The gospel story that we have just heard read, of Jesus being anointed Mary at Bethany, is a very familiar one. So what's it all about?
There are slightly different versions of the story in each of the four gospels, which reflects the fact that those who made the gospels wrote down what was said and taught in their particular fellowships, and from their particular collections of "The sayings of Jesus", or whatever unofficial manuscripts were floating around their church.
Matthew's and Mark's stories are the most similar. They set the episode in Bethany, at the house of Simon the Leper. A woman wanders in off the street, pours the ointment over Jesus' head and, for all we know, wanders straight out again. Tradition has it that she was Mary Magdalen, but we don’t know that. The disciples and others gathered there go: "Oh, what a waste! If she didn't want it we could have sold it and given the money to the poor." Jesus tells them to be quiet, because the woman was anointing his body for burial and what she did would be remembered for ever. As, indeed, it has been.
John's gospel, the version we just heard read, however, stays in Bethany, but John says that Jesus was staying with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and that it was Mary who upended the ointment all over him. Some people have used this to reckon that Martha was married to Simon the Leper, or indeed, to reckon that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalen were the same person. Again, possible, but we don’t know that.
Luke might possibly be talking about a different episode, because his version takes place in a Pharisee's house, and the woman is definitely a hooker, and she pours the stuff all over his feet, not his head, and Jesus said that only goes to show how much she knows God has forgiven her.
Anyway, that's the basic story, one way or another. But what's it about, and what has it got to say to us today?
First, then, what is the story about? Well, I think it's about extravagance. Those alabaster jars were incredibly precious. If you were lucky enough to have one, it was your most precious thing and you guarded it with your life, practically. It could only be opened by breaking it, so it couldn't ever be used again. You didn't go pouring the contents all over the head of passing prophets, no matter how charismatic.
So when the disciples said, "What a waste!" they seriously meant it. The jar was broken, it was no use any more. The ointment was poured out, and that in itself was costly enough. Mary had given her most precious thing to Jesus, and from everyone else's point of view, it looked like a terrible waste. They couldn't even make use of the gift by selling it and giving the money to charity. It was all gone. What a waste.
You know, the more I read this story, the more it reminds me of God. You see, Mary was frantically extravagant and wasteful. But so often, God's like that.
Think of the story of the wedding at Cana, right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. When they ran out of wine, towards the end of the festivities, Jesus provided some more. But he provided far more wine than anyone could drink. I worked it out once that the six stone jars he had filled would hold about eight hundred bottles of wine. You'd need a white van to bring that lot back from Calais, and I should think the Customs would be taking an intelligent interest in you! And even the host at the party almost said “Serving the best wine now, when we’ve all had more than enough? What a waste!”
Or think of the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Actually, one of the gospels, Matthew, I think, says that the five thousand was only the men, and didn't count the women and children, which would have made it more like thirty-five thousand. Anyway, when Jesus provided lunch for them, and he certainly did count the women and children, even if nobody else bothered, it wasn't as though there was only just enough to go round; there were twelve huge basketfuls left over. Enough for each disciple to take one home to Mum. So perhaps that wasn’t a waste....
Or what about our natural world? How many different species of flowers are there? Scientists know that they don't know. And animals, too, come to that. I read in the paper a few years ago that they have just discovered about three totally new species of antelope in the jungles of somewhere like Vietnam; somewhere in south-east Asia, anyway. And nobody knew they were there except God. What a waste!
Think of reproduction, too. All the waste that goes on. The millions of baby fish that are hatched, so that a few may survive to adulthood. Birds nest every year, but I read somewhere that only about two of all the offspring a bird hatches in the course of its life reach an age to reproduce. That's sad, of course, but not if you think of those birds that do reproduce as exceptions and the normal life-span of a bird is from hatching to fledging. What a waste, though.
The millions of sperm male mammals produce so that one, just one, can fertilise an egg. All this fuss they're making about male infertility, these days, but most men are still producing about 60 million sperm each time - and they don't think that's quite enough!
