This is not the first time that we have been inside the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. You may recall from previous years in the season of Lent, hearing of the raising of Lazarus in the 11th chapter of John, and at that time we came to this same household and were introduced to the sisters of Lazarus: Mary and Martha. We met Martha, the busy one, attending to the practical needs of all around her, and the gospel writer presented her in comparison to Mary, the mystic, whose attentiveness to spiritual matters of life was strongly endorsed by Jesus.
One chapter later in the gospel of John we are back at this home. Close to Jerusalem, traditionally understood to be just beyond the Mount of Olives, it was clearly a place of safety, renewal, hospitality for Jesus and the disciples. In this story we renew acquaintances with Mary, and once again she is contrasted with someone else who was in the room… except this time, the gospel writer contrasts the extravagant, sensual devotion of Mary, with the concrete, pragmatic, judgmental approach of Judas.
Funny thing is, if not for the fact that I know how the story ends, I’d have to say that my affinity in this story is more with Judas than with Mary, but I’ll let that shocking admission flutter in the wind for a while as I turn my attention where it should be: the devotion of Mary.
In a reflection on this gospel reading three years ago, my spouse, Rev Shannon Mang, did a fine summary of the significance of Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet with oil: “We know that this was a very important story in the early church because each of the four gospels has a version of it. There are interesting differences and similarities in the four versions: in Matthew and Mark the woman is unnamed, and she anoints the head of Jesus, not his feet. The head of a King is anointed with oil; the feet of a dead person are anointed with oil.
“[So we know that ] death was in the air. Jesus had brought Mary’s brother back from the tomb, which resulted in furthering the plot to kill Jesus…and all of them were in grave danger, [especially now that ] Jesus had decided to go into Jerusalem for the Passover feast. Into this moment heavy with the presence of death, (here quoting Barbara Brown Taylor), a series of shocking things happen:
“as everyone in the room watches her, she does four remarkable things in a row. First she loosens her hair in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does. Then she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which is also not done. The head, maybe – people do that to kings – but not the feet. Then she touches him – a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet – also not done, not seen even among friends. Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair – totally inexplicable – the bizarre end to an all around bizarre act.”
This is personal, this is sensual bordering on erotic, and it is a complete and embodied recognition by Mary, of who Jesus is. She sees him. She recognizes the God-connection in him. She holds his difficult future in her hands. She anoints him, as the one who will usher in the new Kingdom, the Kin-dom of God. And in the use of an overwhelming amount of spikenard perfume, she goes beyond sight and sound and rational understanding to bring the attention of everyone in the room to this signal of love and servanthood and new horizons and impending death.
Each year the lectionary presents us with a different shape or progression within the scripture readings in the season of Lent. This year I have found that each of the Lenten gospel readings reaches forward into the next one: On the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus is baptized then immediately driven into the wilderness, and that is echoed the second Sunday as Jesus is transfigured then confronted with a healing gone wrong. The healing necessitated by that failure gets us ready to examine our response to crisis and tragedy on the third Sunday of Lent. Our need to find new, healthier ways of dealing with tragedy, lifted up that Sunday, walks right into the parable of the prodigal son last Sunday who needed to come to his senses and return home. And the extravagance of that story – the extravagant spending of the son who had gone out to “live it up” and the extravagant love of the Father who ran down the road to meet this wayward son – knocks on the door of the home of Martha and Lazarus and Mary, smelling the strong fragrance of extravagant love emanating from that place.
So, looking at it through last Sunday’s framework, which kind of extravagance is it that we experience in this story? Is this the wasteful extravagance of the prodigal child who blows through an inheritance on useless things, or the extravagant expression of boundless love that we see in the prodigious love of his parent, a love that welcomed the son home, and honoured him with a feast? Is this extravagance, shown by Mary in using a large amount of expensive perfume to anoint the feet of Jesus, bad or good?
Seen through the eyes of Judas, this is bad, foolhardy, reckless. And, as alluded to earlier, if I attempt to place myself in that room, the sandals of Judas would fit my feet pretty well. Judas looked after the disciples’ finances, making sure that when paid accommodations or meals were needed, they were looked after, paying any tolls or taxes that Caesar required, letting the group know when they needed to pick up work along the road to keep the mission solvent. Judas was the guy like me, asking the ever-present question, “I wonder what the CRA would say about this”, the one monitoring things so that nothing wasteful happened.
His negative statement about what Mary has done, while near-sighted, accusatory, and rather useless once the deed had been done, nonetheless makes perfect sense to me: from his understanding of the mission of Jesus, and its clear focus on the needs of the poor, it would have been so much better to sell this perfume for 300 denarii, rather than massaging Jesus’ feet with some of it and washing the floor with the rest of it. A denarius was, apparently, the typical day-wage for a farm labourer, so this was a year’s worth of wages that could have done so much good. While the gospel writer doubts the sincerity of what Judas has said here, suspecting that his real objection was that it would make it harder to fiddle the books and steal from the treasury, I’m not so sure about that. To me, it sounds like Judas was giving voice to a concern that the rest of the men and many of the women in the room would have shared: when money is so tight, and when the needs of the poor are so overwhelming, and – let’s name the patriarchy for what it is– when a woman does something that central and sensual in person – how could you possibly justify what Mary had done?
We assume that Judas would have heard Jesus tell the parable of the prodigal son, and to him, Mary’s action was as reckless and sinful as the wasteful living of the younger son in that story. But to Mary, and to Jesus, it was nothing like that. To them, this was a lived expression of the extravagant love of God. Thinking back to the parable of the prodigal son, this act by Mary was the loving embrace of God, running toward them. This was rings on their fingers and a fine cloak over their shoulders and feasting on the fatted calf. In the sensual acts by Mary, and in their being received by Jesus, we experience another side of what it is to have Christ around us, within us, between us, a love that is not linear or sensible or expected.
Having heard the gruff objections of Judas, Jesus defends the actions of Mary saying, “’Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” This is not an excuse for Christ-followers to live selfish, uncharitable lives because the problem of poverty would not be solved anyway; rather, it calls us to acknowledge that while God has always called God’s people to be especially mindful of and generous toward the widow and the orphan and those with no nation to call their own, our lives and the lives of communities of faith also need us to go deep with God, to commune with the author of life itself, to worship and honour the God whose love brings us life.
Our relationship with God is not all logical and sequential and provable. In the same way that we cannot fully quantify what goes into friendship or belovedness, our response to the call of Jesus is not all governed or adjudged by linear logic, it is not solely comprised of actions that make the world a demonstrably better place. In the same way that the Jewish faith has always been shaped by the Sabbath, one day in seven to put down one’s tools and rest in the love of the eternal God, the fragrant outpouring by Mary, the ignoring of social boundaries, the sopping up of precious perfume with her hair, these things speak of awe, wonder, and deep emotionality. While Judas might quantify the significance of a mountain by its girth and height and weight, Mary honours it by enjoying the breathtaking view.
In the actions of Mary and the endorsement of Jesus, we are pushed to consider a whole new aspect of what it means to be a disciple. Yes, absolutely, our diligent pursuit of justice and fairness and equality is a worthy horizon line to head toward, and Jesus would never have said otherwise. Yes, absolutely, our perception of Jesus as a living companion, inspiring us with memorable words and tangible presence, will continue to move us toward choices and group actions that will benefit the greater common good, as God has always intended. But there is this other piece – mysterious and mystical, awe-inspiring and uplifting, attentive to birth and to life, unafraid to be in the presence even of death – that also holds who we are and what we do, in an embrace of belovedness, a state of being which expresses God’s love in a way that words and actions and quantifiable progress toward goals cannot.
On this fifth Sunday of Lent – only one week from Palm Sunday, only twelve days from Good Friday – the taste and fragrance of holiness, the artistry of a conscience awakened, the hunger and thirst for righteousness take over, even for a moment, from more sensible, effective, proficient discipleship. This is the moment when we open ourselves, not only to the agenda of Christ, but to the radiant holiness expressed by his reshaped realm of inclusion and justice. Today, God comes to us in emotion, in devotion, in passion, and in God’s expression to us of indescribable love and adoration. And that equips us, to journey on. Amen.
References cited and/or consulted:
Mang, Rev Shannon. “Recognizing Christ”. Unpublished sermon preached April 7, 2019, at Living Spirit United Church, Calgary AB.
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.