Scripture: John 12:1-8 (NRSV)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it 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.”
Sermon: Mary of Bethany, Prophet of Hope
We are departing briefly from the Gospel of Luke this morning to look at the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Luke also has a story of a woman anointing Jesus' body, and in fact all four gospels do, but each story is slightly different--- John's most of all. John's story is the only story in which the woman is named, and she is named Mary--- Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, not Mary Magdalene and not labeled as a sinful woman. John's follows in the tradition of Matthew and Mark, but not Luke, placing this story within Holy Week; however, in John's account, a woman anoints Jesus before, not after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we will celebrate next week on Palm Sunday.1 John and Luke's story has the woman anointing Jesus' feet rather than just his head. All of this is to remind you of the differences between the gospels, so that you don't conflate one story with another as we explore together this morning.
John's Gospel is particularly gripping in that the story is framed to link it to the events of Jesus' death and resurrection. My friends, we are coming to the end of the season of Lent, coming to perhaps the most difficult part of our journey into the wilderness, and it is John's story of Mary anointing Jesus that is prepares us for that journey. It is a story that foreshadows how the scent of life will overwhelm the stench of death, even though in the dark places we may forget. It is a story that, like all the scripture we have read this Lent, points us to God's extravagance. And it is a story that calls forth the power of hope to hold the darkness at bay.
So let us pray together as we enter this story:
Patient Teacher, may we hold onto you this morning,
anointing you with our prayers
as Mary of Bethany anointed you with costly perfume.
May you speak to us through this story this morning,
teaching us how to better love you each and every day. Amen.
John's story begins not with what we read today, but with another smell: Lord, Martha said to Jesus, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days. Martha was speaking of her and Mary's brother Lazarus, who died and who Jesus rose from the dead after there was already a stench. So John reminds us when he introduces the house where they gave a dinner for Jesus. You can see this isn't just any dinner--- that the celebration here is overflowing with joy and gratitude, that Martha and Mary and their friends must have pulled out all the stops. Everything they do is to throw off the shadow of death that had laid over their home, and to celebrate the life that Jesus has given them.
But this is not all. Raising Lazarus to life in John's Gospel brings immediately following it a plot to kill Jesus, in which religious and ethnic leaders feared Jesus' power, feared that his actions would bring about an imperial Roman crackdown on their people and a removal of their own privileges as imperial lackeys. Fear is a powerful motivator for darkness. And so the shadow of death may have departed Lazarus, but it now seems to hang around Jesus. Everyone at the table with him that night knows this, in much the same way recent history's freedom fighters are aware of imminent danger they face.
What happens next holds the extravagant gratitude for new life in tension with this preparation for certain death. An unsettling tension, strange--- particularly given the intimacy of Mary's action.2 Many commentators I read in preparation for this sermon commented that though footwashing might be common, it probably would not have been done by the host, only servants, and it would not have included anointing. After all, it must have been a dirty job to wash the feet of guests who had traveled long distances through dust and dirt and grime in only sandals. Matthew and Mark's gospel have a woman anointing Jesus' head, proclaiming his Christ-ness, as Christ means anointed one; however, anointing feet seems to have a bit more of a dark connotation. See, Mary did not only wash the travel grime from Jesus' feet, but she anointed his feet with the tenderness and care that she would use to anoint feet that would walk no more.3
This part of the story is difficult for us to enter into as most of us have no experience with the care of dead or dying bodies, leaving the washing of our loved ones' bodies to more skilled nurses and morticians. But what Mary was doing reminds me of what I saw as a chaplain in the hospital: nurses rubbing lotion gently into the chapped skin of patients in comas, delicately administering lip balm or ice to the lips of a thirsty patient who could no longer swallow and was approaching the end. When I would see these moments, I found myself strangely uncomfortable with the intimacy of it, like I walked in on something I shouldn't see. Perhaps the disciples, especially Judas, felt a similar discomfort, like they have walked in on something they shouldn't have. But such love and extravagance is natural, the way we should respond to bodies in need. We all need physical care, extra care at the end of our lives, and, though it may be awkward because we try not to acknowledge the reality of death, such moments of care are beautiful.
