Weekly Seeds: Leave Her Alone

Sunday, April 3, 2022
Fifth Sunday in Lent | Year C

Focus Theme:
Leave Her Alone

Focus Prayer:
Hospitable God, magnify the gifts that we bring to each moment. Quelch our impulses toward condemnation, shame, and comparison and enable us to recognize the gifts of others. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 12:1–8
12 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.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 43:16–21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b–14
John 12:1–8

Focus Questions:
1. What is the role of a guest?
2. How do you extend hospitality to a guest?
3. How do you receive hospitality?
4. What gifts do you bring when accepting an invitation?
5. How do you respond to the generosity of others?

By Cheryl Lindsay

I love when Jesus tells people to “mind their business.” The men primed to stone the woman caught (remarkedly alone) in adultery were confronted with their own need of mercy and dropped their rocks. Peter was chastened when Jesus repaired the injury Peter inflicted in seeming defense of Jesus. In another encounter with the family found in this text, Jesus has to assure Martha that Mary’s choice to sit in his presence is as valid as hers to prepare a meal.

The impulse to control or condemn other’s choices in comparison to our own is pervasive. We see this in incidents of individuals calling the police to control the actions of strangers, not because they are illegal but because they don’t like them. The dismantling of reproductive rights refuses to acknowledge bodily autonomy and seeks to control the life choices of others.

So often, the overreach occurs without connection, relationship, or even conversation. How many laws are made by those who would never be impacted by their enactment? How many sit in judgment of communities without any curiosity to explore their condition or listen to their stories?

In the focus text, Mary acts out of her devotion and intimate relationship with Jesus. Once again, her objective is to be as close to Jesus as possible. It does not matter to her what anyone else is doing. She has no issue with the choices anyone else is making. She does not struggle with “minding her business.” This time, it’s Judas who feels the urge to police her behavior. Mary does not respond to him or others who challenge her actions. She neither seeks their approval or permission; she certainly is not deterred by their rebuke and critique.

It’s an important story that connects to events that precede and follow it. Mary’s actions are recorded in all four gospel accounts even if the details may vary:

Not too many scenes of ]esus’ life outside Passion week are chronicled by all four Gospel writers, but one is his anointing (Mark 14:3-9; Matt 26:6-13; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-11). j. K. Elliott states that because all four evangelists record the anointing, the event can be considered “on the same level as the miraculous feedings or the crucifixion.” (Michael Chung)

While the event takes place outside of Passion Week, it connects to the passion:

John situates his anointing story in Bethany, six days before the Passover (12:1). Like in the Synoptics, the context is that of a meal, yet in John 12:1-8 it is a particularly joyful celebration, given that it follows the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11. We are not told in whose home the feast takes place, but the presence of the three siblings whom Jesus loved (cf. 11:5), Martha, Mary and Lazarus, is mentioned. It is meaningful that Jesus’ ministry both opens and concludes with a feast. The meal in Bethany, with its profusion of scent, is reminiscent of the wedding festivities at Cana, where, following a temporary dearth, wine in abundance was provided by Jesus. Even though in Bethany the sense of profound celebration prevails, it “is not escapist; it does not run away from the reality of life, least of all from death.” The narrator, by referring to Lazarus as being raised from the dead (v. 1), and even more so in Jesus’ response to Judas in w. 7-8, ensures that the sense of the imminent danger is not forgotten. Lazarus is twice characterized as the one whom Jesus “raised from the dead,” in 12:1, 9. This points to the connection between the story of the anointing and that of the raising of Lazarus. (Dominika A. Kurek-Chomycz)

Mary sits among a cast of characters in relationship with Jesus. There’s no hint that Martha objected (this time) to singularly serving the meal. Lazarus’ presence alone seems sufficient. Being alive is more than enough. Each family member acts out their relationship from their unique perspective. It’s Judas who questions Mary. The objection is couched in concern for the poor, but Jesus dismisses that in a manner that can often confound us when read in light of Jesus’ obvious and consistently expressed favoring of the poor.

Jesus does not abandon the poor nor does he minimize their circumstances by his words that have so often been used out of context to legitimize the continued existence of poverty. No, Jesus rebukes Judas’ performative concern for the poor.

