John 12: 1 – 8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (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.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
I wonder if in this moment, when Jesus is being loved with a grace upon grace kind of love, an abundance of love, a love that you could even smell, with a fragrance that would linger for days, that Jesus remembered his mother. Three years ago. Back in Cana. At that wedding. His mother, who loved him, who knew who he was and what he was capable of doing. His mother, without whom, I wonder, when Jesus’ ministry would have actually gotten started.
Jesus insists it is not his time, but his mother knows better, as mothers often do. Because of her insistence, Jesus starts doing what he came to do. Because of her encouragement, Jesus realizes the time really had come. Because of her love, Jesus can do what he was sent to do. Jesus’ mother loves Jesus into his future as the Word made flesh.
Now, in Bethany, Jesus finds himself in the same kind of position, the same kind of transition, the same kind of situation. Immediately after [this] Mary anoints Jesus, he will enter the city of Jerusalem. And so, Jesus needs that same encouragement, that same love, to do what he must do. Mary’s extravagant love for Jesus makes it possible for Jesus to show extravagant love in what follows — washing the feet of his disciples, handing himself over to be arrested in the garden, carrying his own cross, dying, rising, and ascending. Mary loves Jesus into his future as the fulfillment of, “for God so loved the world.”
Preacher Karoline Lewis wrote that last spring, reflecting on the text from the Gospel of John read this morning. I read her words over and over. ‘A grace upon grace kind of love.’ ‘Because of her encouragement.’ ‘Because of her insistence.’ ‘Because of her love.’ She ‘loves [him] into his future.’ Isn’t that the kind of love we long for? The kind of love that roots us and grounds us, that holds us fast and moves us forward, the kind of love that the Greeks surely had in mind when they talked about love.
But which love? But was it storge? Phileo? Eros? Agape? So much love! So much.
Let’s take the four Sundays of February and work on love, we said. It’s the month that our culture has decorated with hearts and flowers and chocolate and all our human designs on love. So let’s make the faith connection. Let’s take the four words the Greeks use to describe love. Greek is the language in which the New Testament was written. Let’s take those four words, and explore the scriptures where those words are used. Love is throughout the scriptures … God IS love, after all … Jesus is love incarnate, the very physical form of the most extraordinary love there is …
And yet here’s what you’ll find: Two of the four Greek words … phileo and agape … are plentiful in the New Testament. The love that comes from close friendship, ‘brotherly love’. And the love that binds humanity together in compassion and mercy. Both words are used again and again.
And two of the words … storge and eros … the love associated with natural and instinctive family-like bonds, and the love of intimate partnership, romance, and physicality … those two words do not actually show up in scripture itself. They are certainly there conceptually. And they are in the language of histories and related non-biblical literature of the time. But not IN the texts themselves. (Guess who’s preaching those two words?)
But there’s so much to work with, so much overlap and blending together of these ‘kinds’ of love, we want to take some time to refresh our memories, or to see for the first time, and to look more broadly, at just what God has in mind for us when it comes to love in this world.
Many of you have met my mother. She has always been my biggest fan. She deeply and truly believes that I am fantastic; there’s no talking her out of that. And she is convinced, beyond any shadow of any doubt, that I can be and do anything I want. On the one hand, I could set that aside, and say ‘You have to think I’m great. You’re my mom.’ But. On the other hand, who has a better understanding of who you are and what you’re worth than the one who set you into motion?
That’s storge. It’s the kind of love the Greeks meant when they talked about family bonds … the natural, instinctive, and when they’re working well, the selfless kinds of love that we find most often in kinship.
The word storge isn’t used in the New Testament, except in the negative. 2 Timothy has a word that focuses on the lack of such love; the word is translated as heartless, devoid of concern, without love. In Romans, Paul uses a word to describe humanity’s sinfulness as having “no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” He says one of the marks of the last days will be when families are at a loss for natural love.
Let’s remember that ‘family’ – in biblical realities as in the present day – took on a wide variety of shapes and combinations. We fool ourselves if we think that ‘family’ looked then (or looks now) like any one thing. Many families in the Judean culture were very similar to those in the Greek and Mediterranean cultures, consisting:
… of several generations: an older, free adult male, his wife, their grown sons, the wives of those sons, and [their children]. Grown daughters of the older generation typically became part of the households of their own husbands and lived elsewhere; this could be as close as another courtyard in the same village or town, or much farther away. High maternal mortality rates also meant that households might consist of a free man, his children by one or ore prior wives, one or more daughters in law, and grandchildren, one or more current wives, their children from a prior marriage, and the children of the most recent marriage.
That, of course, doesn’t even include the legally enslaved members of a household, or the children, whether born through their own relations, or because of their slave-owners. The ‘biblical family’ has a very (very) broad definition.
And it is in the midst of this first-century definition of ‘family love’ that we gather today, with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, the sisters and brother whom we see throughout the four gospels. At this moment in the gospel of John, Jesus has revived Lazarus from the dead, and the sisters have staked their claim to real relationship with this one who can do such things, and who they clearly love.
