Lent 5C: Prodigal People of a Prodigal God
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Lent 5C: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
The Very Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Dean & Rector
Last week, in our reflection on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we looked at how one of the things the parable reveals to us is the Prodigal nature of God in Godself. It is Karl Barth who perhaps puts this most beautifully by showing us, reminding us, that if we see the Prodigal Son as Christ Himself on a journey into a Far Country, we get a glimpse of the lengths to which God will go to reconcile the human family, indeed all of creation itself, to Himself.
If we read the parable Christologically, we see some very important things. God, in his Son, is willing to leave home—wants to leave the comfort and security of life with the Father—to go to the far country. God in Christ identifies with the very least of these—prostitutes and sinners—and even goes so far as to become ritually unclean (there is no more unclean job for a good kosher Jew than being a tender of pigs!). God in the Son journeys to the farthest possible reaches from the Father—the lowest point of separation, need, vulnerability, desperation, shame—in order to redeem it, to fill it with God’s love. In the Son’s journey in the Far Country, we see the humility of God revealed—there is no place, no situation, no darkness, God will not willingly enter, to take it into Himself, in order to fill it with his presence. There is no country too far, too distant, too porcine, for God to travel to in order to draw one of his precious lost sheep back to him.
One way the Church has thought about this missional movement of God is in terms of kenosis—self-emptying love. Kenosis is pouring out, a sloshing over in a great floodtide of love. God pours Himself out in the Son through the Holy Spirit in order that we might be drawn back to find our true home at the celebratory banquet of divine love, the party that’s been in full-swing since the foundation of the world. Even a passing acquaintance with the life and ministry of Jesus reveals this kenotic, self-emptying character of God. Jesus pours himself out to everyone he meets—sinners, prostitutes, tax-collecters, women with issues of blood, Samaritan women, demoniacs, lepers, Centurion’s daughters. And in the pouring out of this unconditional love, what do we see? Healing. Salvation. Restoration of relationship and reintegration into the life of the community. We see the emergence of what it actually means to be a disciple, and to be church—radical welcome and indiscriminate hospitality. Of course, this radical welcome extends all the way to the cross. Jesus accepts suffering and death in order to show us that our slavery to the fear of death has been triumphed over. We are now in Christ, a resurrection people, who can go where Jesus goes, touch who Jesus touches, eat with those whom Jesus eats, listen with unstopped ears to the cries of the world.
The clearest manifestation of the outpouring, kenotic pattern of God’s love, of course, is the Eucharist—the pouring of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine that might become for us the real presence of Christ’s body and blood—the giving of God’s very self to us right here, right now, at this simple table. Talk about a Prodigal God who journeys to a distant country! A wafer. Wine in a shared cup. God coming to us as food and drink that we might be that food and drink for others. Just as God in the Son pours himself out, just as the Jesus pours himself out, and just as the Spirit pours itself out on Ethiopian eunuchs on wilderness roads, and non-kosher Centurions with strange dreams, so are we called to imitate, to participate in that same basic pattern, movement, gestalt of self-emptying love.
That’s what it means to a Kingdom people, that what it means to walk the way of love, that’s what it means to do the will of God—to co-operate with the pouring out of love that is the essential nature of who we really are. It’s to “go with the flow” and let go of all that dams up the river of reconciling love that is our true nature. We are a people upon whom God has poured himself, and when that staggering reality begins to sink in, we find ourselves, perhaps rather surprisedly, being poured out as well: prodigal people of a Prodigal God.
In today’s Gospel, we have the picture of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus feet to great displeasure of Judas. She dissolutely squanders an entire pound of perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. It’s an act of total self-offering, adoration, and oblation that signifies that Jesus is the center of Mary’s life, and that in giving herself away to Him, she makes room for him to live his life in and through her. It’s a picture of what discipleship looks like—Jesus pouring himself out on Mary and Mary pouring herself on Jesus—loving serving love in love.
Now the identities of the various Marys in the Gospels are unclear. Is this Luke’s Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet in Luke’s gospel? The one who chose the better part? Who knows the one thing necessary? We are not certain. But suppose for a moment that she is. The one who sat at Jesus’ feet in silent adoration, listening to him with her whole being, now goes a step further. Surrounded by a bunch of disciples who don’t seem to really get it (John puts the objection in Judas’ mouth, but Mark and Matthew both have the disciples stomping their feet), Mary performs a radically prophetic act of adoration, and oblation to show the dim-witted men in the room what discipleship looks like. “If my silent stillness can’t pierce your veils, perhaps this will work!” she seems to say.
Where Peter and the other disciples want to anoint Jesus as Messiah in a manner that precludes his arrest, suffering, and death, Mary, by anointing Jesus’ feet, displays a more profound recognition of who Jesus actually is. You anoint the feet of someone who is dead. Mary knows Jesus will die, but she knows that death won’t have the last word for the one who raised her brother Lazarus from the stench of tomb and ordered him to be unbound. Mary sees Jesus as the truly unbound one. And Mary knows that it is in Him that she too can know, can participate in, the unboundedness that is her birthright as a pouring out, precious, precocious, provocatively prodigal child of God.
Interestingly, Mary’s act of anointing the feet of Jesus prefigures Jesus’ own washing of the feet of the disciples. The whole point of the Maundy Thursday liturgy is not just to have our feet washed by Jesus, or for priests to be reminded of their servant ministry, but for each of us to remember and claim our identity as a washed and washing people. We are washed so that we might wash others. We are washed over so that we might be that washing over for the least of these. Mary gets this. She has become, in a way that still eludes the other disciples, what it means to a disciple, what it means to be a washed and washing one.
In one way, Judas’ objection to Mary’s pouring out is about holding back, counting to the cost and being trapped in a kind of calculus of scarcity and lack that is too literal-minded, too instrumental, scared of the surrender and letting go, the profligate squanderousness that Mary displays in Jesus’ presence. Centered on Jesus, there is always enough to go around. That pound of nard? There is more where that came from!
Even if we take Judas at his word and consider whether this money might have been better spent on the poor, the point Mary is trying to make is a powerful one. Don’t make the mistake, she reminds us, of separating worship from outreach. They are one action—pouring ourselves in adoration for Jesus helps us see the poor who all too often aren’t always with us, who have been rendered invisible, whose cries have been silenced. When we give ourselves away to Love, in love, we see that the true church always has the poor at its center, always treasures the life of the poor, always pours itself out as oil to heal.
Pouring ourselves out on Jesus is pouring ourselves on the poor. The poor we always have with us is Jesus—the poor one, the lost one, for forsaken one, the little one. It is to the poor that all extravagance is to be given. Remember Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy, which reads, “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand… to the needs and to the poor in the land” (15:11). Suddenly we see that this is the furthest thing possible from a tacit complacency towards poverty. It is rather a radical statement that the poor is Jesus. The more we adore, to more we see the poor, the more our vision is clarified, and our ears opened.
In the total gift of herself to Jesus Mary mirrors the total gift of Godself to us in Christ. Her pouring out is God’s pouring out. And Mary’s pouring is to be our pouring. She learned from Jesus how to throw herself away and became like God. The more we know the pouring out of God’s love for us the more we find ourselves willing to be poured out when we leave this place—prodigal people of a Prodigal God anointing and blessing the ones who have no one to bless them, the poor and afflicted, the favored members of Christ’s Body.