— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Fifth Sunday in Lent ~~~
Each of the four gospel narratives – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – have a version of the story we are about to read – the story of a woman anointing Jesus with ointment. In Matthew and Mark the woman is unnamed and she anoints the head of Jesus, not his feet. Also, in Matthew and Mark the home in which the anointing takes place is of Simon the leper, not in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus as it is in John. In both Matthew and Mark Jesus tells the people that the anointing is for his burial and Jesus defends the woman against criticism about the extravagance of the act. The fact that it is Jesus’ head that is anointed in Matthew and Mark may indicate that those editors viewed Jesus as a King, and the woman is included and elevated by the fact that she was able to see Jesus as royalty.
Luke also tells a similar story in chapter seven of his gospel. The woman remains unnamed in Luke but we are told she is from the city and was a sinner. This woman, as in John, washed Jesus’ feet. The place of the anointing in Luke is the home of Simon, who was a Pharisee (not Simon the leper). Simon the Pharisee decided that Jesus must not be a prophet because if Jesus was a prophet he would not have allowed such a woman to touch him. Jesus then tells a story about forgiveness.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John probably had a common source for the story, or maybe the later gospels used the earlier ones, but each used the story in a unique way. Matthew and Mark, it seems, wanted this story to show how an outsider – the unnamed woman – was able to see the truth of Jesus’ royal identity even as those on the inside, the disciples, could not. Luke makes a similar point but he wants the story to function as an illustration of gratitude for forgiveness of sins. Luke also does not want people to think of Jesus as a nationalistic king; so, the unnamed woman in Luke anoints Jesus’ feet – not his head.
Now, hit the delete button!
Before you do, however, let me make an obvious point – the writers of the gospels were artists. They were using real history and oral history and their own personal outlooks on life to tell the story of Jesus in a certain way. They each had an understanding of the importance of Jesus and what his life, death, resurrection meant to each one of them and to the world; so, they take events, passed along stories, eyewitness accounts and fashion those raw materials into something akin to a portrait of Jesus and his earliest followers. The differences in the telling are not weaknesses or shoddy history; rather, the differences in the telling of the Jesus story are beautiful reminders that human beings are different and see the world differently and God honors these differences.
Now, however, let’s erase the screen and let the story as told by John enter into our minds and hearts. The story we are about to hear was told by John to make points important to him. In this story, the unnamed woman was given a name, Mary, and her name allows us to focus on her and her way of modeling what it means to follow Jesus. The evangelist John elevates this woman – not only by telling us her name but also by having her actions prefigure Jesus’ own behavior on the evening before his death.
Here’s an idea I’m not sure would stand the scrutiny of academics, but I think the gospel writer John was being subtly subversive in this story and in another important story he told about a woman. John, it seems to me anyway, elevated the status of Mary in this story of the anointing. John also elevated, in a subtle way, the status of Mary Magdalene at the tomb. (Remember it is a woman, Mary Magdalene, to whom the resurrected Jesus first appears and it is this woman who is first called to “go and tell” – she was, in other words, the first preacher in the kingdom of Jesus’ resurrection.) John gives those with ears to hear stories of women who break through cultural expectations about the role of women. Mary models a discipleship of reckless love. But I get ahead of myself…
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
From the moment Jesus shouted into the tomb – Lazarus, come out! – and then the dead man came stumbling out of the darkness blinking back light and dragging death rags behind him, Jesus himself became a dead man walking. The plans to have Jesus arrested and killed became as thick as pilgrims making their way to the Passover celebration in Jerusalem.
Jesus was headed Jerusalem way too. He was going to Passover, the high holy day of the Jews, Jesus’ people, when their liberation from slavery is remembered and celebrated. Jesus was there to celebrate liberation with his fellow pilgrims. No doubt he knew it was dangerous because of his popularity. But Jesus had turned his face in the direction of the city of peace and nothing was going to turn him around.
