The brilliant Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, was very close to his father, through whom he encountered profound theological questions at an early age. Kierkegaard's father believed that due to his own personal sins none of his children would ever live beyond the age of 33 years, the age at which Jesus died. This odd idea proved untrue when two of Kierkegaard's seven siblings lived beyond 33 years, but it set the tone of young Soren's sober interpretation of Biblical Christianity. As a young man, Soren fulfilled his father's wishes and attended seminary and became a theologian. In his writings, Kierkegaard proclaimed the shrill message that Christendom had "lost its way" and decried the shallowness of so-called "Christian living" he witnessed in Denmark in the 19th century, a European country whose church was controlled by the state.
I suppose if Kierkegaard had to pick one Bible character to illustrate the radical nature of Christian faith he may have chosen Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as she is described in John 12:1-8. There we read that Jesus is visiting in the home of his recently resurrected friend, Lazarus. Lazarus's sisters, Mary and Martha, are there along with other guests and disciples of Jesus. Martha is doing the dishes as usual. Mary, ever the mystic, is pleased to be in the presence of Jesus when suddenly she shocks everyone. Mary kneels at Jesus feet and washes his dusty feet with her tears. She then wipes his feet, back and forth, using her hair as a washcloth. Next she takes out a pound of expensive perfume, worth a year's wages, and pours it all on Jesus' feet. The exquisite aroma staggers everyone present as it sucks the oxygen from the room.
Mary used her body, her tears, her hair and her hands, to minister to Jesus by anointing his feet like a servant. Mary's faith moved beyond her mind and into her body. Mary's relationship with Jesus was not a belief in an abstract concept. Mary had a personal relationship with Jesus, this person who was now in her house, which now reeked with the odor of a pound of expensive oil that cost an extravagant amount of money to buy and which she had poured onto the feet of a stunned by appreciative Jesus, her Lord.
Theologian Karl Barth said, "Do not fear the wrath of God. Do not fear the wrath of God. Fear the love of God. Fear the love of God that will strip away everything you ever had." Mary got stripped of everything she ever had. Jesus, like Kierkegaard, liked what he saw in Mary, a heart aflame with desire for God, a faith that left her stripped down by the love of God she found in the person of Jesus. Kierkegaard would approve of Mary's wild abandon, her leap of faith, her abandonment of herself in the presence of Jesus. Mary's wild act of devotion is a fine illustration of what Kierkegaard considers genuine Christian faith.
On the other hand, Judas Iscariot, was in the room and he was not amused by Mary's extravagance. Judas said, "Why wasn't this oil sold and the money given to the poor? It would have easily brought three hundred silver pieces." The texts tells us he said this not because he cared two cents about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of their common funds, but also embezzled them.
Jesus said to Judas, "Let her alone. She's anticipating and honoring the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You don't always have me."
I imagine Kierkegaard would see in Judas a metaphor for the Christian church of his day and time in his native Denmark. This was a church that was state run and operated. It was a church that was more concerned with banking money than serving the poor. It was a church that was more a social club for the elite of society than a rescue mission for the down and out. Not so with Judas. To him, the business with Jesus was all about money. Judas pretends concern for the poor but it is an attempt to cover his pilfering. Judas was greedy, it was a fatal flaw in his character and let to his terrible act of treachery. Instead of kissing Jesus' feet in thanksgiving like Mary, Judas will kiss Jesus cheek so the Roman guards know which one to arrest—the ultimate act of betrayal. The spirit expressed by Judas is as small and mean as Mary's was expansive and giving.
To some people Christianity may seem to be a superficial social club but that is not the Christianity of Kierkegaard and and Mary. Kierkegaard wrote: "The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die." Mary discovered in Jesus the idea for which she could live and die. Mary found her truth not in a concept or a religious belief. Mary found her truth is the person of Jesus. He was truth enfleshed. He was truth incarnate. He was truth for which she could live and die.
A group of children, confined to a basement play area on a rainy day, decided to "play church." One child was the preacher, another the organist, a couple kids were ushers, and the rest served as the congregation. One little guy said, "What about Jesus? Shouldn't Jesus be in church?" The rest agreed and the child who made the point was made "Jesus."
"What do I do?" he asked. "How do I play Jesus?"
He was told by some of the older children that they would tie him up to one of the support posts in the basement, pretending that it was the Cross. Then the others would call him names, throw things at him, and be mean to him in other ways. The little boy thought about that a minute and then said. "I don't want to play Jesus; let's just play church." Kierkegaard challenges us to play Jesus instead of just playing church.
As the Lenten season draws to a close and we confront once again the Crucifixion of Jesus, we are reminded of the cross each of us is asked to take up and bear in the name of Christ. To leave out the Cross is just to play church. That is what Kierkegaard wants us to remember. That is why Jesus praised Mary. She was completely committed to him as her ultimate truth and she was preparing his body for burial. The cost of discipleship is very high. Let's not settle for what Kierkegaard called "cheap grace," the idea that God's grace is free. God's grace is not free. It cost Jesus a lot. When he saw Mary's perfume running down his feet perhaps Jesus envisioned his own blood that would soon be pouring from his feet. That's what happens when your feet get nailed to a cross.
Jesus showed us the cross is a requirement in our faith journey. It is not an option. It is a prerequisite. Christian faith carries a cost. For Mary, that cost was a year's wages worth of expensive oils poured out upon the sacred feet of Jesus in a moment of passionate devotion. For Kierkegaard, that cost was to set himself apart from the church of his day and to stand up as a prophet to them, and to us, to call us task for not counting the cost, for not taking up the cross of Christ, and for thinking that God's grace is cheap. God's grace is not cheap. Let's not pretend the Christian faith is easy. Go back and read the gospel story. Christ's death on the cross always precedes his resurrection on Easter Sunday. It's right there in the book's Kierkegaard wrote and it's right there in the gospel according to John.
During one period in my childhood, as perhaps in yours, my favorite game was hide and seek. I would close my eyes and count to ten while everyone ran to hide. Then I would open my eyes and have to go find them. When we become adults we still play that game with ourselves and others, and we even play it with Jesus. When we get frustrated looking for him and feel like we'll never find him, Jesus breaks the rules of hide and seek. He comes right out and let's us know where he is, calling out to us:
If your first concern is to look after yourself, you'll never find yourself.
But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you'll find both yourself and me. (Matthew 10:39, MSG)
We too may find Jesus if we forget about ourselves and look to him as did Mary. When she found Jesus she found herself. When we find Jesus we will find ourselves as well. May we, like Mary, find the truth for which we can live and die. May we, like Mary, find ourselves, in the person of Jesus Christ, during this sacred season. This is the place. Now is the time.
Notice Mary on the floor at Jesus' feet. Perhaps we can manage to get down there ourselves one time during Holy Week. Surely our pride is not too great to manage that simple posture. Kierkegaard will applaud our appropriate pose: Kneeling at the feet of Jesus. If we get down there we may even help Mary pour the precious oils on Jesus feet. We may help her prepare his sacred body for death. It's the least we can do for him now. Look at Jesus standing there. He is so humble. His sheer integrity is overwhelming. I think he needs us now. Let's try to show some respect for him. For heaven's sake, let's try to show him some respect.