Sermon April 3: John 12:1-8 Love Language Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever tried to use a second language you've learned? As someone who grew up embedded in two languages and STILL I have to kind of mentally steel myself to use the one that I learned second, I'm regularly incredibly impressed by new Canadians who give it a go.
Who not only LEARN English, which is a wildly complicated language to have to learn from scratch because it has so many linguistic roots, but they also dive in and USE their English. Even when it's obviously new. Even when it must be a real struggle.
I find it really impressive and also quite inspiring. Because it's pretty risky! We want other people to understand us, and learning the language is the start of that, but I think it actually takes a pretty impressive amount of courage and confidence to take the risk of giving it a go!
It's so easy to make a mistake. And wind up misunderstood.
I was told a story this past week, for example, about such a mistake made by one of my clergy forebearers in presenting this passage of scripture that we heard this morning, to his congregation in India where he was serving as a missionary.
Because he had, with deep regard for his congregation, put in the time to learn their language. And he also had, pretty impressively I think, enough courage to give it a go and use it from the pulpit.
But when he read for them the passage from John that we heard earlier, and proclaimed dramatically that when Mary poured the bottle out over Jesus' feet "the smell of the ointment filled the room" – he noticed there seemed to be some sort of suppressed amusement bubbling up around him. And when he tried it again – "the smell of the ointment filled the room" – that suppressed amusement seemed to be getting distinctly not quite so suppressed.
Because it turned out the word for ointment was quite similar to the word for grandmother. So there he was, the missionary from Canada, proclaiming for them dramatically that "the smell of the grandmother filled the room".
The good news is, probably none of them ever forgot that reading! And I hope he was able to just laugh about it ruefully.
Because it IS always risky to try a new language. But it's courageous and honourable to give it a go. Because honestly, communicating with each other is always a bit risky ANYWAY, even in a language we share in common. Even with actions rather than words. There's always so much potential for being misunderstood.
Just consider this morning's passage itself. Jesus and the disciples visiting the home in Bethany of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. Three siblings who've become to him dear friends, with whom his relationship is deep and long-standing.
Which means they KNOW him. Like a brother. They can tell when he's carrying a burden, they can tell when he's tired or worried or maybe feeling low – just like we can with our own friends. And that day, it appears, as he draws ever closer to Jerusalem and to the suffering he knows is awaiting him there, he IS tired and worried and maybe feeling low – and they can tell.
And Mary, in particular, is filled with compassion for him. And wants to comfort him, and soothe his spirit, and let him know he's loved.
So she does what may seem odd to us, when we might instead offer a hug or possibly a casserole -- and instead she takes a flask of perfumed oil or ointment, and then pours it out on his feet to soothe them, and wipes them with her hair.
It's just the gentleness of it, like we might brush a child's hair or smooth cream on a parent's sore hands. The gentleness of that touch, the calming of 'you're not alone', Mary communicating love and care and compassion toward someone she senses is hurting.
Totally obvious – and yet almost immediately she's misunderstood. Like she's somehow wound up pronouncing the word wrong, chosen the wrong action, conveying 'grandmother' when she meant 'ointment'. She THOUGHT what she was doing was communicating love and care and compassion because there's suffering, totally obvious. But almost immediately she's called out like no -- she's made a mistake. Like that's not how that's done.
Because Judas, one of Jesus' disciples, when he sees her pouring that perfume all over Jesus' feet – he doesn't see love and care and compassion because there's suffering. All he sees is an incredible waste of expensive perfume.
Which, for him, the goodness of having that kind of asset is that it can be sold – and then the money can be faithfully and beautifully used to communicate love and care and compassion because there's suffering.
"That money could've been used to help the poor," Judas says. And how could Mary not want to do that, with this amazing asset she has at her disposal? This expensive perfume she could sell for a fortune? And use to show love and care and compassion toward dozens and dozens, HUNDREDS, of people who are hurting?
It really is as though the two of them are speaking different languages. Because "Mary," says Judas, "how can you not want to care for those in need?" "But Judas," she replies, "how can you not see that that's what I'm doing?"
The thing is, neither of them is actually wrong. It’s not a matter of Mary’s impulse is correct and Judas’ impulse is dreadful, or even the other way round. Because the gospel writer's snark about Judas notwithstanding, it's clear that they both believe in expressions of love and care and compassion to those who are hurting.
It's just that when Mary uses the language, in effect, of pouring it out directly – pouring it all out on the hurting person who's right in front of her – Judas doesn't understand that language.
Because his is the language of what about, and what about, and what about – it's a call to pour out whatever love and care and compassion we have as widely as possible. Because there's simply so much need. So many who are suffering. And they have to be before us, and they can't be forgotten. We can't lose our awareness or let them slip our minds. And he's not wrong.
Neither of them is wrong. But the way that Jesus responds, we often hear it as though Judas specifically is being clearly and decisively rebuked. And I think that's overstating the case.
Because Jesus in fact affirms the breadth of concern that Judas raises. He affirms Judas' commitment to staying aware of and wanting to respond to the big hurts of poverty and injustice and famine and war, and all the suffering they cause. When Jesus says to him "the poor will always be with you" that's not some kind of divine endorsement of a permanent class divide – it's an acknowledgement that we're not always what we should be, as a human family. There's always so much hurting, there's always so much need.
So Jesus affirms where Judas is coming from, with his what about, and what about, and what about. He just also gently points to Mary pouring out her perfume on his feet, and offers Judas a bit of a translation, if you will, of this language Judas doesn't understand.
And I think it's a good translation. Of course we have no idea if it did Judas any good, or if he'd more or less stopped listening by then, but I think it's a good translation at least for US.
Because I hear all the time from people a sadness, or a hurting, or a terrible worry, or a suffering – and then immediately, before the words are barely out of their mouths, they're stifled, like they're shameful. "Oh, I shouldn't be complaining, with what's happening in Ukraine, there are so many worse off. This is nothing, I have no right to feel like this, think of those who are living in tents, think of children who are hungry."
We unleash Judas' what-aboutism on each other, but sometimes I think we're MOST masterful at it, frankly, with ourselves.
And Jesus' response to us is this translation of Mary that he offers to Judas. Because "Look," he says to Judas: "Mary's as much about pouring out love and care and compassion toward those who are hurting as you are. It's just that what you're seeing is her doing that for someone, who's hurting right in front of her, as though they're the only hurting person in the world. As though, how much do they matter? As though, in this moment, all the love and care and compassion she has at her disposal is just for them.
"And that's not less than. It's just different. And maybe tomorrow she'll donate to the Red Cross or write letters to her MLA about raising minimum wage or bring food to an emergency shelter -- or maybe she won't. Maybe all the love and care and compassion she has at her disposal right now, it's for one person at a time, maybe right now it HAS to be for the one person at a time, who's hurting right in front of her."
It's not less than. It's just different. It's not a waste or irresponsible or shamefully myopic in relation to a world full of need, it's just a different language of Christian love and care and compassion. Too easily misunderstood by the language of what about and what about and what about – but so what? says Jesus.
Did it matter to his congregation that my clergy forebear proclaimed dramatically that the smell of the grandmother filled the room? I doubt that very much.
Because they might not have understood that he was communicating the word "ointment", but they couldn't have missed that in learning their language and gamely giving it a go, he was communicating love. And loud and clear. May we find our best ways to go and do likewise, God being our helper. Amen.