Can you imagine the joy and excitement of Mary and Martha and all their friends? Lazarus had been dead but now here he is walking, talking and laughing amongst those who had been mourning. You see, Lazarus had fallen seriously ill, in fact so ill his life was in danger. His sisters immediately sent for Jesus but by the time he arrived, Lazarus had died.
The sisters were distraught. If only Jesus had arrived in time Lazarus would still be alive. Jesus went to the grave and asked that the stone be taken away from the entrance to the tomb. He called out in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" You could hear the gasp of surprise from the onlookers as a figure emerged from the grave wrapped from head to toe in grave cloths. It was Lazarus. Where there had been weeping there was now laughing, the sounds of joy and excitement. Lazarus was alive! Once again, Jesus had turned a funeral into a celebration.
Next, we hear of Jesus having dinner with Lazarus. Martha is busy in the kitchen preparing the food as she always did. Jesus and Lazarus are reclining at the table (in those days the table was about 45 centimetres from the floor and those dining would lie on the floor, leaning on one elbow, with their feet stretched out away from the table.) Tomorrow Jesus would arrive in Jerusalem among the cheers of the crowd but also facing the hostility of the religious leaders. In fact, they were so determined to stop his increasing popularity that they were willing to take extreme measures. So extreme were these measures that in a week’s time . . . Jesus would be dead.
Back to the events that took place as Jesus and Lazarus were dining. Mary came into the room where the men were eating, carrying with her a bottle of the most exquisite and costliest perfume. (The text from John 12:1-8 says it was nard, an aromatic oil made from a plant in India. This was pure and unmixed so was very expensive. People would buy this as a kind of nest egg or investment. We are told that Mary’s flask of perfume cost about a year’s wages for a labourer).
What did Mary do with this expensive perfume? She assumed the position of a servant (servants or slaves washed the feet of visitors) and poured the perfume on to Jesus’ feet. And then horror of horrors she let down her hair (only women of not-so-doubtful character would do that in public, especially in the presence of men), and proceeded to wipe his feet with her long hair. We are told the whole house was filled with the beautiful aroma.
What was Mary thinking? What made her pour her life’s savings on someone’s feet? What made her use such expensive perfume, when something cheaper would have been just as effective?
Simply put – what Mary did was an act of devotion. It was a gift from her heart. She wanted to give the best she had, and the best she had was a flask of pure perfume. Jesus was someone very special, she loved him dearly, and she wanted to show it, so she gave him the best. That’s what happens when people love. When a husband loves his wife, he wants to give her the best and vice versa. When parents love a child, they want to give that child the best.
One afternoon three children, two boys and a girl, entered a flower shop. They were about nine or ten years old, raggedly dressed, but clean. They gazed around the store and nervously approached the owner. One of the boys said: "Sir, we'd like some yellow flowers, please."
The man immediately realised that this was a very special occasion. He showed them some inexpensive yellow spring flowers. The boy who was the spokesman for the group shook his head. "I think we'd like something better than that."
The man asked, "Do they have to be yellow?" The boy answered, "Yes, sir. You see, Mickey would like 'em better if they were yellow. He had a yellow T-shirt. I guess he'd like yellow better than any other colour."
The man asked, "Are they for his funeral?"
The boy nodded, suddenly choking up. The little girl was struggling to keep back the tears. "She's his sister," the boy said. "He was a great kid. A truck hit him while he was playing in the street." The boy’s lips were trembling now. The other boy entered into the conversation. "Us kids have put all our money together. We got eighty cents. Would roses cost an awful lot, sir -- yellow roses, I mean?"
The man smiled. "It just happens that I have some nice yellow roses here that I'm offering special today for eighty cents a dozen." The man pointed to the roses.
"Gee, they’d be beauty mister! Yes, Mickey'd sure like those."
The man said, "I'll make up a nice bouquet with ferns and ribbons. Where do you want me to send them?" One of the boys responded, "Would it be all right, mister, if we took them with us? We'd kind of like to, you know, give 'em to Mickey ourselves. He'd like it better that way."
The florist fixed the bouquet of flowers, accepted the eighty cents and then watched the youngsters trudge out of the store. Even though he had not made any profit from the sale, he was pleased that he could be generous to those 3 children. They walked down the street carefully holding the bunch of yellow roses. They had spent all their pocket money so that they could give Mickey this last gift of love.
