Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
This week I visited the Art Institute with my cousin from San Diego. It’s been minute since I was there last. It was fun just to wander and see it all again as if for the first time through my cousin’s eyes. We lingered over Van Gogh. There was the painting of his bedroom in the yellow house in Arles, and the haunting image of Madame Roulin in her rocking chair. A fragment of a painting Van Gogh entitled, “Two Lovers,” sold at auction last month at Sotheby’s in London for more than $13 million, but did you know there would have been no van Gogh without a woman named Jo?
Jo van Gogh-Bonger was Vincent’s sister-in-law. Her full story has only recently been uncovered (Russell Shorto, “The Woman Who Made van Gogh,” New York Times Magazine, 4/14/21). Vincent died at 37. Six months later, his brother Theo died at 33. And that would have been that if not for the tireless work of Theo’s widow, who upon the death of both brothers, was left with 400 paintings, several hundred drawings, and a voluminous collection of letters that no one wanted.
Critics dismissed van Gogh’s work as “nearly vulgar.” One complained Vincent was painting out of a desire to be “modern, bizarre, childlike.” They did not see what Jo van Gogh-Bonger saw. The tortured genius, who alienated dealers and otherwise thwarted his own ambition time and again during his career, would become a star. And not just a star, but one of the most beloved figures in the history of art. What Jo had seen, and what others eventually saw, was how Vincent’s life, recorded in his letters and stories, interpreted his art. Now, when the world looks at van Gogh’s paintings, they see not just the images but also Vincent’s story—toiling and suffering, cutting off his ear, clawing at the act of creation. The art and the artist are one.
Singer songwriter Don McLean famously summed it up in a hit tune called, Starry, starry night. “Now, I understand what you tried to say to me. And how you suffered for your sanity. And how you tried to set them free. They would not listen, they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now.” (Don Mclean, “Starry, Starry Night,” Album: American Pie, 1971)
The prophet Isaiah said of God in ancient times, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19) If we are being honest, I think the answer is, we seldom do. But, if we are lucky, we will listen to those among us, like Jo, who see what what’s going on when we, at first, cannot.
There’s an old preacher’s joke. A search committee gave a report to the congregation, including brief comments on the candidates for ministry they had met and evaluated. “Jesus –offends large segments of the audience when he preaches. He even offended the search committee; Judas –practical, leadership abilities. Served on the executive committee. Good with money. Cares for the poor. We offered him the position when he suddenly died.” How many congregations would choose Judas over Jesus? How many perceive the genius of the gospel? How many dismiss it as yesterday’s news, a childish attempt at wisdom no one wants?
Separately, most of us, I think, would miss seeing the truth that sets us free, but through faith, we are joined as essential parts of one body. Together, we have a new heart, a new mind, our ears are unstopped, our eyes are opened. Now we feel, we understand, we hear, we see grace unfolding—the new things God is doing–through each other, and most often, by listening to the most sensitive, the most marginal among us. Through new eyes of faith come to regard all talk of exclusion as mere rubbish. As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi in our second reading, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ…because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8a).
In today’s gospel Mary anoints Jesus and in doing so, helped all people for all time to see the Christ. She anoints Jesus with pure nard. She wipes his feet with her hair. Mary operates on a different plane. Mary sees what’s really going on. She sees and understands what others in the room do not, how history will regard that day. She sees there is a different story unfolding. One that Judas, the disciples, the Pharisees, and the scribes do not yet see. Mary’s act is brazen, bold, even embarrassing and, in hindsight, right and prophetic.
Judas asked, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5). Indeed, the oil Mary used cost 300 denarii, roughly equivalent to a year’s salary. But here Jesus suggests the true measure of devotion is not the cost, but its legacy of grace. Things worth doing inspire acts of faith, hope and love. They linger in hearts and minds to multiply and blossom again and again like flowers in springtime, like fragrant perfume that colors our perception and endures in our memory.
Mary’s gift is extravagant. Judas is merely greedy. Mary illustrates faith with loving actions. Judas talks piously of ‘giving to the poor,’ but we know he is not sincere. Both Mary and Judas ‘prepare’ Jesus for burial –she by anointing him; he by betraying him.
We should pause here to comment on Jesus’ response to criticism of Mary’s loving act: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8). Perhaps no other verse has been quoted more often to shirk our Christian duty towards those who are poor. Modern scholarship lends new light and clarity to this verse. “Many now place the emphasis of the passage on “you” instead of “the poor”; in other words, “You will always be with the poor, but you will not always be with me.” Phrased this way, Jesus’ statement is more clearly one of location, rather than an assertion that persistent poverty is somehow part of a divinely orchestrated plan.” (Michaela Bruzzese, Become Mary, Sojourners)
“So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new (2 Cor. 8:17). Out of the death of the old the new arises. “Lent is a time to participate in the suffering and death of Christ, in order that we may be ready for the Easter gift of new life” (Walter Brueggemann, Investing in Life, Sojourners). This is time, once again, of great change in the institutions of Christ’s church as well as to culture and society. Friends in Christ let us pray that our Lenten walk with Jesus has changed us to better see what’s going on. Let us pray, that our eyes, like Mary and the disciples, are opened by this Holy Week upon which we embark next Sunday. Let us pray our Lenten journey with Jesus opens us to new dreams. We shall become more like Mary, or Jo, and less like Judas.
Love of the stranger, care of a friend, compassion for those who are suffering. In simple actions that offer their own reward and open hearts and minds we find God waiting for us. This is how we become one human family again. This is how we now see. Follow Mary. She knows the way.