By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let me start out by making an admission: I feel somewhat hesitant to preach on today’s Gospel reading. One reason stems from the historian in me. This same story is told in all four of the Gospels, and no two Gospels are in complete agreement as to exactly what happened. In Matthew and Mark, the anointing took place at dinner in the house of a Pharisee named Simon the Leper. And there, Mary anointed Jesus’ head (not his feet!), and absolutely nothing is said about her wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. When Luke tells his version of this story, he completely dissociates the story from this female disciple. Instead, it is a notoriously sinful woman of Galilee, with no name, who anoints Jesus head and wipes her tears from his feet with her hair. As it stands, we must live with some uncertainty regarding the details of this story.
Another more compelling reason that I am reluctant to preach on this lesson is that the story is one of such incredible intimacy that I am uncomfortable hearing it told, let alone commenting on it. Here, we are told that Jesus’ friend and disciple Mary of Bethany was so overpowered, so overwhelmed, by her feelings for Jesus that she publicly anointed his feet with perfumed ointment costing around $29,000 and then, incomprehensibly, proceeded to wipe it off again with her hair. For a woman today to do such a thing before witnesses would seem both brazen and bizarre. For a woman of Mary’s day, it was absolutely scandalous. It was the act of a woman who knew no shame. But if we are to believe John’s version, then the devout Mary of Bethany, the very woman who was commended by Jesus for her discipleship, does what no woman of her day could do and keep her reputation. As I have intimated, I am a bit embarrassed by Mary’s public display of intimacy. And yet, I know full well that John tells this story for a reason other than prurience.
The Greco-Roman culture of Jesus’ day acknowledged four distinct kinds of love, and the Greek language had separate words for each: agape, the ideal, universal love of the other, such as Christians are called to demonstrate; eros, or sexual love; philia, the love of one friend for another; and finally, storge, the love of family. But Mary’s behavior in today’s Gospel belies such a neat taxonomy of love. Here we find a disturbing confusion of agape, eros, philia, and storge. By displaying such intimacy at a public dinner for Jesus, Mary crossed the boundary of universal love for the other. She crossed the boundary of love of friend. She crossed the boundary of love of family. And she entered into the realm of the erotic. Centuries later, many Christian mystics made this same boundary crossing. Now, I am not hinting at some illicit liaison between Jesus and one of his women disciples. What I am getting at is that Mary’s love for Jesus at that moment was so overwhelming that it could only be expressed in terms of that most intimate and intense human emotion, eros.
Now, with one significant exception, John doesn’t tell us what the onlookers thought of this spectacle. But I think we can guess: they must have been shocked. The only person who dared to speak out was Judas Iscariot. And we are told that he was not scandalized by the inappropriate display of emotion, so much as he was dismayed at the fact that he could not profit from the sale of the $29,000 jar of perfumed ointment.
But when Judas condemns Mary’s extravagance, Jesus comes to her rescue. He defends what she has done by giving her action a prophetic twist. He interprets her anointing of his feet as advance preparation for his day of burial, which as a prophet, he knows will come all too soon. But Jesus does more than just rescue Mary’s reputation by his prophetic interpretation. He shows how this radical and unseemly display of love and devotion, which violated every canon of proper etiquette, was, in fact, proper and in accordance with God’s will. Jesus goes on to explain to Judas and the other diners at table that it was necessary for Mary to do what she did because of the urgency of the situation; there was so little time left to show him love and devotion. To Judas’ hypocritical suggestion that the perfume could have been sold to aid the poor, Jesus counters with the following rejoinder: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Now, the phrase “You always have the poor with you” has a sort of fatalistic ring to it. And we might be tempted to understand it as some sort of slight to the poor, as a defense of their neglect. But I think Jesus meant just the opposite. I think he meant, “You have the rest of your lives to care for the poor, but just now, as I approach my death, it is fitting to focus your love on me.” And this is exactly what Mary of Bethany does—in spades!
And now for a brief word on behalf of Martha! Last Monday, at the Lenten Bible study, Carolee noted that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus must have been fabulously wealthy. And she’s right! If you can spend $29,000 on perfume, you must be pretty well off! And that got me to thinking about the two words devoted to Mary’s sister Martha, namely: “Martha served.” Now a wealthy family would have had a number of servants and slaves to serve food to their guests. But Martha chooses to serve Jesus and the other guests herself. Imagine for a moment the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey serving at table. Well that is how unlikely and unseemly it would have been for Martha to serve at table. Although Mary gets the attention in this Gospel story for her extravagant display of love toward Jesus, Martha, in her own way, violates all social protocol to show Jesus just how much he means to her. As it turns out, there is quite a lot implied in those two simple words, “Martha served.”
But what are we, as modern-day Episcopalians, supposed to make of this Gospel story? What can we possibly take away from it? Two things come to mind. The first is to spend our lives caring for the poor of this world, just as Jesus told his disciples to do at this supper in Bethany. The second is to serve the Body of Christ with the same extravagant and hands-on devotion of Mary and Martha. And in the end, I suspect these two things are really one! For Jesus tells us that when we give food to the hungry or water to the thirsty, we are serving him.
Now, caring for the poor would seem a simple, straightforward thing to do. Just share what you have! But Americans are divided on this issue, and on many others. Democrats want a universal safety net to be provided by the government, at taxpayer expense. Republicans want to limit the role of government, relying on private charitable giving to support the worthy poor—and only the worthy poor! The problem with the Democratic plan is that it separates us from direct contact with those whom we would serve. The problem with the Republican plan is that the very wealthy tend to give to universities, museums, and arts programs—not to social service programs. Until our society comes to some kind of agreement on alleviating the plight of the poor, people like us are left to fill the gap.
During Lent, we are each called to examine our lives, and today’s Gospel reading from John calls us to examine our devotion to Christ’s body—as it is encountered in the Church, as it is encountered in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and particularly as it is encountered in the poor. We are being asked to examine how we stifle and restrict our love and our charity, both individually and corporately. Mary’s story of devotion demands that we each ask ourselves: How might I love the Body of Christ more extravagantly, with no holding back? Martha’s brief story demands that we each ask ourselves: How might I serve the Body of Christ more directly, with my own two hands? These questions are bound to make us uncomfortable, perhaps profoundly so. But then, as disciples of Christ, we are not called to a life of comfort!
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.