Who knew what would happen? Jesus had raised up a man, Lazarus, who was four days dead – what could be next? Maybe the stones would, indeed, rise up to defend him and the whole world would shout …
Blessed is the One
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Jesus turned his face toward what he knew would be trouble. No one else really knew what was ahead save maybe one or two who might have had some insight.
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples stopped in Bethany to visit with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. The family was overjoyed to see him. There was rack of lamb roasting, bread baking, candles lit for Jesus. Jesus was to dine with the family he had restored to wholeness. Lazarus was as calm as the hour before dawn. He was quiet but with a knowing smile ever-present on his face. Nothing disturbed Lazarus anymore; what could happen to him that had not already happened. Lazarus was at table with this One who had called him out of darkness into the marvelous light.
Did Lazarus know what Jesus had traded for his unbinding? Did Lazarus sense unease on the face of Jesus as he pulled meat off the bone and raised a glass of wine to his lips?
No one noticed the movement at first. Mary quietly got up and went to the back room. She came back with a jar of perfume and broke off the top. She unbound her hair and let it fall around her shoulders. She knelt at the feet of Jesus and she poured out the perfume on his feet and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair.
The affair caused a stir. This was an intimate act. Even between good friends, this was sensual and free and beyond practiced boundaries. Mary was a single woman. Jesus was a single man. What Mary did was startling in its lack of inhibition. If there remained any hint of the stench of Lazarus’ death in the home, it was overcome by this lavish outpouring of oil and the unbinding of Mary’s hair and the massaging of Jesus’ feet.
Could it be that Mary knew the transaction cost of Jesus raising her brother from the dead? Could it be that Mary knew in her heart that Jesus was about to face a brutal interrogation and crucifixion? Could it be that Mary was so in tune with the spirit of Jesus that she knew, even if she had no language for it, that he needed the comfort of her hands massaging his feet, that he needed the uninhibited outpouring of her love as a comfort to which he could return in his heart and in his memory as other hands would take Jesus’ feet for sinister purposes?
No doubt the gift was important to Jesus. He silenced the objections raised about the perfume being wasted on him instead of given to the poor. You always have the poor with you. You don’t always have me, Jesus said. It is as if Jesus was saying, The poor will always be like me – in need of your abundant giving. Mary has surrounded me with a lavish outpouring and I will take this warmth into the coldness of my own binding. Mary has brought into this moment a reckless, beautiful, love and it shall stand for all time.
As we move into the week of Jesus’ passion that begins next Sunday with Palm Sunday, we do well to remember Mary – as I am sure the gospel writer of John would have us do. As we gather and listen to the events that unfolded on the night before Jesus met death in Jerusalem, we might, if we listen carefully, hear an echo of this event in Bethany.
On Maundy Thursday we will recall
how Jesus rose and unbound his outer robe.
No one understood what he was doing.
He poured water in a basin and
he began to wash the feet of the disciples.
Do you hear it, the echo?
Jesus unbound his outer garment.
Mary unbound her hair.
Jesus pours water over the disciples’ feet;
Mary pours oil over Jesus’ feet.
Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.
Mary washes Jesus’ feet.
Mary becomes in the gospel of John a model disciple,
a model of reckless love.
She offers her gifts in service to the One
whose life was poured out for others, especially the poor.
As Jesus is the extravagant pouring out
of God’s reckless love for all the world,
so Mary reminds us that we, too, have gifts to share.
We, too, can become hands of comfort and peace
for our neighbors who suffer and sorrow.
We, too, have stored away wealth
that can be offered up to God for the reign of God on earth.
Lord, make us instruments, like Mary, of your reckless love. Amen.
P.S. – This story is also a reminder to share our love, to pour it out on those we love right now. If Mary had waited, she would not have had the chance to offer Jesus this extravagant and sustaining gift. She left nothing on the table. Let us be mindful of sharing our love in timely ways – now, not later!