Extravagant love

Lent 5

John 12:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God whose wanton extravagance draws out our own. Amen.

A son takes half his father’s property, spends it all in a very short time and returns home to work as a servant. Instead of berating him, his father runs out to meet him and immediately re-instates him with all the privileges of being a son. So we heard last week in the story of the prodigal son.

Such gestures of extravagant love are re-iterated throughout the Old and New Testaments in both story and action. Over and over again, God threatens dire consequences if Israel does not repent, and over and over again, God relents and refuses to carry out the threats. From the very beginning, God’s extravagant love is evident. Creation does not consist of the bare necessities for existence, but is filled with beauty and wonder. From the tiniest bird to the largest whale God doesn’t stint or limit God’s creative genius. Later, God’s extravagant love is shown to Abraham when he promises not only that the old man will become a father, but that his offspring will be as many as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the beach. In today’s reading from Isaiah God promises the seemingly impossible – rivers in the desert – and so the list goes on.

In the New Testament, this theme of abundant generosity is continued in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus feeds 5,000 people and there is more than enough to go around. Jesus changes water into wine not just ordinary wine, but the very best wine.  Jesus didn’t limit his love to those who deserved it, but spread his love liberally to all people – even to tax collectors, prostitutes and so on. Jesus’ parables continue this theme – the shepherd who is so concerned with one sheep that he leaves the others to fend for themselves, the mustard seed which grows profusely and the grain which produces abundantly. The theme of abundant love is difficult to miss.

Add to this the Incarnation and the crucifixion – not for those who were good, but for those who were far from good – then we see the fullest picture of a love that is poured out without measure on a largely undeserving world.

Sadly, God’s bountiful provision is, too often, taken for granted. Though times are changing we barely give a thought to how well the earth sustains and provides for us all, let alone thank God for his bounty. Even if we do appreciate all that God has done for us, our English reserve ensures that we do not express our gratitude with extravagant gestures or demonstrative outpourings of love.

Even the bible, there are very few instances of a grateful response to God’s love – only the Psalms and a few other songs of praise. More often than not, the response is one of complaint: ‘Why did God bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert?” “Why is Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners?” “What about us, we have left everything and followed?” “Can we sit on your right hand and your left?”

The grateful extravagance of the woman who anointed Jesus stands in stark contrast to the attitude of entitlement or diffidence which takes God’s love for granted.

This story occurs in all gospels though in very different forms. According to Luke, Jesus is eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee whereas in Matthew and Mark Simon is identified as “the leper”. John’s setting is a meal with Lazarus, Martha and Mary – friends with whom Jesus often stays.  Luke situates the story in Galilee and the others place it near Jerusalem. In Matthew and Mark the woman anoints Jesus’ head. In Luke and John, Jesus’ feet are anointed and wiped with the woman’s hair.

The response of the observers is similar. Luke’s Simon is shocked that Jesus is allowing a sinful woman to touch him and the crowd, the disciples or Judas are astounded at the waste. In every instance Jesus comes to the woman’s defense. Simon the Pharisee is told a story about two debtors to illustrate the woman’s grateful response and in the other gospels, Jesus commends the woman who, he says is preparing him for burial.

Nard was a very expensive ointment; it came from the rhizome of a plant growing in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was so rare and so treasured that Horace offered to send Virgil a whole barrel of his best wine in exchange for a phial of nard. We are told that that its name stood for an evocation of the perfume of the lost Garden of Eden. According to the gospel records a pound of nard was worth 300 denarii, that is about a year’s pay for a laborer – in our terms something like $30 – 40,000. And Mary simply pours it over Jesus’ feet! No wonder the onlookers were surprised, shocked and even incensed, it extraordinary to think that someone would throw away a year’s salary on a single action which will have no lasting benefit. Where someone like Mary would even get something that valuable is not explained.

The woman, whether it is Mary or the unnamed woman of the other accounts, is utterly indifferent to the cost of the ointment. Her love for and gratitude to Jesus can be shown no other way. In her determination to demonstrate that love and gratitude Mary shows no regard as to what others might think and she appears to have no concern regarding the social or financial cost of her action. Mary’s selfless generosity is illustrative of the response of many who have known themselves truly loved, blessed and enriched by God. Knowing herself loved and blessed without limit, Mary responds with the same wild abandon with which God loves her – giving extravagantly and without a care.

In the story of the prodigal son, the older brother puts himself out of the reach of his father’s love. His selfish resentment and his foolish pride will not allow God’s love to penetrate his defenses. Mary has no defenses just a love for and a trust in Jesus’ love for her. Knowing herself loved, Mary cannot help but love in return.

Mary is the model of one who allows herself to be gathered under Jesus’ wings, who allows the father to welcome her back. She has no false pride, or sense of dignity to create a barrier between herself and God. She is completely free and open to receive the love that God offers to her and having experienced the fullness and the boundlessness of the love is compelled to respond with an unrestrained, unselfconscious generosity of her own.

We can learn from Mary that we need not fear intimacy with God. If we allow God’s love to penetrate our inmost being, we will know ourselves loved simply for who we are. When we know ourselves truly loved all else will fade into insignificance. We will want to bathe in that love and to pour out our selves for the one whose love for us knows no bounds.

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