There is mention of and debate about other – biological – family of Jesus. There are suggestions of as many as four brothers, and event two sisters. We don’t know. Joseph isn’t mentioned again after Jesus is in the temple as a child – does he die? Was he ill? Is he that much older than Mary? We don’t know.
But this family – these three siblings – seem to have adopted Jesus in as their own. The deep affection that is shown in word and in deed … Jesus’ true affection for Lazarus … Mary and Martha devoting themselves both to their brother’s well-being, and to caring for Jesus when he is in their home during his travels. This is a ‘family of choice’ if ever there was one.
They gathered for a meal, all there together. And in the presence of her family, with a devotion she both learned from them, and shared with others, she anoints Jesus’ feet with a costly fragrant oil, wiping them with her hair. While we could wonder if this is a more personally intimate act, every indication from the scripture, and from the people as we see them in the story, is that this is an expression of extravagant devotion, of great love, literally poured out to honor this one who is part of their lives, and in their home.
This is not the version of the story where Martha is seen as complaining about her work, and what she sees as Mary’s lack of work. This is a story of family gathered for a meal, including the brother who was lost but then reclaimed to life, and two sisters who serve with devotion – one offers a meal, and one a blessing. This is natural, instinctive abiding, family love.
When you have had your life given to you – Lazarus quite literally, and his sisters nearly as much so, given that they would be destitute without him – when your very life has been handed to you by Jesus, don’t you want to honor Christ in every way extravagant way you can? ‘When Jesus has become the reason for our very existence, we have a different sense of values and what worth really means.’
I love that John included the observation that ‘The entire house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ (v3) She has showed such great love that it cannot go unnoticed.
Mary has anointed Jesus so lavishly that all present can participate in it…. The odor of death has been replaced by the odor emanating from Mary’s extravagant love. … Mary is the first person in the Gospel to live out Jesus’ love commandment. … Mary models what it means to be a disciple: to serve, to love one another, to share in Jesus’ death.
When it’s working as it should, it is the love we learn in the family that roots us. When we tend the soil of family affection, and nurture that abiding love, it spills out in extravagant love for all. Both Mary and Martha do what Jesus calls us to – serving faithfully, loving generously. They do the work of faith-full-ness.
There is a movement afoot to have … let’s call them ‘messy’ dinners.
It’s a dinner party. With rules. To keep it messy:
- No housework is done to get ready.
- The menu is simple enough to not need any special grocery trips.
- You wear whatever you have on.
- No one brings a hostess gift.
- (optional) You act surprised when your friends happen to show up at the door.
Kelley Powell talks about the first time she and her friend Laura decided to this – get their families together, spend much-missed time with dear friends, and not put the pressure on to get the place magazine ready, and for everything to be just so. The 7 year old walked through the house in muddy shoes. The 9 year old started a glue and glitter laden craft project right before Laura was coming over. They ended up in the smackdown of the year right in the middle of the living room and then clambered over each other to get to the door when the bell rang. And Kelley says it took her a few deep breaths and a glass of wine to let it all go and enjoy the moment, but now she and Laura and their families are trading messy dinner parties every month. Host a messy dinner. See your friends more often.
This is the kind of home Jesus is welcomed into – a family’s home. Sisters and a brother. The one they thought they’d lost, now suddenly back with them. And this Jesus, whom they love as their own, is sitting at their table. Historian and scholar Justo Gonzalez offers a great reminder:
In the midst of a pragmatic society, we wish to be efficient, to make certain that everything counts and that there is no waste. In the church we look for responsible budgets that make the best possible use of every cent. This is a requirement of responsible stewardship. However, for this to be true Christian stewardship it must be founded not primarily on efficiency but on an overwhelming love that leads to what others may consider mere waste…. Mary spills her perfume with wild abandon for no other reason than this: Jesus is there. There is no calculation here, no consideration for efficiency, no sense that this is a waste. There is nothing but sheer love and gratitude for what Jesus has done.
What we see in this generous outpouring of perfume, of love, is also an outpouring of faithfulness and discipleship. It is instinctive and natural, and every bit the storge love of the Greeks. Jesus raising Lazarus shows the fullness of life available with God; Mary’s anointing shows the fullness of discipleship, what it means to serve and follow entirely.
It is messy and hard and imperfect and sometimes just awful and sometimes only occasionally right. But it is, somehow, ‘a grace upon grace kind of love.’ We love family into their future, even when that future is uncertain, whether that future is painful or wonderful, or first one and then the other. We love them into their future. And they love us into ours.
 Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher 4-1-19 https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5309
 Ross Kraemer, ‘Jewish Family Life in the First Century CE’, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford, 2011) p537-540.
 Peter Woods, The Listening Hermit, https://thelisteninghermit.com/2010/03/15/
 Gail R O’Day, ‘John’, The Women’s Bible Commentary (WJK 1992), p299-300
 Justo Gonzalez, ‘Living By The Word’, The Christian Century, 3/5/19 https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/april-7-fifth-sunday-lent-john-121-8
 paraphrasing Gail O’ Day, ‘John’, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, p703