With the bunch of roses, those 3 children were showing the same generosity, devotion, extravagance toward Mickey that Mary showed toward Jesus with her flask of perfume. Nothing but the best will do!
That reminds us of God’s love toward us, only his love is more perfect and far greater than ours can ever be. We have heard about God’s extravagant and never-ending love for us when we heard Jesus’ story of the man and his two sons. Even though he was terribly disappointed in his two sons – one had cashed in his share of his inheritance and wasted it all on riotous living and the other couldn’t see why his father was so generous and lavish with his love when the younger brother came home. This is a story about how devoted God is toward us; how extravagant his love is; how lavish he is with his forgiveness. He loves us even though we rightfully deserve nothing from God at all.
And today we hear of Mary who realises how much love Jesus has shown to her to Lazarus and to Martha. She wants to demonstrate in a practical way how much she is devoted to him. She gives boldly of the best that she had, just as Jesus will give himself boldly in his devotion for us when he is raised on a cross on Calvary.
There will always be those who will callout "wasteful", "irresponsible", "reckless", "foolish" and "rash" when they see others being far more generous than they are prepared to be. We do that when we question the motives of someone who donates generously to the church or a charity or gives many hours of his/her time to some cause. In Jesus’ story, the older brother thought his father was extravagant and foolish when he showed his love and forgiveness to the younger son who didn’t deserve such kind treatment. And in John 12:1-8 we have Judas the betrayer complaining that Mary has been irresponsible in the way she wasted this perfume. She could have sold it for a lot of money which could have been given to the poor. By worldly standards, Mary was extravagant; by worldly standards she was foolish and irresponsible, but Jesus could only see her love and devotion.
We are now just one week into the Holy Week when we are eagerly awaiting for Palm Sunday, the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. This text has a special message for us as we draw near the end of the Lenten season.
Firstly, it reminds us what true devotion is. As Mary knelt at Jesus’ feet in the posture of a true servant, we are reminded of what happened at another meal – the Passover – when Jesus was eating his last meal with his disciples. Out of true love and devotion to his disciples he knelt before them with a bowl of water and towel and proceeded to wash the disciples’ feet. Jesus came into the world to be our servant, to serve us because of his extravagant love for us.
Secondly, we are reminded that Jesus did not hold back his love for us. Just as Mary gave of the best of what she had; even more so Jesus gave the best of what he had to offer – his life. Out of his complete and total love for us, he gave up everything so that we could be certain of life forever in heaven.
Thirdly, we are led to ask ourselves, how extravagant has our devotion been to our God and Saviour? God's generous gift of Christ should elicit extravagance in the way we give to our God.
It should produce extravagance in praise and worship. Like Mary we should be satisfied with nothing but the best when we go to church to worship – the way we listen to God’s Word as it is read and spoken, the way we participate in the service – reading, playing music, singing, ushering, welcoming visitors, the way we pray and respond to God’s Word with joy and lives full of devotion.
God’s extravagant love for us calls for unselfishness in all areas of life, an unselfishness like Mary's – unselfishness as we serve others who are facing hard times, the sick, the sad, in fact, anyone who needs our love.
Judas was concerned that Mary had been reckless in her demonstration of her devotion to Jesus, but Jesus commended her. She gave unselfishly and likewise we are challenged to give of our money, our time and ourselves generously as a way of expressing our thanks, our love and our commitment to our Lord and Saviour.
And fourthly, this text makes us aware of how much we are like Judas. How tight fisted and stingy we are when it comes to giving of ourselves, our time and our money. We are led to ask ourselves, "When was the last time, I did something extravagant because of my devotion to Jesus - not because I felt I had to do it or that it was the right thing to do, or I knew I would feel guilty if I didn’t? When was the last time I threw caution to the wind and went ahead fully committed as I gave of myself and what God has given me generously and sacrificially?"
Extravagant love like that of Mary, is the kind of love to which we are called. Indeed, it is the kind of love that Jesus himself showed us, when he, on the day after Mary anointed his feet and dried them with her hair, rode in Jerusalem and gave himself up to death.
Lent reminds us that we have been failures when it comes to being extravagant with our love. That is why Jesus came. He came to forgive us and to give us a fresh start.
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Mary, Martha and Lazarus - Penny Frank
Martha, Mary, and Jesus - Nancy Corson Carter
Lazarus Awakening - Joanna Weaver
Martha and Mary: Meeting Christ as friend - Anastasio Ballestrero