Mary had anointed a body like this before when her brother Lazarus had died, had washed the dirt from the crevices of his dusty feet, had embalmed that body with myrrh, had struggled putting clothes over his uncooperative and unwieldy body. She had said goodbye to him as she retraced the lines of his body with her hands alongside her sister Martha. But that goodbye was not the end. She now sat at a table with him, alive, smiling, color coming back into his cheeks. What was lost to her, irretrievably she had thought, had been returned. And she was so grateful for Jesus for returning her brother. But more than that, the return of her brother taught her “confidence in the boundless capacity of God's love.”4 I think Mary's anointing was reminding Jesus of God's power and love that he held within him. It was reminding him that she had anointed someone for burial before, but that the grave did not hold him. It was saying that perhaps, just perhaps, the grave that the chief priests and Pharisees and Roman politicians were preparing wouldn't hold Jesus either.
Mary of Bethany is a prophet of hope, confident that the new life God had offered her in the miracle of her brother Lazarus was not the end of God's love for us. She had faith in the triumph of Divine love over human fear and hatred. But her prophecy is not just words it is actions. Scholar Gail R. O'Day writes that “Mary modeled the robust faith that makes it possible to embrace Jesus' gift of new life. In this story Mary models what it means to be a disciple...”5 In her simple act of anointing, she gave thanks for life, acknowledged the forces of death that are all around us, and she proclaimed her confidence in God's victory.
So I ask all of you to enter into Mary's faith with me this morning, to give thanks for life, to acknowledge death, and to proclaim victory anyway, through your own simple act of anointing. I have brought baby oil that we can anoint one another's palms with. I'll pass it around. Take the hand of the person beside you, flip it over, and pray for that person either out loud or to yourself, give thanks for them, pray for them in their struggles, and call on God's extravagance to shower their lives. Praying for another, sealing one another with extravagance as Mary did Jesus, prepares us for this last leg of our Holy Week journey together.
As you go throughout the day, feel the oil sinking into your skin, smell that faint baby oil smell and be reminded of this threefold nature of faith we saw in Mary's act of pure extravagance. If the smell of death has been with you, as it had been with the friends gathered around Jesus' table that day, remember as Mary did that “God's persistent love smells even stronger, and it will triumph in the defeat of Jesus' death.”6
Let us pray:
Extravagant One, we praise you for the life flowing through our veins,
for the newness you offer us out of your boundless compassion,
but we know that the forces of death are all around us, trying to pull us from you,
silver-tongued devils feeding us fear and lies.
God, as you filled that perfume scented room all those years ago,
we ask you fill this room today as we anoint one another.
May we feel your victory over death as this oil absorbs into our bodies.
In the name of the one who raises the dead, the one whom Mary anointed, we pray. Amen.
1Allen Dwight Callahan, “The Gospel of John,” True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. By Brian K. Blount, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007) 200.
2Matt Skinner writes, “Scholars cannot agree about whether the detail concerning Mary's hair lends an erotic air to the event, although I think it is impossible to hear the story today without raising an eyebrow. At the very least, Mary's hair imbues the act with profound intimacy, calling attention to the tactile element of the anointing. If the fragrance of her perfume fills the house, the gentle touch of her locks fills Jesus' sensations. It is an expression of deep love that those watching would hardly ignore or find ordinary.” Matt Skinner, Commentary on the Gospel John 12:1-8, Fifth Sunday in Lent, Working Preacher, 21 March 2010, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=3/21/2010.
3Phyllis Williams Provost, “The Anointing at Bethany: John 12:1-8,” The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, vol. 10, John, eds. Dennis E. Smith and Michael E. Williams, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996) 116.
4Beth Sanders, “Living By the Word: Heaven Scent,” The Christian Century 24:5 (6 March 2007), http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2007-03/heaven-scent.
5Gail R. O'Day, “John,” Women's Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition with Apocrypha, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 388.
6Sanders, “Living By the Word: Heaven Scent,” http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2007-03/heaven-scent.