03.13.16 Sermon (March 13, 2016) “The Prodigal Woman”

posted Jul 12, 2016, 8:21 AM by David Hawkins

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21

 Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

New Testament Reading: John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 
Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Sermon: "The Prodigal Woman"             Rev. David Hawkins

There are so many difficult things about this scripture that it’s almost impossible to decide where to start. 

First there’s the translation itself. You know how I am about words, especially about the word, “nard”. It’s a funny word, and it catches my attention. 

And then there’s the way Mary wipes Jesus feet with her hair. I don’t know for sure, but the way I read the Greek, I think that our English version gets it wrong. 

Bear with me here. You see, in many languages, including Greek, as opposed to English, things can have gender. Windows can have gender.  They can be masculine or feminine. In Greek, there are feminine. A house has gender. In Greek, a house is male. A church is female. 

Now, we don’t do this in English, usually. Objects in English don’t have Gender. We don’t refer to things as ‘he’ or ‘she’. ‘Him’, or ‘her’. Well, sometimes we might refer to a boat, or a car as a ‘she’. But that’s not really part of our language. 

But, in Greek it is. The glass in a window would be referred to as ‘her glass’. A door in a house is called, ‘his door’. A sanctuary in a church would be called, ‘her sanctuary’. 

It’s weird to our ears, but not to someone who speaks that language. These sorts of gendered pronouns are normal. We say ‘it’, they say ‘him‘, or ‘her’. We say ‘it’s’, they say ‘hers’ or ‘his’. 

Which brings us to today’s gendered pronoun, ‘her hair’. Our english version says Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with ‘her hair’. Now, I know that this is a little technical. Stick with me. I really think that this scripture is saying that when Mary anoints Jesus feet with ‘her hair’, it’s referring to the hair of the Nard, which is a perfume that comes from a plant called ‘Spikenard’. 

Spikenard grows in the Himalayas, and looks a little bit like Russian Thistle. And of course, in Greek, it has a gender. Spikenard is female. To say it in Greek we would say, ‘She is female’. ‘She’ has a long root, that’s made up of thousands of tiny fibers that look like hair coming from ‘her’. Do you see where I’m going with this? 

It turns out that traditionally, kings and prophets were anointed by dipping the hairy-looking root of the Nard plant into ‘her’ perfume, and then ‘she’ was used to wipe the perfume on the person being anointed. 

And so, I think that’s what’s going on here. I think that Mary is anointing Jesus in the traditional manner of the ancient Kings of old, using the hair of the Nard plant itself. And I think that’s where the words ‘her hair’ come from. 

But that’s just what I think. It helps me with the passage. You can think whatever you like to help you sort out what’s going on here. Because no matter how you slice it, there’s a lot going on.

For instance, there’s Jesus saying one of the most confusing, mis-used sentences in the whole Bible: “You will always have the poor with you.” 

For two thousand years, this sentence has been abused to justify not giving to the poor, or being complacent about their plight. And that actually makes sense. It seems like Jesus himself is saying that there’s really no need to worry about the poor. After all, they will always be here. No real need to think very hard about them. It’s just the way it is. It’s the way it will always be. Relax. Chill. 

But the reality is, Jesus is not saying that at all. Like most of the words of the Gospel of John, this sentence is a reference to the Old Testament, in fact, it’s a reference to the Book of Deuteronomy, a document that I suspect Jesus knew pretty well. 

Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, which goes on to say, ‘Therefore, I command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” 

This is not an either/or thing that Jesus is saying. This is a both/and thing. He’s not saying that we should ignore the poor. He’s saying that our extravagance in worship and our generosity to the poor are two sides of the same coin. They are not exclusive of one another.

But, let’s face it, it’s hard to watch Mary waste 300 denarii’s worth of perform, even if it is being used to anoint Jesus. That’s a lot of denarii. That’s a year’s salary, which, according to the Census Bureau is around $54,000. Last week, we talked about the prodigal son, who wasted all his inheritance on loose living. This week we see Mary, seemingly just as wasteful, in a different way.

