before the table. She lifts the jar and pours its contents over Jesus’ feet. The fragrance fills the house, and the guests realize—this is a kingly gift! A pound of pure nard, a perfume from India, worth what it would take a working person an entire year to earn. She pours all of it on Jesus’ feet. As she kneels there, her long hair falls forward and mingles with the perfume, and she wipes his feet with her hair.
Into that holy moment, a harsh voice speaks. Judas, who keeps the purse, is incensed by this act. He sees not the gift of love, but the value of the nard. “Do you know what it is worth?” he asks. “And there it is, poured out, wasted.”
But Jesus replies, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. Mary bought the nard so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
In Mary’s sacred act, she has anointed Jesus for his death. It is a gesture of pure love, pure sacrifice. A costly choice.
Judas’ choice was also costly. He did not care about the poor, but about the purse. Imagining that nard as silver in his palm, he was one step closer to betraying his Lord.
Surely the disciples in that room were thinking about their own choices. Jesus has made clear what awaits him in Jerusalem. Will they follow him?
On this last Sunday in Lent, we, too, are called to make that decision. Every day, we make costly choices. Choices about whether to live with love and a generous spirit, or whether to be self-absorbed and miserly of heart. Do we realize the cost of these choices?
One day I was standing in the grocery store line, and in front of me was a family with three children. The youngest daughter, with long dark pigtails, was trying to tell her mother about something good she had done that day. “Mommy, guess what happened today!” she said. Her mother was looking at her phone. “Mommy, mommy, can I tell you what happened? Can I show you what I did?” Her mother’s gaze was fixed on the screen, as she scrolled mindlessly through social media.
How much of ourselves do we give to things that don’t really matter, while neglecting the things that are most important?
In an article in Christian Century, Emily Heath said something striking. Heath said we should never give our love to something that can’t love us back. We should never give our love to something that can’t love us back. She said we don’t talk about idolatry much anymore, yet our culture tempts us to make idols of things like “Money, success, popularity, greatness, security—these are powerful gods,” she said. Like the tempter in the wilderness, these things tempt us to give ourselves to the wrong things---to give our time, our energy, our love---so that we have nothing left for what matters most. Heath said, “I often want to ask people I know, people who feel overwhelmed by the demands of life, why they keep living like this…..Why do you give the best of yourself to the things that can never love you back?”2
Are we giving the best of ourselves to things that can’t love us back? In our passage today, Judas had given his love to the purse. How many of us follow his example? We love our money, our possessions, our things. We love our comforts. We love our status, our position. We become addicted to busyness, because we feel important when we are busy. We love our technology, don’t we? Think of the time we spend on it! Can any of these things love us back? Does your cell phone love you? Does your bank account love you? Do we place these things above our family members and friends? Above God? What a costly choice. //
Mary chose the better way.
In love, she poured herself out, just as Christ poured himself out for us. Love, extravagant love, is what we receive from God. Being disciples—following Jesus—means pouring ourselves out in generosity toward others. In The Seeds of Heaven, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “To follow Jesus means …. sharing the life we have been given instead of bottling it for our own consumption. It means giving up the notion that we can build dams to contain the bright streams of our lives and letting them go instead, letting them swell their banks and spill their wealth until they carry us down to where they run, full and growing fuller, into the wide and glittering sea.”3
The journey Jesus takes is a journey of love. His love for us is so great, that though he was in very nature God, he did not grasp that nature, holding it to himself, but poured himself out—a precious gift, a priceless gift—the most extravagant gift imaginable! And he knew, as we know, that the end of the journey is not loss, but gain. We trust that Easter is coming. Although we are still on the journey, we know that beyond the pain shall come a tearless morn, when joy shall flourish. So we follow. We follow pouring out our lives to our Lord. As Mary did, we offer our hearts, our lives, our love, to the one who gives his love to us.
On this last Sunday in Lent as we draw closer to the cross, let us consider our choices; let us commit once again to following Jesus, so that the wondrous love we have received from him will overflow from our hearts into the lives of others. Amen and amen.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church