(Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; Johns 12:1-8)
The title of this sermon is, “Faithful Discernment.” We talk in Christianity about discernment a lot, so it’s useful to review its definition. The dictionary definition that I like is, “The quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.” This is the perfect definition for the discernment necessary in the scene from the Gospel According to John today. In this scene, Jesus is at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who Jesus’ had raised from the dead a chapter earlier. A dinner is being given in Jesus’ honor. Martha is serving – of course, because that’s what Martha does – and Lazarus is reclining at the table with Jesus. Mary enters the scene with a pint of pure nard, which is an expensive perfume. She pours the nard on Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair. The house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume. It is an extravagant act of devotion. (Like Martha with her serving, Mary is true to form with her devotional act.)
Now Judas enters the scene. With righteous indignation, he exclaims, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages” (12:5). Those of us reading the passage are given information about Judas to help us discern whether his indignation is truly righteous. We are told, “[Judas] did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (6). We readers, two millennia later, know what is really going on with Judas, but those present at the time the scene took place don’t know. Judas appears to have a good point. After all, Jesus preached repeatedly about taking care of “the least of these,” such as the poor, the outcast, the ill, the imprisoned, etc. Those present could have bought into what he said. Why was Mary wasting resources on Jesus’ feet? Why did Jesus let her waste resources in this way? Judas’ words cast doubt on the character and motivation of both Mary and Jesus.
This is where we add the word “faithful” to the word “discernment.” In order to correctly “grasp and comprehend what is obscure,” we need to be faithful, meaning we need to be true to our faith in Jesus and true to our status as his disciples. We need to be paying attention to the Holy Spirit, who Jesus said would lead us “into all truth” (Jn 16:3), in order to “grasp and comprehend” what the truth is of any particular situation. Discernment requires faithfulness.
In the situation described in the Gospel According to John today, Jesus reveals that Mary is the truly faithful disciple when he responds, “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (Jn 12:7-8). Mary has perceived – consciously or unconsciously – that Jesus’ death is approaching and has decided to use the perfume purchased for the day of his burial to anoint him that day, at that meal. Her action foreshadows what is to come, indicating that Jesus is, indeed, the Pashcal Lamb, both suffering and triumphant, who will take away the sins of the world (Jn 1:9). Mary, who seems to be an unnecessarily extravagant and wasteful disciple, is actually faithful, while Judas, who seems to be a righteously indignant disciple, is actually a self-serving hypocrite. In other words, things are not what they seem. It takes faithful discernment to grasp and comprehend what is actually going on. Jesus and Mary have that faithful discernment; the others do not.
There are, obviously, underlying theological themes in the gospel reading. The two that spring to mind easily as Mary anoints Jesus’ feet are Jesus as the Pascal Lamb and the extravagance of God’s love. But I want to focus on the theme of faithful discernment. Faithful discernment is required of disciples every day as we go about living our lives in a world that presents us with self-serving hypocrites clothed in righteous indignation and faithful disciples clothed in extravagant wastefulness (or some other seemingly sinful thing). Just because someone is righteously indignant does not mean that they are faithful disciples. They might be faithful disciples, but they might not be. Things are not always what they seem to be. And, just because someone seems to be extravagantly wasteful (or sinful in some other way) does not mean that they are not faithful disciples. They might be unfaithful, but they might be faithful. Judas appeared to be a prophet calling the disciples to righteous generosity to the poor, but he was a self-serving hypocrite. Mary appeared to be extravagantly wasteful, but she was the true prophet that day, calling the disciples to the truth of who Jesus was and what he would soon endure. It takes faithful discernment to grasp and comprehend what is really going on. God calls us to faithful discernment in a world in which things are often not what they seem to be. We must “test the spirits” (1 Jn 4:1) as we go about living our lives. May we do so faithfully, guided by the Holy Spirit and our love of the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, April 3, 2022, the Fifth Sunday in Lent.
The image used in this post is from https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Anointing_of_Jesus. Author unknown. Image in the public domain.