The Extravagant Sister

Two people: one man and one woman, both with gifts worth a small fortune. They take up these gifts and use them to excess, pouring them out lavishly, spreading them around so that all is spent. At the end, nothing is left – not one drop remains. Last week it was the parable of a man, a son who wants his inheritance even though his father is still alive. Please, father, he says, can’t you just pretend that you are dead already and give me what I’m owed? And the father, remarkably, agrees, giving his son half of his wealth, wealth that the son then wastes utterly on stuff and nonsense. This week it is the story of a woman, a sister, who takes a pound of burial oil and pours it over the feet of her honored dinner guest until a fog of pungent perfume hangs in the air and a year’s wages lie in a slippery puddle on the floor. Last week it was the parable of the prodigal son. This week – the story of prodigal sister?  

But no, there’s something about that word “prodigal” that doesn’t seem quite right. True, there are some similarities between the sister and the son, but their stories feel so different. The son’s waste comes from pure selfishness, while the sister’s comes from selfless generosity. The son ends up desperate and lonely and hungry enough to eat pig slop, never a good thing, while the sister is defended and affirmed by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, which is always a plus. We know that we’re meant to disapprove of the son’s actions while heartily approve those of the sister. So could we really use the same word to describe them both?

Now it cannot be denied that the sister’s actions do seem to match up pretty well with the textbook definition of the word “prodigal.” Her exhausting an entire bottle of nard on one man’s feet could certainly be described as “wasteful or recklessly lavish.” This is, of course, exactly what has Judas tsking and twitching in the corner. Spikenard, at least in its pure form, is expensive, and Judas is all too happy to do the calculations in his head – one pound of nard, at the current market value, with tax and the vendor’s markup – why, this oil’s worth 300 denarii! That’s a year’s wages, he thinks, an entire year’s wages that I could have used to line my pockets – I mean, that we could have used to feed the poor, or something.

It seems a perfectly reasonable argument, and a perfectly good reason to call Mary a prodigal sister. But of course, Mary isn’t interested in being reasonable; she wants to be expansive, over-the-top – Mary wants to be the extravagant sister. Extravagant. Which of course also means wasteful, but somehow it just feels better. And there is, in fact, more to this word “extravagant” than just wastefulness – just as there is more to Mary’s story than just how much she paid for the nard.  The word “extravagant” comes from two Latin roots: “extra” meaning “outside of” and “vagari” meaning “to wander.” Interesting, isn’t it, that a word that has come to mean merely wasteful was born out of words that suggest something that travels outside the bounds, something that goes beyond the limits, pushes beyond worldly common sense.

And Mary’s extravagance is about being outside the bounds in far more profound ways that than simply the high cost of oil. To get at the heart of this kind of extravagance, we must start with the extravagance of the smell. Not to put too fine a point on it, but spikenard stinketh. Fans of nard will say that it smells earthy or musk, but others compare it to the sharp reek of goats or, of all things, the funky tang of feet. And it’s strong – it’s eye-wateringly, mouth-puckeringly pungent. The release of that much oil into what was presumably a small space would have made even the most determinedly polite guest put down her pita and wonder how long she could get away with holding her breath. When Mary fearlessly unleashes this scent into the room, she is showing true extravagance, making a gesture that is uncomfortably outside the bounds, that dares her guests to complain, to ask why. Why nard? And why now?

But the extravagance, the outside-the-bounds-ness, of nard is not limited to its pungency. Because the scent of nard is not just strong; it is also the scent of death. Nard was primarily used as an oil for anointing the dead, a strong perfume that was mixed with other spices to ward off the smell of decay. So not only does Mary fill the room with a smell that could have choked a horse – and may have even smelled like one – she also fills the room with the smell of death. And in that room sits Lazarus, her newly-resurrected brother, who had lain in that same smell for four still days. There sits Martha, her sister, who had of course been the one to go to the market to buy the nard for his burial. Death, the smell of death, the memory of death, is all around. This is too much, Mary, we want to say, too much money spent, too much smell to handle, too many memories to endure, too much fear of what has happened and what is to come. This is truly outside the bounds – Mary, how can you wish to take us there?

But Mary does want to take us there, because it is there that she shows us the true core of her extravagance – not the money, or the smell, or even the memories and allusions, but the true extravagance of Mary’s great faith. Mary knows that Jesus’ being in Bethany is dangerous. She knows Jesus’ predictions about his arrest and crucifixion; she knows that the chief priests and Pharisees have ordered the people to turn Jesus in. She knows what they all face in these six short days before the Passover – and yet…and yet she does not flinch. She doesn’t pretend that everything is business as usual, she doesn’t hide away in fear or try to sell her nard to finance Jesus’ getaway caravan – she faces the fact of Jesus’ impending suffering and death and does not look away. The authorities are hunting Jesus? Of course they are. They seek his life? Of course. They want him dead? Fine. He will be dead, he’s almost dead already. And so she takes the oil that she had been saving for his burial and instead chooses to anoint him right then. She anoints him as he is, a man with a living body that is about to be pierced, a man with beautiful, weary feet that are about to be nailed to a tree, a man who said I am resurrection and I am life and then called Lazarus out of his own spicy tomb. She anoints him without fear, for she knows that Death cannot conquer this man, that Death cannot conquer period. She has seen herself how those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy, and she is ready to sing. This is the heart of Mary’s extravagance, that she has a depth of faith to conjure up the specter of Death only to laugh in its face. This is faith that is truly beyond the bounds, that is utterly and beautifully extravagant.          

What if you and I were to take these last two weeks of Lent and live extravagantly? Not with Guinness and shamrock shakes and Irish potatoes, but with faith? What if we were to intentionally live outside the bounds that the world places on things like compassion and mercy, inclusion and hospitality? What if we were to love extravagantly, even our enemies, even ourselves, even those people whose political perspectives, we think, just stink to high heaven? What if we were to worship extravagantly, coming to church not once or twice but five days in a row during the long walk of Holy Week? What if we were to serve extravagantly, at the soup bowl or with the altar guild or at the Saint James School, or serve your housebound neighbor downstairs, or the homeless woman who hangs out on your stoop, or refugees on the other side of the world? What if we were to give extravagantly, or forgive extravagantly? What if we were to sing extravagantly? What if we were to speak the truth with love extravagantly? What if we were to rest extravagantly, remembering the gift of Sabbath and keeping that day holy, holy, holy? And what if we were to trust extravagantly, to believe the extravagant claims that we make here – that Death has no dominion, that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, that God is doing a new thing, and that those who go out weeping will come in again with joy? What if we were to live utterly extravagantly, knowing, trusting that God will not see this gift as a waste. For this living may be outside the bounds of human expectations, but it is never outside the bounds of the expansive, holy, beautiful, wondrous kingdom of God. So go – be extravagant. Be an extravagant daughter, an extravagant son of God; pour out all that you have in the name of a truly extravagant God who gave his only begotten Son that you and I may have life and have it abundantly. So go, live it extravagantly.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

17 March 2013

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on March 19, 2013 .