The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Our gospel passage this morning is one of only eleven stories recounted in all four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and as such is a story of particular significance. Though details vary slightly, each evangelist tells us that Jesus has gathered with others for a meal at a private home, during which a woman passionately anoints him with costly perfume; her actions evoke objection and disdain from the others. But Jesus defends her, and lifts up her gesture as beautiful, prophetic, and one that will be remembered through the ages, as indeed it has been (Matthew 26:6–13;Mark 14:3–9; Luke7:36–50; John12:1–8).
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, so St. John begins the story. So great were the crowds headed for Jerusalem and the feast of the Passover that many would lodge in the village of Bethany, which was about two miles east of Jerusalem. Along with his disciples, Jesus stops at the house of Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary, all friends whom he loved (John 11:5). Lazarus has only recently been raised from the dead by Jesus (John 11:1-44), a costly miracle that has put a price on Jesus’ head, and so everyone is wondering if he will actually enter into Jerusalem and risk his life.
As Lazarus, Jesus, and the other guests recline and converse, Martha bustles about getting dinner on the table. But Mary is no where to be found, at least not in the kitchen (see Luke 10:38-42). She has disappeared to the back of their small home to retrieve something tucked away; something precious, something expensive, something for him: Jesus, Yeshua, the miracle worker who had brought her dead brother back to life, the teacher who had allowed her to sit and learn at his feet. Her Lord, whom she loved and believed in, and whom she knew, somehow, somewhere deep inside would be leaving all of them very soon, and for good.
As Martha hurries out from the kitchen, she notices a strong smell wafting through the air, and it’s not the platter of hot food she’s carrying. She sees Mary kneeling at Jesus’ feet, cradling them in her hands, adoring them, perfuming them with oil of nard, its rich fragrance suffusing the whole house. Like the jar of perfume, Mary’s heart has broken open and she’s utterly undone, the braid of her dark brown tresses falling loose; wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, as with a towel, as a servant, as one in love; tears and perfume, water and oil mingle as she anoints her Lord.
Suddenly she hears someone exclaim with alarm—Mary, what are you doing?! As if waking from a dream, Mary looks up to see Martha, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment at such a brazen display. Disapproving looks dart between the disciples; Lazarus’ face is ashen; Judas is disgusted and snarls: how dare she waste a year’s wages on this perfume when the money would have been better given to the poor?!
Mary’s eyes drift to Jesus. He is looking at her too, but his gaze pierces through any shame she is tempted to feel at the judgment of others. Leave her alone, Jesus answers their complaints, she has done a beautiful thing to me. She bought the oil 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.
Mary lowers her eyes; humbly, tenderly, she kisses the feet of Jesus one last time.
Jesus knew he was not long for the world. He also knew that his disciples would be swept away into the chaos and confusion of his passion and crucifixion; they would let themselves down, and they would never be the same. He knew the challenge of the world and that life is not so straightforward as perhaps our gospel story belies; for all of the persons at the house in Bethany—the lover, the dutiful servant, the lifeless, the redeemed, the villain, the poor, the eager disciples, even Jesus, the One—are selves of the self and inhabit our own hearts.
In a time and culture of highly coded behavior and custom, it would be hard to overstate how shocking were the actions of Mary. What if she had not been willing to listen to her own heart? Or calculated the risk and cost, missing then that precious moment to love with abandon? How often do we defend against the love that gives all, and argue instead for its measure and justification? Is there such a thing as loving too much?
As the heady smell of the perfumed oil swept away any remaining stench of Lazarus’ tomb, how easily he could have become awkward and distant from Jesus—somehow, impossibly—trying to repay him and thank him. Will we, like Lazarus, simply and fully receive the gift of God’s new life? Or will I refuse to come out of the tomb, and like Judas, slink away from Jesus’ transforming love?
As I read in one commentary, maybe the early church found it convenient to heap as many evils as possible on Judas so that the story had a proper villain, and a scapegoat. But God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust alike (Matthew 5:45); mercy and grace rain down upon Judas, as upon our own duplicities and betrayals, upon the lies we tell ourselves and our selling-out. Yet, do we act as if this is really true, as if God’s infinite mercy and bounteous grace change anything, let alone change me?
The full bellies of Martha’s guests testify to the hospitality and life-giving attention she pays to all who have gathered; those she loves and knows well and those she has perhaps just met. Do I warmly welcome both the known and unknown, the loved and unloved in my life? I might also imagine Martha agreeing with the motto of frugal New Englanders: waste not want not; if you manage a resource carefully with prudence—maybe even stinginess—you will never be in need. Is this how I am with God, carefully managing and measuring an extravagant love and source that is yet boundless?
While Martha serves and Lazarus reclines at the table with Jesus, while Judas counts the purse, and Mary breaks open the jar of perfume, while the disciples share in a common meal, the hearts of all gathered around Jesus are revealed. So too, in the Great Thanksgiving, in our breaking of the bread is revealed our own hearts of light and dark, life and death. Our pilgrimage through these forty days of Lent and all the days of our lives is about our hearts breaking open, like the jar of nard, that the incarnate love of Christ may pour out through us, suffusing and anointing the world. From Jesus’ broken body, radiance pouring forth, illumining the whole of creation, from this shattered love is born new life—as Isaiah tells us today—I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (43:19). Entwined like lovers in the heat of embrace, in Christ’s love, death is raised to new life.
Two thousand years on from this meal in Bethany, the lovers, the dutiful servants, the lifeless, the redeemed, the villains, and the poor are still with us, and we with them. God’s call to help and love the masses in need never ceases (Deuteronomy 15:11). But God also calls us to help and love particular persons, intimately and presently. When Mary was anointing the feet of Jesus in preparation for his burial, she wasn’t thinking of the poor, but that as Jesus said: you will not always have me.
Whatever concern or cause we have—the poor, the needy, the church, the children, the customer, the client, the to-do-list—it will always be there; and so Jesus reminds us never to forget that we will not always have this very moment of precious life to waste in love and to abandon ourselves at the feet of Christ.
This morning’s gospel is indeed a story about waste—waste of perfume, waste of money and expense, waste of time and ministry—but it was an illogical and holy waste—an extravagance of waste!—that isn’t sensible and practical, and isn’t left wanting. God breaks open each day with a waste of life-giving light, infusing the sky, like that of Mary’s perfume unfurling its fragrance. I so want to be broken open too, like Paul, who says in his letter to the Philippians: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, that I may attain his resurrection (3:10-11).
As our hearts break at the power of love, as bread is broken at the table, as our earthen vessels break at death, we hear God say: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19).
She who anointed Jesus perceived it. May we dare to do the same.