We can hardly blame Judas for his indignation. That’s a lot of meals on wheels. That’s a lot of help for the Salvation Army. That’s a lot of sheet music for the choir. That’s a lot of mission trips. That’s a lot of just about every kind of ministry any church does. And it’s wiped out on Jesus’ feet. $54,000 evaporating like the scent of the perfume wafting upward into the atmosphere.  Poof.

Of course, for Judas, it’s also $54,000 dollars that he wanted to get his own sticky fingers on. But, really that’s beside the point. Even given Judas’ ulterior motives, I think we understand him more than we understand Mary. I mean, we certainly agree with the idea of giving everything we have to Jesus, the concept of dedicating our all to him, offering our whole lives, our talents, our skills, our resources to Jesus, but still, $54,000 dollars! Just think what could have been done with that kind of money. 

Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s just see if we can imagine, just a little bit, what Judas really felt as he watched this money go up in smoke.

Here is a twenty-dollar bill. I dedicate this money to the glory of God. 

(light on fire).

Do you see what I mean? What are some of the questions that come up in your mind?

Man, I can’t believe he just did that.

If he’s got cash to burn, why doesn’t he just give some to me?

Isn’t it illegal to burn US currency?

It smells like fire in here.

I have to confess, what I really wanted to do for the sermon today was get up, dedicate a $100 bill, and then light it on fire, and then just sit down, but I just couldn’t bring myself to waste that kind of cash. It turns out, I understand Judas all too well. 

But what if I had done it? Or, what if it had been a thousand-dollar bill? Does such a thing actually exist? What if I had taken fifty-four one thousand dollar bills, stacked them on the communion table, dedicated them to the glory of God, and set them on fire? What would you have thought then?

Here in front of us, with Mary and Judas, we have two pictures of what it looks like to be a disciple. And we know which we identify more with. Money is a big deal for us. It means things. Things about trust, about security, about who we are.

And it’s a hard thing to trust in the generosity of God, rather than in our own money. It’s hard to think that God will give us enough of what we need. But, when Jesus turns water into wine, it’s not just enough, it’s too much. It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of wine. When Jesus feeds the five thousand, from a couple of fish and some bread, it’s not just enough, it’s too much. Twelve baskets of bread too much. When Jesus offers himself for those he loves, it’s not just enough, it’s too much. Jesus gives too much of himself for us, and there really is enough left over for the whole world. 

And no matter how much we might think, we really can’t ever give too much back to God. It’s just not possible.

But this is how we know how corrupted we are about our money. We can hardly fathom this gift from Mary, and we find ourselves identifying with the greatest traitor the world has ever known. 

Jesus is not telling his disciples to ignore the poor. Far from it. He saying something much more important about our perceptions of worldly possessions, and about where we ultimately place our trust. 

It’s not about mission, or stewardship, or charity. 

It’s about a wholesale re-imagining of what it really means to live in the extravagant generosity of God. 

And that’s a tough thing to do, sometimes. 

In the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be entering into the most emotionally intense part of the Christian Year. Next week is Palm Sunday, The entrance into Jerusalem, and then we begin Holy Week, leading us up to Easter. 

And as you may have read in our Newsletter, I encourage you to participate in our Holy Week activities coming up. I encourage you to feel with us the whole spectrum of what the disciples felt: as they ate with Jesus one final time; as they pledged their undying loyalty, each of them, to Jesus; as they fled from Jesus when they found out that being a disciple really means things; as they denied Jesus to save their skins; and as they left Jesus to be arrested, beaten, convicted of treason and heresy, and finally crucified. 

These are difficult things to remember. Let’s face it, we would much rather sing Christmas Carols and celebrate Easter. 

But there is no Easter without Good Friday. There is no reason to rejoice in the birth of a savior who didn’t do anything to save us. 

Good Friday is the hinge upon which the salvation of the world turns. 

I invite you to come and be with us, as we remember the extravagant generosity of our Lord.

And in the house of the Lord, 
the people said, “Amen”