To Love or to Not Love, A Sermon on John 12:1-8

Mary anoints JesusTo love or to not love. That is the question in today’s gospel. It is always the question. Every minute of every day we answer that question. The answer to that question orients our way of being, guides how we live, determines what we do, and chooses the words we speak. Ultimately, our answer reveals whether our life is aligned with Jesus’ life.

Mary answers the love question one way and Judas another. In silence Mary anoints Jesus’ feet and fragrances the entire house. Judas keeps to himself, questioning, criticizing, and scheming. Mary loves while Judas calculates.

Too often we understand love to simply be an emotion, a positive feeling, an attraction. While that can be an aspect of love it is not determinative of love. Whether or not we love does not finally depend on our emotions but on our seeing. Despite the old saying, love is not blind. Seeing and loving are always related. It is, strangely enough, the emotions that can blind us and keep us from loving. That is one of the wisdom teachings from the desert tradition of Christianity.

Evagrius, a monk in the fourth century said, “Agape is the child of apatheia.” The Greek word apatheia does not mean apathy but freedom from the obsessions, compulsions, and the emotional agendas that often control and determine our life and choices. Love is always born of freedom.

Apatheia is the difference between Mary and Judas. Mary is free of the emotions. She is apatheia. The pouring out of her perfume is the pouring out of agape, love. Judas, however, is filled with and possessed by the emotions.

John tells us that Judas is a betrayer, a thief, and cares nothing for the poor. A myriad of emotions hides behind and gives rise to those three descriptions: self-interest and self-seeking, greed, fear, anger, jealously, indifference, disappointment, regret. Whatever it is that grips Judas he is blind and unable to love.

How we see determines whether and how we love. Seeing deeply and truthfully, penetrating below the surface, enables love. Look at the world. If you see beauty, the wonder of creation, and the manifestation of God’s self, you will love. If you simply see physical matter, impersonal stuff, or material objects chances are you will not love the world. Look at a stranger. If all you see is another nameless, faceless individual in the crowd of life you will likely not love. If, however, you see a unique person, one created in the image and likeness of God, a brother or sister cherished by the same God who cherishes you, you will know yourself to be a lover.

The seeing that leads to love does not happen with the physical eyes but with the eyes of the heart, the deepest and innermost part of our self, the very center of our being. Mary’s heart has been awakened and sees what Judas cannot. Judas’ heart is asleep. He is unable to see what Mary sees. Mary sees the way, the truth, and the life. Judas sees opportunity and profits. Mary pours out all that she is and all that she has. She holds back nothing. Judas only wants to take and keep for himself.

How can this be? Mary and Judas are in the same house, eating the same dinner, with the same people. They are both in the presence of Jesus and yet they see two very different realities that draw from them two very different responses. This points to the truth that Evagrius spoke. Our emotional agendas distort reality. We see the world, not so much as it is, but as we are. What we see and how we love, in many ways, say more about us than about the object of our seeing and loving.

That’s what this whole season of Lent has been about. It is a season of learning to love. The question of love has been the unspoken question in each of the Sunday gospels throughout this Lent: the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, his prophetic call that unless we repent we will also perish, the prodigal son’s coming to himself and returning to his father. Every one of those is about the reorientation of our life to be and become a lover. That reorientation to become a lover, the choice to love or to not love, is made explicit in the images of Mary and Judas.

As easy and tempting as it might be, we do ourselves no favor by condemning and dismissing Judas. Jesus didn’t. So why would we? The condemnation and dismissal of Judas is the condemnation and dismissal of ourselves. Judas is as much a part of us as is Mary. Mary and Judas are images and archetypes of ways of being. Both live within us. Both teach us something about ourselves. Sometimes we are Mary and sometimes we are Judas.

Each of us could name situations when our own “stuff,” our baggage and emotional agendas, got in the way of our loving. They are times of regret and disappointment, times when our heart was asleep, and we were less than we wanted to be. We could also tell about those times when we bypassed efficiency and practicality, ignored what made sense, didn’t settle for just doing or saying the right thing, but choose instead to pour ourselves out on the life of another. We saw a greater need and a deeper reality. We held back nothing. Our heart was awakened and we fragranced the entire world.

Those experiences of Mary and Judas teach us about ourselves and the choices we have made. If we are willing we can learn from them. We can begin to see patterns of who and how we love. We can discover what got in the way, blinded us, and prevented love. They remind us that wherever we go, whoever we are with, whatever we are doing, there is a choice to be made.

To love or to not love. That is the question.


This sermon is for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C, and is based on John 12:1-11.


    1. Roberta, that, I think, is an important distinction. Love must be incarnate, embodied, manifested. In that regard we might see love as sacramental.

      Peace be with you,


    1. Absolutely, John. Our truest seeing is with the eyes of the heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

      Peace be with you,


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