On a larger scale, think of all the stars in the night sky, or those pictures of distant galaxies you sometimes see from the Hubble telescope when it comes on "The Sky at Night" or Horizon. I wonder how many of those stars have planets on them like ours, and how many of those planets have life on them, and how much of that life is intelligent and knows its Creator. We're not going to know this side of heaven, but God knows.
Why am I tempted to say "The truth is out there!"?.....
But, seriously, for all we know, beings that are five feet square, one inch thick, and ripple might be worshipping God right now this minute in some far-off galaxy. And we fuss about people whose just happen to come from a different tribe. Ah well.
And if we are the only life in the cosmos, intelligent or otherwise, what does that say about God? All those universes and stars and black holes and pulsars and quasars, just for God, and for us, to enjoy looking at? A waste?
Even on this earth things are pretty incredible. Have you ever flown over London in an aeroplane on a clear day? Or looked at Google maps with the satellite view – Street view is good, and fun – this is us – but I like the satellite view, largely because one photo was taken right in the middle of Emily’s wedding..... But the point is, all those houses, all those cities – you can look at all sorts of random places on Google Maps if you want, places you might never have otherwise known about – but God always knew. God knows the people in those houses, walking along those streets, driving those cars.
God is seriously incredible. And God doesn’t waste things. We, in our human selves, tend to think “What a waste!” when we see the massive over-production of Nature, or when people are extravagant.
But God loved us so extravagantly that all that love, all that knowledge, all those galaxies were given up and God came to earth as a human baby. The Truth really was Out There, but he came down to Here.
As Jesus. Needing to learn everything from scratch. Needing to be fed, and have his nappies changed. Growing up as an ordinary human being in an ordinary family. In a provincial town in a colony of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. When God became a human being, it was a thorough job!
And this human being, who was also God, and who had the potential to be worshipped by beings who are five feet square, one inch thick, and ripple, is sitting having dinner with his friends. If Mary caught a glimpse, the tiniest, tiniest glimpse, of the wonder and the majesty of God, and had the slightest inkling of who Jesus is, then no wonder only her most precious possession would do.
She, of course, is far from being the only person who ever responded so extravagantly to God. Look at Mary the mother of Jesus. Her "Yes!" to God was really extravagant - she risked total ruin, including of her reputation. Supposing Joseph had repudiated her on the grounds that she was not chaste? He could have done so, and then where would Mary have ended up? On the streets, most likely! It didn't happen, but it could have. That's extravagant!
Look at Peter and John when they were first hauled before the Sanhedrin. Not only did they refuse to stop preaching the word, but they then went home and prayed for more boldness to do it more forcefully. That's extravagant! But it was very far from being a waste.
Or what about St Paul? Think of how he focuses on all the hardships he has undergone in order to keep on doing what he does, in other words, preaching the Good News. That's extravagant! But it was very far from being a waste.
Or what about all those men and women who have laid down their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Some of them went to the other side of the world; others stayed at home. We know some of their names; others are known only to God.
Or what about people like George Muller, who gave up the life of a rich playboy to look after orphans in Bristol? Or Eric Liddell, who abandoned being an athlete to go to China for God. Or Gladys Aylward, who was turned down by the missionary society that sent Eric Liddell, but who went anyway, independently, and saved the lives of hundreds of children, and now even has schools named after her!
Or even Florence Nightingale, who was baulked in her first ambition to serve God through the church, because in those days the Anglican church did not allow women to do anything except sit on their behinds and listen. Anyway, we all know how Florence Nightingale eventually decided to serve God, and the result.
The people who have responded in that way down the years are legion. They heard God, and responded extravagantly. It may be that the world thought they were wasting their lives, but for them, only the most extravagant response would do.
Today is called Passion Sunday, a day on which historically we remember God’s extravagance in sending Jesus in to this world to die on the Cross for us. And when we recall, too, through this story of Mary anointing Jesus, some of humanity’s response to this.
A waste? Perhaps. But for Mary, only her absolute prize possession would do for the One who had brought her beloved brother back from the dead. And at that, she probably felt it was not enough.
What is our response today to God’s extravagant love? What is my response? What is yours?
Oberstdorf as Austria, 22 May
2 hours ago