13 March – The metaphor of death

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Lent 5

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
John 12:1-8

Last week I employed a preacher’s trick which involves tossing in a remark which seems unlikely to be true but probably is, and yet there hasn’t been enough time to make the case for it. In that particular instance, it was a throw-away comment on what the waiting father says about his prodigal but returned son. The father remarked of the son, “He was dead; now he is alive”. I remarked that this is a metaphorical use of death, but “most death is metaphorical.” A couple of people, it turns out, were actually listening, and asked what that could mean.

So, this morning: an attempt to justify the seemingly unjustifiable, the very work of God.

The story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary must be one of the most disorienting stories of the New Testament. The story confuses us because we easily identify with Judas, and so stand against Jesus. Yet we do this on account of the very things we’ve heard from Jesus about love, self-sacrifice and “being there” for the needy. And so we find ourselves at a point of crisis, a point of decision: what do we owe to the poor, and what to Jesus?

One way of addressing the apparently undecidable “Jesus or the poor” is to turn what we do for the poor into what we do for Jesus: “Inasmuch as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me” (Matthew 25). This is an important part of Christian theology and ethics, but it doesn’t seem to be what is said to us through the story we’ve heard this morning. In fact, Jesus seems to delineate starkly between himself and the poor as beneficiaries here: you always have them; you do not always have me. There is an “either/or” to be dealt with here.

But more is at stake than the apparent moral dilemma – to give to the poor, or to give to God. The fact that it feels like a moral conflict should signal a warning. This is because morality is concerned with the question of justification, and moral resolutions present us with the attractive possibility1 of self-justification. If we can resolve how it is that Jesus can justify this particular extravagance we have guidance for determining the limits of our own acts of devotion and acts of mercy. Our questions about Mary’s action and Jesus’ response are an attempt to understand whether we can or must do the same. As such, we demonstrate that we are concerned with our own action, represented by Mary’s actions. This reading is enabled by our anxiety before God and those around us. We are pushed to seek the secret of making the right decision, of knowing it to be right.

But we will not find such a deeper secret, for the action of Mary is not like this. There is no anxiety here; or perhaps only Judas or, in another version for the story (Luke 10.38-42), Martha, is anxious. In fact, we know very little of Mary’s motivations although we imagine that she is the one with whom we are to identify in the story. Certainly she displays no moral anxiety. Yet, whatever is going on for her, it is only as Jesus himself interprets the anointing that what she does becomes unexpectedly justified: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

With this comes a shift from the moral dilemma which contrasts what the poor need and what Jesus needs, to a contrast between what the poor do not have, and what the disciples will soon not have. And with this we strike the scandal of the text itself, and not the one which usually bothers us: here Jesus declares that “You do not always have me” is more important than the other “not haves” in the world. Or, more concretely: the death of Jesus is more important than other deaths.

And this brings us to something which John’s gospel does not say, but which it might have said. Those familiar with his gospel know that John’s Jesus is full of “life”. The gospel begins with, “In him was life…” (1.4). Just prior to this morning’s episode, Jesus has declared, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11.25). Prior to that, “I have come that they might have life, in all its fullness” (10.10). A little later in the gospel we hear, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14.6). Life is presented in this gospel as being at the heart of what Jesus is or effects.

And yet in the anointing at Bethany we have something else which Jesus comprehends or envelopes: even death. If the gospel declares, “You imagine you know life”, but then invites, “Look at Jesus”, so also it says: “You imagine you know death, but look at Jesus”.

This is the true scandal of this text: not wilful extravagance that sees a year’s wages lost in a matter of moments and which we might or might not be able to justify, but that the death (“burial”) of Jesus warrants such extravagance. What justifies Mary’s prodigal act is that it points to the death of Jesus. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it is that this testimony takes precedence over our actions and concerns for the world.

And this brings us to death, “mostly a metaphor”.

It is perhaps too much for the gospel to declare “Jesus is the death” in the same way that it declares he is “the life” but it can still be affirmed. For us to make any sense of Jesus’ justification of Mary’s prodigal anointing, we have to affirm it. In speaking like this, as we also do when we speak of Jesus as “the life” or “the bread of heaven” or “the light of the world” or “the truth,” we move into the realm of metaphor. We “with-carry” (meta-phor) meaning from one place to another. Knowing a little about life, or bread, or light, we apply these things to Jesus in order to invest him with meaning.

But – and it is a crucial But – in order for the gospel to make sense, the investment of meaning really runs the other way. It is now not that Jesus shares in generic “life”, but that living things share in Jesus’ life. It is not that Jesus as “bread” is a menu item among others, but that all we consume participates in him. It is not that he also illuminates, but that all illumination draws its light from him. What we call light, life, bread, truth are carried-with, carried-over, metaphored to us from the meeting of human being and God in the person of Jesus.

And this is no less the case for what we call death. To see ourselves as hidden with Christ in God is to hold ourselves – in life and in death – to be comprehended.

Jesus’ death matters not because he is going to die; everyone dies. It matters because he – even the Son – is going to die in the particular way that he does. That “particular way” is not its terrible method – crucifixion – but all that crucifixion itself symbolises. For the cross is not only the rejection of Jesus by God’s people, but an invitation to God to reject him as well. All that he has said about light and life and truth is declared to be darkness, death and lies. All that he was, then, was declared to be deathly even as he lived, and so Jesus declares that Mary has kept her precious perfume for his burial, and yet and it is poured out while he yet lives.

Death as metaphor is all that rejects Jesus as the way, the truth, the life. It is not so much the death which is the cessation of our hearts’ beating as it is the death which is separation and desolation, arrogance and hubris, fear and loathing, self-delusion and ignorance.

Jesus’ life marks these things too, if in contrast nevertheless comprehensively. Jesus’ death gathers all these things up. We do not need to subscribe to a theory of sacrifice to value the cross; its purpose, known only in God’s Yes to Jesus in the resurrection, is to reveal what death is, and that in Christ even it is overcome.

Growing in grace is the process of the life and death and life of Christ being metaphored – carried over – into our lives and deaths. Our baptism and our being fed on the fruit of the crossed tree seal this to us.

Our praise and service testify to it. By the grace of God, whatever we choose to do with the little, or the abundance, which is given to us, may it finally be found to be faithful testimony to the gift God gives us in his Son. Amen.