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!
Today we hear about God’s power over death in the story of the raising of Lazarus. Think of today’s Gospel reading as a foretaste of Easter, a preview of something greater still.
Jesus is in a town called Bethany across the Jordan, when a messenger arrives from a town in Judea, also named Bethany. The messenger is sent from his friends Mary and Martha, asking him to come heal their brother Lazarus, who is seriously ill. Now, unbeknownst to all but Jesus, Lazarus is already dead. Considering the distance between the two Bethanies, it turns out that Lazarus must have died the same day the messenger was sent. Perhaps this explains why Jesus was in no great hurry to head out.
Now, in what is one heck of a prophetic double entendre, Jesus explains that “this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The double meaning lies in the phrase “that the Son of God may be glorified.” On the one hand, it can simply mean that Jesus will receive honor. On the other hand, it can mean that he will be crucified; for throughout John’s Gospel, glorification is a code word for Jesus’ crucifixion. And indeed, later we’re told that the chief priests plot to kill Jesus precisely because of the stir he caused by raising Lazarus.
By the time Jesus and his entourage arrive at Bethany in Judea, Lazarus has been dead four days. This is significant, because according to popular Jewish belief, the soul stayed in the vicinity of the body for three days and then departed to its final destination. So, after four days, the expectation would be that the soul was irretrievable. Martha approaches Jesus and gently reprimands him for his late arrival. Even so, she declares her continuing belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus’ response is the poignant and profound statement that we hear proclaimed at just about every Christian burial: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
This week a preacher is presented with an embarrassment of riches. We have the great Old Testament story of Abraham’s hospitality to the Lord in the form of three travelers, a famous proof-text for the doctrine of the Trinity. We have the reading from Colossians, which begins with an awe-inspiring hymn about the Cosmic Christ. And we have the familiar, but disturbing, story of Martha and Mary, found in Luke’s Gospel. Well, taking into account the overwork that I regularly witness in this parish, I have decided to focus on those five verses from Luke.
The story is short. The details are sparse. And most annoyingly, the point of the story is not readily apparent. The result is that biblical exegetes throughout the last two millennia have offered a wide variety of interpretations.
Our early Christian ancestors were fond of so-called “spiritual” interpretations. One Church Father by the name of Origen explained the story of Martha and Mary as an allegory contrasting the contemplative life (represented by Mary) with active life in the world (represented by Martha). While not excluding some value to a more literal interpretation, he thought that this story was included in the New Testament to encourage Christians who wanted to advance in spiritual attainment to abandon the world for either life in a monastery or life in a cave. St. Augustine, another advocate of allegorical interpretation, taught that Martha represented our current life in this world, where we suffer worry and distraction, and that Mary represented life in the Kingdom of God, where our carefree life will be focused solely on God.
My sense is that we here today might benefit more from a literal interpretation of this story. So let’s take a closer look at this story of a dinner party gone wrong.
Some 2000 years ago, in a backwater of the Roman Empire, something happened that changed the world. On the first Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth was executed on a cross. On the first Holy Saturday, he lay buried in a borrowed tomb. And then on the third day after his death, the first Easter, he was raised from the dead, as a sign of God’s love for Jesus and for us. For we are told that if we have faith in God’s saving love, we too will be raised from the dead. That in a nutshell is the Easter message.
But faith is such a tricky matter! If we but read the newspapers or watch the news coming out of Syria or Turkey or France or Belgium, it is easy to believe in Good Friday. It is easy to believe that the world would brutally kill a gentle man whose only wrong was to teach God’s love. It is easy to believe the Holy Saturday message that this man of peace is dead and buried—The End! But to be honest, it is harder to believe in the Easter message, that sin and death did not—and do not—get the last word!
We may imagine that ours is the first generation of doubters, but that just isn’t the case. St. Paul contended with his fellow Jews trying to convince them that the Resurrection of the Messiah was foretold in scripture if only they had the eyes to see and the ears to hear the truth. Later, St. John wrote the Gospel account of the Resurrection that we heard proclaimed today. He wrote his Gospel for one reason and one reason only: that all generations might know the truth about what God did in his day and, believing that truth, might have eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Of all the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, John’s is the most vivid and detailed—and convincing! In the midst of the miraculous, we get real, honest portrayals of how various disciples of Jesus reacted to his death and later to the mystery of the empty tomb.
The two boys, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, upon hearing that Jesus’ body has gone missing from the tomb, compete in a footrace to see who will get there first. The Beloved Disciple wins, but then chickens out, letting Peter be the first to enter the tomb. One disciple is forever changed; the other is merely mystified. The Beloved Disciple believes, even though he doesn’t understand. Peter is just plain confused. The impatient boys head home. And because of their impatience, they miss out on a miracle (at least for now).
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.