Leave Her Alone. She Is Telling the Truth., Monday in Holy Week – March 26, 2018

Episcopal Holy Week Sermon

[RCL]: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 36:5-11; Hebrews 9:11-15; John 12:1-11

In our Episcopal tradition, it was Palm Sunday yesterday. Jesus has entered Jerusalem. We are beginning Holy Week, and Jesus is walking closer and closer toward the cross.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is at Bethany, attending a dinner party hosted by Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead a few days earlier. This must be a big party to celebrate the miracle. Jesus must be treated like a king.

As usual, Lazarus’ sister Martha is busy cooking dinner and serving the guests. Mary does something unlike her sister. Last time when they were hosting, Mary was sitting by Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching instead of helping Martha. That made Martha mad and she complained to Jesus. This time, Mary disappeared and then came back with “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). This time, it is not Martha who complains, but Jesus’ disciple, Judas. He complains that Mary is wasting the perfume, which could have been used for the poor.

Usually, an anointing would be on the head, but Mary anointed the feet of Jesus. If she anointed his head, that might really look like she was treating him like a king, since he raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. However, she anoints his feet! She then wipes his feet with her hair. What an unusual thing Mary has done!

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, a well-known preacher and Episcopal priest, says what Mary has done is a prophetic act. Mary is foretelling Jesus’ death and his washing of the disciples’ feet.

When feet are anointed, it usually happens when the person is dead. Jesus has been telling his disciples that he will suffer and die soon, but the disciples have been in denial. Jesus scolded Peter, even calling him “Satan,” because he cared only for earthly and not heavenly things. Mary believes in Jesus and accepts his upcoming death. Mary does this to affirm the message that Jesus has been delivering. If you have been to a funeral home, you will notice it is often filled with the fragrance of flowers. This house must smell like that, a sign of Jesus’ upcoming death.

In a few days, Jesus will have his last supper. Before the supper, he will wash his disciples’ feet. This foot washing is the prelude of Jesus’ new commandment to them, that they love one another as he has loved them. Mary is carrying out what Jesus will teach his disciples by washing his feet with perfume and her precious hair. She is both prophesying and being a good disciple, loving Jesus as he has loved her, and her brother, Lazarus, and her sister, Martha.

Mary is doing strange things, and so is Jesus. Jesus has been advocating for the poor and the oppressed. However, when Judas complains about the wasting of the expensive perfume, which could have been sold to benefit the poor, Jesus tells him to leave Mary alone. According to some scholars, three hundred denarii would have been about a year’s wages for a regular worker in Jesus’ time. That certainly is a lot of money. The Gospel tells us that Judas is a thief and will eventually betray Jesus, and he may not be sincerely concerned about helping the poor, but he does have a point; there are a lot of poor people around who need help—why not sell the perfume to help them instead of spending it on one person?

However, who is this one person? This person is Jesus, the Son of God, the Christ.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author describes the Christ as one who has entered the Holy Place to obtain eternal redemption, and who comes with his own blood through the eternal Spirit to purify “our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (Hebrews 9:12-14). That is what Jesus does. Jesus the Christ sheds his human blood on the cross but also sheds his metaphorical blood through the Holy Spirit to purify our conscience and to offer eternal redemption. Jesus’ human death leads to his resurrection—and our resurrection.

On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we are invited “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” “And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature,” we are reminded of our mortality by the ashes imposed on our foreheads (Book of Common Prayer, p. 265).

We have been walking on this spiritual Lenten journey for more than five weeks and are now on the last leg. During this journey, we have been reminded of the temptation of Jesus, the foretelling of his passion, the cleansing of the temple as a house of worship, and the fact that a grain has to die to bear fruit. These messages all point to his upcoming death. The most important lesson is that God loves God’s people, and Jesus becomes incarnate to redeem God’s people, and Jesus’ death will lead to his resurrection. If we follow the way of Jesus, we will have our conscience purified by the metaphorical blood of Jesus and lead to new life and eternal redemption.

That’s why Jesus stops Judas from complaining about Mary’s actions: so that she can continue the message of his upcoming death—an important message. His death is to carry out his mission on earth, so as to purify our conscience, so as to lead us to redemption. Three hundred denarii may be a lot of money, and helping the poor is important, and in a way, we do need money to help them. However, what is the meaning of doing so? Doing it for the glory of being charitable, as dead work? Or for the sake of loving God and loving God’s people? To love God and to love God’s people is the reason for Jesus’ death and leads to resurrection. What is three hundred denarii compared to Jesus’ life?

Remember, we all face death once in baptism: “In [the water of Baptism] we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit” (BCP, p. 306). We have died with Jesus and accepted new life. Have we been carrying our own cross and following Jesus, so as to love others as God has loved us? Have we been living the way of life that Jesus wants us to live?

The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Priest in Charge and Director of Ah Foo Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual, English and Cantonese church in Chinatown. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, an Asian Ministry Center of the Episcopal Church based in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and Honorary Canon of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. She served as Convener of the Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM) from 2009-2016. Ada loves hiking and meditative walk.