As I am writing this, I have witnessed several hours of the hearing on the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice. In the questioning, there have been hours of questioning related to her sentencing record. While scrutiny of any judicial nominee’s experience and character is appropriate, it is notable that the body that questioned her has the ability to enact legislation that would have addressed the concerns expressed in the questions. You can be concerned about those same issues and still reject the nature of the interrogation based on the motive of the combative.

Jesus can hold care of the poor while confronting the hypocrisy of one who is only concerned about their own benefit and ends. Judas does not care about the poor; he’s using the issue to attack actions that are not any of his concern. Mary does not use his nard; she has her own. He wants what she has, but he has no legitimate claim to it so he tries to co-opt real human need to authenticate his avarice and greed.

Jesus tells him to “leave her alone.” Once again, Mary has chosen the better way because she has chosen Jesus. Her validation does not come from any other source. She does not need her actions to be justified or co-signed. I get the sense that even as this conversation happens around her, Mary never stops, doesn’t hesitate, and does not spare any energy engaging in the false argument. She does what she is purposed and drawn to do. She too has a role to fulfill.

Jesus says it. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Whether Mary was aware of the significance of her actions is unclear, but her purpose is undeniable. She cannot and will not be stopped. She applies the nard liberally and then wipes it off. Presumably, she’s wiping off excess then applying more in a repeated ritual. She’s using more than necessary, and, in the process, she uses her hair in place of a rag. Rather than discard the excess, she purposes the excess. She intentionally applies more than she needs.

This is a story of generosity and abundance despite Judas’ framing of the action as frivolous and poor stewardship. Jesus rejects the scarcity framing as much as the hypocrisy. Eschewing abundance will not solve poverty. Embracing abundance and cultivating generosity eradicates poverty more than penny pinching hospitality and judging someone’s gift giving. In this, the expansive use of the nard reminds us of the lushness of the garden and the abundance of creation. The garden also facilitated intimate relationship between Creator and created. Jesus is close enough to touch and Mary is a new Eve ready to experience everything.

In wiping the oil off with her hair, Mary performs a particular and peculiar act:

In the Song of Songs, the aromas, even as they identify the two lovers, create an additional bond between them. Such an olfactory connection may ultimately result in the admixture of aromas, wherein it may no longer be feasible to distinguish between the individual odours. From this perspective it may be noted that Marys extravagant gesture in John 12:3 is not devoid of sexual undertones, yet the intimate bond between Mary and Jesus is expressed in the union of their scents.26 By wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, she mixes her odour with that of Jesus, and in this way all the three scents: that of nard, of Marys hair, and of Jesus’ feet, create yet another, new fragrance. (Dominika A. Kurek-Chomycz)

Anointing of the body for burial functioned, in significant part, to mask the odor of death. Deterioration and decay of the flesh would proceed rapidly and the use of essential oils, with the heavily concentrated scent, would help to alleviate the stench. There would be no reason to remove the excess.

Yet, somehow Mary recognizes that Jesus overcomes the sting and stench of death. She’s participating in creating something new, and creation requires abundance not scarcity, censure, or restraint.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus tells the critics who would stifle her creation, enthusiasm, and generosity. In other words, let her be who God shaped her to be. Let her be in the presence of the Holy One. Let her be generous with unsolicited opinions. Let her have agency over herself and her stuff.

Let her be. Mind your business. Leave her alone.

Thank you, Jesus.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman, and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing–a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of the path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees.

After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, ‘Let the children come!’ and they ran from the trees toward her.

Let your mothers hear you laugh,’ she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.

Then ‘Let the grown men come,’ she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.

Let your wives and your children see you dance,’ she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.

Finally she called the women to her. ‘Cry,’ she told them. ‘For the living and the dead. Just cry.’ And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

She did not tell them to clean up their lives or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard…”
— Toni Morrison (Beloved)

For further reflection:
“Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.” — Albert Camus
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” — Simone Weil
“‘A fight is going on inside me'” said an old man to his son. ‘It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is good. he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you.’
The son thought about it for a minute and then asked, ‘Which wolf will win?’
The old man replied simply, ‘The one you feed.'”
— Wendy Mass

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.