Sermon preached for the Fifth Sunday of Lent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
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.”
I have a strong memory of being in the third grade, preparing to take my first standardized test. In Virginia such tests are called SOL tests. Along with an orange juice and a nutri-grain bar, each of us were handed a brand new #2 pencil to help us perfectly fill in all those bubbles. On one side it read it bright gold lettering: “Doing my best on the SOL test!”
It was abundantly clear to me even then that to really do your best on the SOL test meant getting the answers right. Filling in each bubble completely and perfectly and passing with flying colors, not only for your own scholastic sake but for the sake of the whole school, which was being graded on their students’ collective efforts.
It was about as stressed as third-grade Carol ever got.
I carried that attitude with me for a long time: that doing my best was synonymous with getting the answer right. As if life was a multiple choice test just waiting for me to pick the one right answer amidst all the wrong ones.
That durn pencil was so catchy that I’d even find myself repeating it as a mantra, long after SOL tests were part of my past, when I had a conundrum to solve. I’m doing my best on the SOL test, I’d reassure myself. If I just think long enough, talk to the right people, pray the right prayer, whatever—I’ll find the right answer. I’ll do my best.
Which is why I was so bowled over by my seminary Hebrew professor. It was the morning of our first quiz, and we were just as nervous as that third-grade group of my childhood. Hebrew is not an easy language.
But instead of telling us to our best, his advice was slightly different: Do the most beautiful that is in you.
He talks like that, by the way.
It’s not that far different from the standard advice to do your best, but even as he said it I could feel my stress dissipating. I would do the most beautiful that was in me to do—and that would be enough. It might not be perfect, every answer might not be correct, but whatever I put on that quiz, it would be the most beautiful gift of my time, energy, and intelligence that I had to offer. It was about what I was giving, not about the results.
It was a small change to how I thought about it, but it made a world of difference to me. Looking for the most beautiful option, instead of the best one.
Our gospel lesson today is a study in the tension between these two ways of thinking.
Jesus and his disciples are at a dinner party, hosted by Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, who had died and been raised back to life. I can only imagine how insignificant a thank-you that felt, a dinner party. How do you thank the man who restored your beloved brother to you?
Martha, the practical one, serves dinner. She prepares the food and shares it with each disciple—and surely a dinner for sixteen was not cheap! It is her way of showing love.
Her sister Mary, the philosophical one, shows her love a different way. At some point during dinner she brings out a pound of nard and pours it over Jesus’ feet, wiping it off with her hair. It will not be long before Jesus will be anointed by nard again, when he lays in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. It is a shockingly kind and intimate moment, Mary’s outpouring. John says the whole house is filled with the scent of perfume. I can imagine all eyes on Mary, as she silently cares for the man who cares for so many.
And yet not everyone sees the love in what she’s doing.
Somebody wants to nitpick the nickels and dimes. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Now, John gives us an out. He puts this sentence in the mouth of Judas, the betrayer, so we can be more inclined to ignore it. He even drives home the point that Judas kept the treasury and embezzled from it, so nothing would go to the poor anyway. But I think John is trying too hard to gloss over what is a very valid question.
When Mark wrote his gospel, some thirty or forty years earlier, he recorded that question—“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”—but nothing about who said it. It stands on its own merit.
Three hundred denarii. We’re talking about a year’s wage for a basic wage worker—so, for perspective, maybe 20,000 dollars today. I can understand the disgust—why was 20,000 dollars poured out in one go on somebody’s feet, when it could have bought meals for everyone in the city? It’s not a bad question. What is the best use of the money?
Only asking the question that way presumes there’s only one answer. If you ask, what’s the best use of 300 denarii, then there has to be one answer. It’s eithergive it to the poor or show compassion to the Son of God, destined for death. Either Mary is right or Judas is right. Multiple choice.
But life is not a multiple choice test, and faith is way more complicated than filling in a scantron sheet.
So ask the question a different way: what was the most beautiful in Mary to do at that moment, when the man who raised her brother back to life sat in her house, when she knew—knew in a way that few seemed to fully realize—that his own life was about to be snuffed out with jeers and nails? How could she do the most beautiful that was in her to do?
When I think about it that way, I can only be awed by Mary’s choice. To sit in a room of judgmental people, to give away not only her perfume but her love, to show Jesus that even as he walks to the cross, someone sees his sacrifice. Someone loves him now, not only once he has died and the eulogies start flowing.
And Jesus gets 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.”
Now Jesus has done everything in his ministry to advocate caring for the poor, and yet over the years far too many Christians have used his last sentence as an excuse not to worry about our most vulnerable siblings. But I don’t see how we can read “you always have the poor with you” as “forget about the poor.” I can only see it as “caring for the poor will always be on the list of things to do. Never forget that.”
It is tempting to treat the life and faith as a multiple choice test: do we A) care for the poor, B) create meaningful worship services for Christ, C) study doctrinal theology, or D) seek spiritual experiences in solitude. I have heard argument over argument about which of those choices—or any other pet project of the speaker—is the right choice, the best choice.
But I ask you: what is the most beautiful in you? What is the most beautiful you have to offer?
Because some days, the most beautiful you have in you will be clearing the Kroger shelves of mac-n-cheese for our Thanksgiving baskets. And some days the most beautiful you have in you will be singing your heart out for Christ. And some days the most beautiful you have in you will be studying scripture until the word from God is lodged securely in your heart. And some days the most beautiful you have in you will just be to keep breathing, breathing in the spirit, until you know the very presence of God inside you.
Some days you will serve dinner to your family, and it will be your offering to God. Some days you will go to the doctor to care for your body, and it will be your offering to God. Some days you will make a phone call to a grieving friend, and it will be your offering to God. Some days you will question your faith, and in honest, sincere wrestling with truth, even that will be your offering to God.
Life is messy. Faith is complicated. Our gifts and callings are varied, and change minute to minute, person to person. There is not always a right answer. There is not even always a best answer. And we can collapse under the weight of thinking there is, under the stress of always trying to do the right thing, the best thing, because we so don’t want to get it wrong, we so don’t want to bring less than our best to our Lord and Savior.
But what if instead we only strove to bring the most beautiful in us to Christ? What if we gave up worrying about whether we were serving in the right ways as others judged them, but only whether we took the most beautiful thing God placed in us, and gave it right back to God?
Would we have the courage then, the determination, the stark-strong faith, to kneel at Jesus feet even in a room of scorn and judgement, and pour out all of what is most precious to us?
Doing your best is commendable. But there is so much freedom, so much joy, in the other way of being faithful.
Do the most beautiful that is in you.
For Christ, offer what is most beautiful in you.
Christ has offered what is most beautiful in him for you.