Actions speak louder than words. It’s a well-worn adage, but it’s true. And it’s related to other time-honored wisdom: talk is cheap; you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is; if you’re going to talk the talk, then you’d better walk the walk. The meaning is plain: we reveal our true priorities less by what we say than what we do. Action is powerful because it puts flesh on our convictions, and it’s risky because it forces us to stand somewhere in the sight of others. For these reasons, action can be striking, memorable, even transformative.
This is certainly the case in our Gospel from John today. Jesus and the disciples are invited to a meal in Bethany, a small town near Jerusalem. Martha hosts, and Mary and Lazarus are also present. This family is dear to Jesus, and he is especially dear to them. Lazarus literally owes his life to Jesus, so it’s not surprising that he and his sisters would go out of their way to accommodate him. But their hospitality is pedestrian in comparison to the sudden spectacle that takes place during the meal. Mary approaches Jesus, kneels at his feet, and smears them with a generous quantity of priceless perfume. As the aroma fills the house, she wipes his feet with her hair. It’s silent, and it’s breathtaking. Mary’s reverence, her excessiveness, her contact with Jesus’ body, her hair let down – it all makes for a stunning and unlikely interaction, nothing like anyone has ever seen.
Mary’s anointing illuminates her profound commitment to Jesus. It’s a costly expression of devotion. And, like any bold act of love, it causes offense. Judas speaks up quickly with what sounds like a reasonable critique: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” We are familiar with the utilitarian approach to ministry, and anyone who cares about responsible stewardship cannot dismiss Judas’ outcry too quickly. However, the Gospel storyteller parenthetically informs us that Judas does not actually care about the poor, but only his personal access to the disciples’ financial resources. His talk is cheap. Just as Mary’s extravagant gesture needs no explanation, Judas’ subsequent complaint, pious as it may sound, cannot mask his duplicity.
Actions speak louder than words. I can’t help but smile at this scene and wonder how often it has been replayed over the centuries as men in the church have talked and talked and talked while women quietly exemplify faithful discipleship. Thankfully, women have retaken their rightful place in church leadership, and we are privileged to hear their voices in our time. But actions speak louder than words, and we all struggle to uphold our integrity. Whether out of fear or simply out of habit, we regularly neglect opportunities to act out our confession. We profess to follow Christ on Sunday, but we don’t take the steps on Monday.
So, our faith looks less like Mary and more like Judas. Yet, in Christ we witness the bridge between profession and practice. It turns out that Mary’s costly act of love at the meal in Bethany prefigures Jesus’ even costlier act of love on the cross only a few days later. His body is broken, but his integrity is intact. And, his word and deed convey only forgiveness, even to those who drive the nails into his flesh. In this way, Jesus embodies God’s own extravagant, transformative mercy, mercy that is wide enough to embrace both Mary and Judas, and the Mary and Judas inside each of us.
Dear church, no act of love is wasted. And neither can love be quantified, as though its value were measurable in currency. So, you are free to relinquish your inhibitions, and take action. You are free to set aside the impulse to calculate the cost of relationship, and anoint your loved ones – and your enemies – with excessive, even undeserved love. Your supply flows from the One who anointed you first, the One whose abundant love fills this house today and accompanies you wherever you go.