March 17, 2013/Fifth Sunday of Lent
The name Mother Teresa has become synonymous with self-sacrifice, devoted service and commitment to the poor. It’s hard not to think of goodness and compassion and kindness when you hear her name. If you knew nothing else about her outside of the work she did in the poorest slums of Calcutta – now Kolkata – India, you would believe that she really was a living saint. You would have to be the most ardent disciple ever to do what she did without ceasing, and presumably without complaining.
But in the years immediately following her death, her personal journals, kept over the 50 years she lived and worked in the midst of such extreme poverty, revealed what seems to be an almost constant crisis of faith.
She doubted. She feared. She lacked faith.
It seems that for many people these were shocking revelations. The people who were most aghast that Mother Teresa would write about her lack of faith, felt that these admissions of doubt tarnished her reputation. Well, she couldn’t have been a real saint if she had any doubts about her belief in God.
But other people, myself included, saw this as making her more real. Honestly I would have been more surprised if she had never questioned her faith. I can’t imagine living the life she lived, with extreme poverty, misery and suffering as her constant companion, and not feeling doubt. How could she not sometimes question the existence of a merciful God when surrounded with the terrible suffering of God’s children?
Yet I think what is really important about seeing this side of Mother Teresa is not that she doubted. It’s that she doubted and she never stopped serving. Her response to her doubt was not to walk away, give up or even become cynical. She just kept serving. Her doubts, her fears, her crisis of faith never hindered her faithful action. Even her belief that she lacked belief never kept her from following her call to discipleship.
I think the question we have before us from our passage in John’s gospel is what makes for a faithful disciple? What is discipleship?
This is the story of Jesus being anointed for burial. Variations of this same story are told in the other gospels, but in John’s gospel the setting for the burial is in the home of Lazarus, the man whom Jesus raised from the dead. There, with his sisters Mary and Martha, Lazarus sits, alive and well, at table with Jesus and with Jesus’ disciples. While they are all gathered there, Mary takes a pound of expensive perfume made from pure nard and pours it on Jesus’s feet. She anoints his feet, then wipes it away with her hair. There was no hiding what she had done either, because the fragrance of the perfume fills the whole house with its scent.
This is an act of great intimacy. I’m sure those who witnessed it were well aware of the way Mary’s actions could be misconstrued as inappropriately intimate. Yet whatever sexual undertones might be implied, Jesus is not perturbed or put off by Mary’s intimate gestures.
Judas, on the other hand, speaks out. Mary has been wasteful. She has wasted perfume which could have brought good money to help the poor in this inappropriate behavior. John does not let his readers’ labor under any false pretenses about Judas. John’s gospel is written with the assumption that anyone reading it already knows the story of Jesus, but his words give interpretation to the events that took place.
So in his telling John declares that Judas doesn’t give a flip about the poor. He is a thief who steals from the common purse, and he is also the one who will betray Jesus. Let there be no mistaking that Judas is one of the bad guys.
However I don’t think that the truth about Judas negates the fact that he spoke aloud what I suspect all the other disciples were thinking. I doubt that what Mary did was seen by the other disciples as compassionate or caring or loving or necessary. I imagine that the intimacy made them uncomfortable. I’m sure they were shocked that such an expensive perfume was just poured out on their teacher’s feet. Judas just said what they were all thinking.
I also imagine that it came as a surprise to them that Jesus defended her.
“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 have always have me.”
Jesus interprets Mary’s response to him in light of his upcoming death. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
Mary seemed to understand what the disciples didn’t; that Jesus was soon to die. He would not die the death of a king but of a criminal. Her decision to anoint his feet was her response as a disciple. She believed and she acted. This was her faithful action.
What does it mean to be a disciple? What does discipleship look like?
As often happens with John’s gospel, I leave a passage with more questions than I when I started. Certainly a question that is raised for many of us is Jesus’ words about the poor. Is he being dismissive of poverty? It’s never going to go away, so it’s better just to love me, be in relationship with me and let the rest work itself out?
I think this is often how it’s been interpreted. The prevailing wisdom has been that it is better to have a living relationship with Jesus and trust that the poor are in God’s hands. We shouldn’t ignore the needs of the poor, but our relationship with Jesus trumps all others.
While Jesus’ words make me uncomfortable, I don’t believe that he is dismissing poverty as a fixed state of being. His actions on behalf of the poor, the sick, the forgotten, and the lost belie any doubt I have about my responsibility to the rest of God’s children, especially the poor. Jesus loved the least of these. His words and his deeds spoke loudly and clearly that God has, to paraphrase liberation theology, a preference for the poor.
Yet I think that what Jesus is trying to say in honoring Mary’s gesture of love is that our response to his love, God’s love should be extravagant, excessive, and even in the eyes of the world, wasteful.
Last week my friend Jim Hawley spoke profoundly about the word prodigal meaning not lost but waste. The love of the father for his lost then found son was extravagant. His grace and mercy and forgiveness were extravagant. Perhaps the older brother saw the wasted life of his younger sibling as wasteful, and the love his father showed him on his return as wasteful as well. But I think the father’s response was that there is no such thing as wasted love or too much grace.
Isn’t Mary’s response to Jesus another side of that coin? She is so filled with love for him that she responds extravagantly. The cost of the perfume means nothing in light of her love for Jesus. After all, proof of Jesus’ love and his true identity as the Son of God is sitting right at the table with them – Lazarus. Raised from the dead, Lazarus.
So Mary responds with extravagant love. Her most faithful action is to love without thought of cost or what is deemed appropriate behavior in the eyes of those around her. Her faithful action is to love extravagantly.
Aren’t we as disciples called to do the same? Is that what it really means to be a disciple? It seems to me that discipleship is not just about right belief; it’s also about faithful action. It is about extravagant love in response to the extravagant love that’s shown to us. And this isn’t an either/or circumstance. It’s not that if we respond with extravagant love to God in Christ, that we won’t have enough left to share with others. I think the opposite is true. The more we love the more love increases. I think the more we respond in extravagant love to Jesus, the more we share that extravagant love with others.
So let our faithful action as disciples be our extravagant love. For God. For one another. And for all whom we meet. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”