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The Ultimate Act of a Merciful God, Monday in Holy Week (A) – April 10, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 36:5-11; Hebrews 9:11-15; John 12:1-11

At the regular celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we hear these familiar words: “After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, ‘Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

These words, the “words of institution,” are basically a quotation from the scriptural account of the last supper that we find in Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels. For many, these are comfortable words that speak of the great sacrifice Christ made on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. But for others, these are uncomfortable words because they worry that talk of Christ’s blood as a sacrifice implies notions of an angry God demanding the death of his innocent Son to appease his anger toward sinful human beings. Both the comfort and the discomfort people take in these words are legitimate. Indeed, we may find both reactions within the self-same heart.

Is it possible to disentangle some of the elements involved in this tension and to ease the conflict we find in ourselves?

I think the answer is a qualified “yes.” Our reading from Hebrews can help. A proper understanding of Hebrews shows that the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to an angry God is not biblical. However, a proper understanding of Hebrews may raise challenges of its own. So, yes, I think we can help ease the discomfort we have with the idea of Christ’s death as a sacrifice to an angry God. But a better understanding of the biblical background of Christ’s death as a sacrifice may cause a different type of discomfort. Perhaps there will be some comfort in knowing we are troubled by the right things.

In Hebrews we hear, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” The appropriate background for understanding this passage is the Old Testament notion of a sin offering. Sin offerings in the Old Testament are decidedly not sacrifices made by humans in order to appease an angry god. Such an idea may be found in other ancient religions, but not in ancient Israel. To understand how the author of Hebrews used the notion of sacrifice to interpret Christ’s death, we need to know what the Old Testament actually says about sin offerings.

Sin offerings in the Old Testament deal with the purification of the sinner and the sinful community. The first thing to note is that sin offerings are not made by humans to God. This contrasts with thank offerings which are made by humans to God. But in sin offerings it’s actually the other way around. Sin offerings were given by a gracious God to humans as a means for the removal of sin. God is not the object of appeasement. Rather, God is the giver of the means of the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of God’s people. So sin offerings should properly be seen as the gracious gifts of God to a people who are thereby cleansed from their sins and restored to covenantal relationship.

The central act in a sin offering involved the blood of a pure and unblemished animal being poured out and smeared on the altar. We need to keep in mind that for the Israelites blood was the symbol of life. The life of the unblemished animal had the power to restore the defective life of the sinner. Therefore, it was the life-bestowing power of blood – not the death of the animal – that resulted in the change in the sinner.

It does this by covering the sinful life by the pure life-blood of the sacrifice. Once the offence that divides humans from God is covered, the barrier between them is removed and the way is opened for renewed relationship. Note, the blood of the sacrifice is directed toward the sin. It is not directed toward an angry God. It is actually God’s gracious gift for the removal of sin.

Hebrews draws on these ideas about sin offerings to interpret the death of Jesus. In Jesus’ death, he offers a sacrifice for the purification of our sins. What we need to keep firmly in mind is that if Jesus is offering a sacrifice for us, it is not primarily about his death, but rather about his pure life-blood poured out for us. It is not a death that appeases an angry God, but rather a pure life that covers human sin. The sacrifice cleanses us from sin by covering our offenses and restoring us to covenantal relationship with God.

This means that Jesus’ death is not something that is offered to appease the anger of a wrathful God. Rather, Jesus is the self-offering of a gracious God to forgive our sins and to restore us to right relationship. The point isn’t the death of Jesus, but rather the life-giving power of his sacrifice offered for us.

Hebrews says Jesus is both high priest and the sacrifice. In the Old Testament priests would make sin offerings using the blood of goats and bulls. These sacrifices needed to be offered over and over again for the recurring sins of the people. The sacrifice of Jesus is different because he is the perfect Son of God, who offers his life once and for all. Therefore, Jesus mediates a new covenant in his blood.

This is the ultimate act of a merciful God who gives his own life for the restoration of God’s people. It is not a human act offered to an angry deity. It is the self-offering of a gracious God for us and for our salvation. When we hear the words of institution in the Holy Eucharist, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins,” we should think of God’s love and God’s life offered for us.

An understanding of Hebrews helps with the discomfort many feel about seeing Jesus’ death as a sacrifice made to an angry God. As we have seen, it is more properly understood as the gracious self-offering of a merciful God to forgive human sin and to restore us to covenant relationship. It is an act of grace not an act of appeasement.

As we move ever more deeply into the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection that we celebrate in Holy Week, perhaps we would do well to remember that there are other biblically informed ways of understanding Christ’s death.

In Peter’s sermons in Acts, he sharply distinguished between the crucifixion as an evil act done by evil people and the resurrection as the true saving act of God who reverses the evil of the crucifixion. Paul often speaks of the crucifixion as Christ’s defeat of the enemies of sin and death. And John’s Gospel faces the shame of the cross with irony and paradox because to the eyes of faith the cross is actually Jesus’ exaltation and glorification.

The church in its wisdom has never officially defined how Christ’s death is saving. That it is saving and that it is an act of a loving God for the life and salvation of the world seems bedrock to Christian faith. But the stark reality of the crucifixion of Jesus will always cause some discomfort no matter how we interpret it. And perhaps that is how it should be.

For without that discomfort what would resurrection mean?


Written by The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano, associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. Dr. Pagano’s ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. Dr. Pagano’s gifts for preaching, teaching, and care are all grounded in joyful and grateful service to God, to the Church, and to the world. Dr. Pagano received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.

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