Fifth Sunday of Lent
They say, when reading a Bible passage, that you should find yourself in the story, that you should try on one of the characters. See which one fits the best. So I did that a few times this week, with this passage for today, and I think I’m in trouble, because every time I try I end up sitting with Judas, in a corner, watching—Mary bowed at the feet of Jesus, taking one foot at a time, washing them, pouring costly oil, wiping his feet with her hair.
If I were in the story, I would be there with Judas, calculating what was being wasted. In my mind, he asks a good question. I could see myself asking it: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Living simply and giving money to the poor—isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? There’s so much wastefulness going on in this story, pouring money down the drain.
This is a season of Lent. Forty days of giving up on the luxuries of life. Forty days of disciplined living. Forty days of self-denial. Knowing our limits, the constraints of human life. A season of contemplation, of seriousness. Earnest living.
And we have this story today—of a dinner party, food and wine, a luscious meal, a feast, Jesus with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and all their friends, eating and eating and eating, a celebration without a reason, a party just for the sake of a party.
When Mary pulls out her expensive oil, and splashes it on his feet—her act fits the scene, the extravagance of it all. So much excess. A shocking story for Lent.
Here’s how Lent usually goes. It’s a season to get rid of all the clutter in our spiritual lives as a way to prepare for Easter, for resurrection. Throw away the old to make room for the new. Lent is like spring cleaning—going through closets, looking under beds, exploring the boxes in the attic, packing up all the stuff that’s been taking up space and taking it to the Goodwill.
Lent is supposed to be forty days of spring cleaning, looking at what’s been gathering in the closets of our soul, all the stuff that has been crowding our thought-lives, the distractions from how we are supposed to be living, from what God has intended for us to live our lives.
But that’s not what we have here. That’s not what we have in this story, with people eating and drinking, with Mary and her oil, with her hair. There’s no self-denial here. No restraint. No moderation.
It’s more like cleaning out a shelf and finding a scrunched up envelope with a bundle of hundreds inside, money from years ago that you forgot about, and you decide to use that money to take all your friends out for meal at The Lantern. You rent out the whole bar, and the patio. Food and drinks on you.
And that’s Lent—a Lenten practice inspired by Drake songs, like when he raps about spending 50k on a vacation, for all my people, just to see the looks on all their faces (Drake, “Crew Love”). The look of surprise at all the abundance, wasteful abundance.
Listen to the story again. “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.” And Judas said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:3, 5).
This year I’ve neglected my garden. My front yard is embarrassing. Don’t look at it. I try not to. Everything is overgrown. I haven’t pulled a weed since September. Usually around this time of the year, during these Lenten months, I’m outside late into the evening, trimming back dead branches, cutting away dead plants, making room for the newness of spring—space for the phlox and coneflowers, the baptisia and brown-eyed susans, the lantana and bleeding heart. Making room for new growth. It’s my version of spring-cleaning. But I haven’t done that. I’ve done no work.
And, yet, somehow, the plants are growing back, through the weeds, reaching out from the mess, from the chaos of my yard. With or without me, new life is happening—excessive life, lavish growth, beyond what my efforts deserve, flowers already celebrating, a feast of colors, blues and yellows, crocuses and daffodils.
Mary, pouring oil onto feet, emptying her jar onto the floor—there’s so much life in that story, an extravagant celebration of life, even though there’s so much not to celebrate, because everyone in the story already knows that there are people trying to arrest Jesus, trying to find the right time to get rid of him. They are already talking about the day of his burial.
But none of that matters. Nothing else matters. Except for that oil and those feet, and Mary’s hair cascading to the floor.
I’m always preparing for something. I’m always thinking about next month, next year, the next decade, always thinking about how my life is supposed to play out, what I’m supposed to be doing now in order to have the life I want when I turn 70. It’s a disciplined way to go through life—as if these years now are all a season of Lent, a time for me to prepare for some kind of Easter, a day far from now.
The good news in this story, at least for me, is that, in the middle of Lent, as Jesus is wandering toward the cross, there’s a celebration, joy in the midst of it all, grace and love flowing like oil, wasted on feet, on a body that will soon be crucified.
This is what our faith looks like—to believe in this overflow of love, of grace, a celebration of life even when there’s no good reason to celebrate, even with the shadow of Golgotha looming on the horizon. To believe that there are Marys among us, ready with grace.
This year, during Lent, God looks like Mary, washing our lives with love.
God’s grace looks like my garden, as it grows without labor, with plants breaking through a cover of weeds, and flowers that brighten a yard crowded by skeletons of dead plants.