Skip to content

Love, not Pragmatism: The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Sunday, April 7, 2019:
Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

A year or two ago Leslie and I were visiting a couple that are friends of ours in Toronto. We were walking down, I think, King or Queen Street, in search of some ice cream. Eventually the conversation turned to cars. Being in downtown Toronto on a hot day there were some really nice ones parked and driving along our route, and my comment was something along the lines of: “It really doesn’t make sense to buy a sports car in North America, and especially in Toronto. Because of the speed limits, the gas prices, the terrible traffic, and the people who clog up the passing lanes, you’re just not able to use the car for the performance — the purpose — it was built for.”

Now, one of these friends, Andrew, is a car enthusiast, but also a lawyer — possessing, I think, a logical and discerning mind — and I assumed that he would appreciate my bit of judgemental pontificating.

But no, things immediately got awkward when he said that in the last year he had purchased a BMW sports car.

So imagine this verbal dance between two very nice and well-meaning people, trying to present their differing positions while also being very gentle with the other. I talked about how beautiful the car must be. How German cars are great (hey, I own one). How satisfying it must be to fulfill a dream he had had from childhood. And Andrew, being such a nice person, talked about how yes, the car was uncomfortable, and usually crawling in traffic, and expensive to fuel and fix, but he was able to take it out in the early morning hours on weekends, and let it rip down the highway. He was kindly affirming my argument, while also making a case that I wasn’t totally right.

Now, the cause of me putting my foot in my mouth was that I was seeing things and speaking from the perspective of someone who owns a simple and safe and practical station wagon. (Words that my teenage self would have never imagined ever coming out of my mouth.) In other words, I was speaking as a pragmatist: valuing practicality, and efficiency, and reason. My perspective came from my head.

My friend, on the other hand, had made decisions coming from his yearnings, his dreams, his passions. His perspective was guided by his heart. (Or his hair; I’m thinking of the wind flowing through it.) He was speaking the language of love.

Now, that’s kind of a simple and trivial way of approaching what’s happening in the gospel, and all the readings we read today. We’ve got this scene in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, with Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus. The writer of the Gospel seems to really like this family. Jesus seems close to, and comfortable with them; their house is like an outpost for him along the way of his travels. There’s one scholar I know of who wrote a very intriguing book that argues that the unnamed “Beloved Disciple” that pops up in the Fourth Gospel is actually Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. [Alas, that’s a detour our sports car can’t take today.] So maybe this last Gospel, which is often really different from the other three, comes more from this little group in Bethany, an alternative Jesus-associated group that rivalled the Apostles, the Twelve, and those who were connected to them.

And we probably recognize Martha and Mary from other stories, too. Martha’s the one who, when Jesus visits, serves and serves, and in doing so, doesn’t seem to actually have time to sit down with him. But Mary’s the one commended by Jesus, because she actually takes the time to sit and just ‘be’ with him. Martha’s more of the ‘head’ person, and Mary’s more the ‘heart’ one. So here we are in the twelfth chapter. Just a few days away from the Passover — the biggest holiday, the biggest pilgrimage, and just a few kilometres away from Jerusalem — the biggest city, the centre of that pilgrimage. The miracle that Jesus had worked on Lazarus is causing more and more crowds to form around Jesus. And this produces more and more jealousy and apprehension among the religious authorities.

But Jesus dares to go to Jerusalem at this incredibly tense time. The tension in that house just outside the city could have been cut by a knife. And here we see Martha, working, working, working, as she does. And that’s, of course, how some of us deal with stress. But our scene revolves around the other sister, Mary. “Mary took a pound of costly perfume” — apparently they could have sold it for 300 denarii, a year’s worth of wages — and she anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” We have a competition for the very air in this house. Ultimately, is it going to be filled by the ‘do-do-do’ of anxiety, or is it going to be filled by the fragrance of that ointment?

We know what side Judas favours. He’s depicted in this little scene, as a betrayer, a thief, but also as a pragmatist, a realist, an idealist: ‘We could have sold this for tens of thousands of dollars, and done something good, and measurable with the funds.’ (Though the narrator says he’s just trying to line his own pockets.) But even if he’s being deceptive, his words are true: yes, this stuff could have been sold for a lot, and put to good use.

But, we also know what side Jesus favours, with his “leave her alone” rebuttal. In a strikingly similar scene in Matthew and Mark (different characters, but the same general story) Jesus says of the woman who anoints him: “she has done a beautiful thing to me. Whenever the Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” To Jesus this seemingly futile, or nonsensically extravagant gesture is appropriate to the moment. Jesus is approaching his fate; the house, I mentioned, is tense, and Jesus isn’t immune to this. Only Mary (or the unknown woman, in Matthew and Mark) seems to (or maybe, most fully) appreciates what Jesus is about to face, in his Passion. According to ordinary thinking this gesture is wasteful. But it’s appropriate to the moment. And for this gesture, she gets a special place in history, a special place in the telling of salvation history: “wherever the gospel is preached…” her memory is preserved, and honoured.

For me this is one of those “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” kinds of stories. Our proclamation, our lives as Christians are to be rooted in and aimed at nothing less than love, and recognizing Christ in ‘the other.’ Imagine if that ointment had been sold, and the poverty of hundreds or thousands of people could have been relieved. I wonder if numerically that would have impacted more lives than even Jesus had in his earthly mission? But, but think about how Jesus’s engagement with the people he did meet, and healed, or forgave, or taught — this was a deep kind of engagement. Life-changing moments. Not just relief by bureaucracy, by system. There was love, and true openness to ‘the other’ in those interactions.

I remember a number of years ago an interview with Julian Lennon, son of the Beatle John Lennon. “Dad was a hypocrite,” he said: “He could talk about peace and love to the world but he could never show it to his wife and son.”* A couple years later he added: “That peace and love never came home to me.”**

Or we might find a figure who can more directly beat Judas at his game: in the mid-20th century there was a Russian baroness named Catherine Doherty who moved to North America and established transformative communities in Toronto and New York. A biographer writes this about her: “Many people had their lives permanently and deeply changed by having met her. In short, they met a saint, whether they knew it or not.” Doherty herself, known for ACTION — DOING THINGS like feeding the hungry and promoting peace and tolerance wrote: “Nothing is more important than prayer and union with God, no matter where we may be. Christ is the source and the only source of charity and spiritual life. We can do nothing without him and his Spirit.”***

Thomas Merton, who was mentored by her in his university days wrote this when reflecting on her work: “it is real poverty, it is real sacrifice; it is real love of Christ in the poor.”*** To me, I see the figure of Mary of Bethany as reminding us that we’re called not just to DO GOOD, but to SEE CHRIST in those whom we serve; to LOVE them. And sometimes this might mean not serving them, but just BEING WITH them. (Which I think is often harder.)

A similar and even more well-known figure in religious-inspired relief work and community-building is Dorothy Day. She said “Charity is only as warm as those who administer it.” (Take that, Judas! Take that, me…) And this — probably the thing to take home with us today: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.”

All three of the readings today speak of this, I think. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” God says in the Book of Isaiah. “I am about to do a new thing.” A new thing where the old common wisdom might not apply.

And of course St. Paul: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ…. I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

And our model for that faith is Mary. Who was able to move past the anxiety of the moment, and past the prevailing wisdom of the world. And in doing so she found that space where Jesus appears as if right before us. And into that space perhaps the proper response is a song: “All you need is love.” Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter