A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, in which Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet.
Only three times do we meet Mary of Bethany in the gospels, at least by name. The first time we meet her, and this last time, Jesus tells those around her, criticizing her, carping on her, to leave her alone. Let her be.
In both instances, Mary was attending closely to Jesus. In the first place, she simply sat at his feet and listened to him, and her sister, Martha, complained to Jesus that there were other things Martha needed Mary, or wanted Mary to do. But Mary was lavishing her time and attention on Jesus, and Jesus defended her choice. He let Mary stay close by him.
Martha was in charge of the household, no doubt. When their brother died, and Jesus came late to visit them, it was Martha who met him and upbraided him for not coming sooner. It was Martha who was consulted about rolling away the stone in front of her brother’s tomb. It was Martha who told Jesus, “Yes, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God,” Martha who declared her hope in the resurrection.
That in-between visit is the only time we also hear Mary speak, and when she does, it is an echo, a repetition of her sister’s opening words, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” as though Martha had taught her what to say. But instead of answering her, gently arguing it out with her, as he did with Martha, when Jesus saw Mary weeping, he just broke down and wept with her.
There is a simplicity to Mary, and to Jesus’ relationship with her. I think that Mary may have been quite fortunate to have a sister like Martha to look after her, out in the world. Such innocence can be exploited. Such devotion is dangerous. Even here, among family and friends, there is a vulnerability to Mary, in the way that others see her, and want to correct her or redirect her. They are embarrassed by her demonstrative love, her extravagant and single-minded attention to Jesus. But Jesus is deeply affected by her, and strongly protective of her: “Leave her alone,” he says. Let her be.
I learned this week that the word that John uses to describe the way in which Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair is the same word with which Jesus wipes his disciples’ feet, including Judas’ feet, before that dinner in the upper room that we will soon celebrate and commemorate. I wonder if Jesus was inspired by Mary’s devotions, whether her embodiment of loving humility helped him form the plan to kneel before his friends and wash their feet.
Martha – faithful, faith-filled, distracted and well-meaning Martha – Martha is still serving, but perhaps she has undergone a change of heart since that first encounter. Perhaps she has taken to heart Jesus’ admonishment: Let her be. At any rate, this time, she is not the one who tries to undermine Mary’s position at Jesus’ feet.
This time it is Judas – cynical, self-righteous, possibly fraudulent Judas – who objects not to Mary’s position but to the disposition of the perfume that she has just squandered on Jesus. Just as Martha was not wrong to want help in the kitchen, Judas is not incorrect in his assessment of the other good that a pound of pure nard could do. But his motives are less pure than the perfume, and his dismissal of Mary, his diminishment of her act of love and mercy, his contempt for her betrays him. And Jesus is having none of that: “Leave her alone!” he says.
We cannot all be Mary, at least not all of the time. Many days we are Martha, distracted by many things that have to get done, or else the world will stop turning, or so we seem to think. There is a pain somewhere behind her ribs that reminds her of her mother. Something in the tenderness of Mary’s hair on Jesus’ feet that reminds her of grief. Perhaps that’s why she looks away, busies herself back in the kitchen, as though that will heal her.
Sometimes, we are Judas, world-weary and cynical, jealous and resentful of the attention that someone else is getting, that someone else has to give. Judas doesn’t care if Jesus’ teaching and wisdom is wasted on Mary. He does care that she is wasting good perfume on the man that Judas will never be. His self-righteous words barely cover up his self-doubt, self-loathing. He heaps contempt upon himself and it spills all over Mary and even Jesus. Beware of contempt; it is a fairground mirror, and it will distort us as much as the other, and lead us down false pathways and dead ends.
I am willing to wager that a lot of the time we are Lazarus, dazed and confused, grateful to be alive, don’t get me wrong, but not up for much else, just wanting to eat our dinner in peace. Lazarus, who doesn’t get involved in the argument either time and is in no fit state in between; Lazarus, who, perhaps, could use some bystander training?
But now look at them, Jesus and Mary, one more time. Even Martha pauses from spooning out the rice. There is such love in this moment that the scent of it fills the air. It drives out the stench of fear that hangs around their journey to Jerusalem. Here is love that doesn’t bury grief, but anoints it, attends to it. Here is love that doesn’t count the cost, but pours itself out so that it is felt, sensed, perceived far beyond the feet that receive it: “the house was filled with the fragrance of it.” Here is love that inspires others to love. Jesus soon will wash and wipe even Judas’ feet with the same action that Mary has used on him, with her hair, with her soul.
And here is love. Jesus told Judas, and those who were in danger of agreeing with him, “Leave her alone.” He accepted Mary’s offering, he welcomed her devotion, her sins, whatever they may have been, were forgiven. If her gesture was clumsy, or inept, or embarrassing, he was unconcerned. He loved her for who she was, and for how she was, and for how she loved.
Holy Week is coming. Jerusalem is but a couple of miles away. The love which welcomes us for who we are, how we are, how we love, that forgives us with a humility that we can only aspire to, that love is about to be poured out in all kinds of uncomfortable ways. Its fragrance will fill the world, not with the stench of death but with the power of love to bring new life.
And what will be our character in the story?
Image: From Christus gezalfd door Maria MagdalenaDe kleine Passie (serietitel), Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons. This illustration is from Luke’s telling of the story (Luke 7:36-50), in which the woman is unnamed; the artist has attributed the action to Mary Magdalene.