By the Rev. Darren Miner
The Gospel reading today is problematic. It is problematic from the perspective of history and from the perspective of social norms.
Let’s deal with the historical problem first. This same story is told in all four Gospels, but the Gospels don’t all agree on the facts of the matter. 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. In Luke, it is a notoriously sinful woman of Galilee, not Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus’ head and wipes her tears from his feet with her hair. Now, these discrepancies don’t mean that the Gospel story is fake news. It just means that, as this story was handed down from one generation to the next, some details got lost in transmission.
Now for the issue of social norms! We live in a new age, in the age of the “Me Too” Movement. One major concern of this movement is the protection of “personal space.” The need for such protection is clear. A couple of years ago, Donald Trump was caught on tape bragging about how he liked to kiss and grope women without their permission. More recently, Joe Biden has been criticized for making unwanted physical contact with women he didn’t know very well. In our society, the perpetrators of such boundary violations are, more often than not, men, and the victims are women. But in today’s Gospel story, the “perpetrator” of the boundary violation is a woman, and the “victim” is a man. There is no doubt about it: Mary of Bethany violates Jesus’ personal space without permission. One wonders what the leaders of the “Me Too” Movement think about this Bible story!
By contemporary American norms, Mary’s actions were a violation of Jesus’ personal space. By first-century Jewish norms, her actions were a violation of the tradition of the elders. (A Jewish woman was not permitted to touch an adult male, unless he was a close family member.) But I don’t think that this story was handed down to us so that we might condemn Mary of Bethany for her bad behavior. Quite the opposite! I suspect that we are meant to praise her.
In particular, we are meant to praise her love of the Lord. Her love for him was deep. It was intense. It was irrepressible! Her love compelled her to break every rule of polite society, to transgress every social and religious boundary, no matter the cost. And her love for Jesus cost her dearly. And I am not speaking metaphorically! The perfume she applied to Jesus’ feet was worth about $36,000.
Now, with one significant exception, the Evangelist doesn’t tell us what the onlookers thought of this spectacle. But I think we have a good idea: they must have been shocked, stunned, perhaps even sickened. But the only person who dared to speak out was Judas Iscariot. And he only spoke out, because he would have liked to sell the perfume and steal the proceeds.
Now, when Judas condemns Mary’s extravagance, Jesus comes to her rescue. He defends what she has done by giving her action a deeper, prophetic meaning. He interprets her anointing of his feet as advance preparation for his day of burial, which he knows will be coming all too soon. Jesus goes on to explain that it was necessary for Mary to do what she did because of the urgency of the situation. 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.” In other words, “You have the rest of your lives to care for the poor, but just for now, as I approach my death, it is fitting to focus your love on me.”
But enough about Mary! What about her sister Martha? Clearly, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were quite wealthy. If you can spend $36,000 on perfume, you must be pretty well off! And that got me to thinking about the two words devoted to Martha in today’s Gospel reading, namely: “Martha served.” Now a wealthy family would have had a number of servants or slaves to wait on their guests. But Martha chooses to serve Jesus and the other guests herself. Imagine for a moment Melania Trump waiting table at a White House dinner. That is how unlikely, and unseemly, it would have been for Martha to serve at table. Although Mary gets all the attention in this Gospel story for her extravagant display of love towards Jesus, Martha, in her own quiet way, also violates social norms to show Jesus just how much he means to her.
Jumping forward in time a couple of millennia, what are we, as modern-day Episcopalians, supposed to make of this story of violated norms? What can we possibly learn from it? Well, one thing comes immediately to mind. Love Jesus extravagantly, shamelessly, with no holds barred. Love Jesus Christ without limitation or boundary or concern for propriety. Love Jesus with all your heart—and then serve him for all your life!
In seven days, Holy Week begins. And our parish calendar is full of worship services, each focusing on some particular aspect of Jesus’ last days on earth, each affording you an opportunity to show your love of the Lord. I invite you to attend as many of these services as you possibly can, and to enter fully into the sacred drama. Imagine that you are there, witnessing these salvific events. Imagine the sights and the sounds and the smells; imagine the touch of Jesus’ hands as he washes your feet at the Last Supper. Then, open your heart to the feelings that well up inside you. Allow yourself to weep for Jesus, as you gaze upon the cross. Allow yourself to wail for him, as you journey to his tomb. It is only fitting; after all, Jesus died for you! But then, come Easter, let joy be unconfined, and sing out your joy that the Lord you love is alive.
© 2019 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.