Sermon - 17th March 2013
Mary anoints Jesus
Scripture - Luke 12:1-8
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
When we read our Christian scriptures we have to live with a continual tension: the four gospels are not consistent with each other. When we look at the origins of the gospels, this is not surprising because they come from different traditions and different communities within the Jesus movement, and they were compiled and edited at different times. They borrow from each other in varying degrees, agree with other in some areas, and differ from each other on some really significant details.
Across the four gospels, we hear three different versions of the story in which a woman uses expensive ointment to anoint Jesus. Mark speaks of an unnamed woman, who appears in the house of Simon the Leper, and who calmly and quietly poured her gift of exotic perfume onto Jesus's head. We learn nothing about the woman; we never meet Simon the Leper again; but Jesus refuses to hear any criticism of her gift, and he affirms her actions.
Matthew repeats Mark's version of events almost word for word.
Luke places his version of the event much earlier in the story of Jesus's life. In his version, we are in the house of Simon the Pharisee; the woman has a bad reputation but remains unnamed; she pours the ointment onto Jesus's feet, and wipes the surplus away with her hair - something which carried all kinds of sexually provocative overtones in the culture of the day.
John places his version of the event back towards the end of Jesus's life. The location is Bethany once again, and his story takes place among one of John's favourite family settings for Jesus - the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. In fact, John tells us that it was Mary of Bethany who brought the perfume, poured it onto Jesus's feet, and wiped away the surplus with her hair. Only John names the woman and identifies her as someone who was an intimate and devoted friend of Jesus. And by doing so, John locates this act of devotion in a place which spoke to Jesus of simple, undemanding, unconditional love.
We gain an impression from the gospels of Luke and John that the home of Martha, her sister Mary, and their brother Lazarus in Bethany was a private haven for Jesus: somewhere to be quiet, to rest, to be cared for, to be away from the crowds, to be himself.
And quietly, in the background, we also gain an impression of the effect that Jesus is having on Mary in particular. Martha is portrayed as the homebuilder and housekeeper whose work is never done; and it is through that work that she gives her own offering of love and dedication to her family and friends. Martha, in her own way, is a gift from God to those she nurtures and cares for. But Mary is the dreamer, the contemplative; and Mary is slowly being overtaken and overwhelmed by the depth and insight of Jesus’s teaching, by his closeness and the natural affection he shows to her family and herself, by the divine love which flows out of him, by the power of God which energises his words and his actions. She is totally captivated.
There is a short story in Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:37-42) in which Jesus and his disciples are enjoying the hospitality of the two sisters when Martha complains that she is being left to do all the work while Mary is sitting at Jesus’s feet simply listening to him. And Jesus affirms Mary as having made the better choice.
Earlier in the Fourth Gospel (John 11:1-43) John uniquely records how Jesus brought Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for four days. It is to Martha, when she is wracked with grief over her brother’s death, that Jesus speaks words which have become so symbolic of our faith: he says, “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
Then when Mary rushes up to him, falls at his feet and weeps, Jesus is deeply moved by the outpouring of grief around him and also weeps. Then at Jesus’s command, Lazarus walks out of the tomb, still wearing his grave clothes, and is restored to his family.
These are just glimpses of the background against which Mary of Bethany came to be utterly captivated by the one they called The Teacher. He was her world. He understood how she hung on his every word and he affirmed her for doing it. He brought her brother back to life when all hope had gone. He spoke of love as the essence of God, and she responded with more love than she ever thought she could experience.
And so, in the quiet intimacy of an evening meal, when Jesus and some of his followers were guests in her house, Mary showed how much she loved him by bathing his feet with costly ointment and wiping away the surplus with her own hair. If anyone else had done this, it would have been regarded as improper and embarrassing. But Jesus recognised the action as an act of love which was driven by Mary’s deepest emotions. And he brushes aside the sharp and critical comments made by Judas - not because the comments are irrational, but because he knows that our emotional outbursts often do not follow the most rational path. Love makes us do unpredictable things, but love should never be devalued.
It is easy to skim over the story of Mary and her anointing of Jesus by viewing the story purely in an intellectual way and by engaging only our analytical brains. From these eight short verses we can be inclined to just pick out the main features of the story, and move quickly on. We can take note of the symbolism of the anointing just before Jesus’s entry in Jerusalem and regard the incident as an anointing in preparation for his coming death. We can observe how the gospel-writer is exaggerating Judas’s bad character and is adding to the evil intent which is growing in his mind as he moves closer to his ultimate act of betrayal. We can be good biblical scholars and place all these things in their context and realise how cleverly the gospel-writer is preparing us for the climax of his story. But perhaps we miss something of great depth if we do not stop for a few moments and use our imaginations to enter into the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus in Bethany, and actively sense the emotions of that evening when Mary did something out of the ordinary yet completely in character.
Sometimes we are called to switch off our relentless intellect and simply allow our emotions to respond to the feelings which form part of the gospel stories. I know of one member of this church who came to us as a new Christian and who described his growing understanding of Christianity as an experience of “falling in love with Jesus”. There have been times in worship when we’ve been aware of people quietly weeping when they experience just a glimpse of the truth that they are created by God, loved by God, and that Jesus walks with them in their struggles.
Sometimes when we simply open the church doors for an event, or for private prayer, people come in, sit down, and journey somewhere in their emotions. There is nothing rational in what they do: they simply respond to a spiritual need to engage somehow with the holy. And if they choose to talk to a minister, very often their emotions flood to the surface.
Mary of Bethany shows us that our emotional, intimate and loving responses to the teachings of Jesus are blessed and affirmed just as much as our rational, our intellectual, and our always-busy-doing-something responses are. We all have our gifts and natural aptitudes, but Mary shows that our discipleship has the capacity to reach into depths we never knew we had, if we will open ourselves up to the experience. Our challenge is perhaps to find our own ways to sit at the feet of Jesus, listen to his teaching, experience the divine love flowing from him, allow our emotions to respond, and be captivated by him in our deepest selves.
We are approaching the most emotional part of our year. From next Sunday through to the following Sunday we encounter some huge emotional highs and lows. Intellectually, some of us will have journeyed through this cycle many times before; but emotionally we probably still have much to experience as we spend time at the feet of Jesus - even when those feet are nailed to a cross - opening ourselves to engage with the holy.
We deepen our faith whenever our emotions, as well as our intellects, are captured by the stories of our tradition. Next Sunday, and on Good Friday, we will hear the harrowing story of Jesus’s arrest, trial and execution. We will hear the words of the penitent thief who was crucified alongside Jesus and to whom Jesus promised, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. On Easter Sunday we will be with Mary of Magdala as she discovers an empty tomb and breaks down in total despair when she thinks the body has been stolen. For many of us, these are times when a lump comes to the throat, or when we hold back the tears, because moments like these speak to the depths of our emotions; and Holy Week is full of them.
Our scriptures don’t often invite us to share moments of profound intimacy with Jesus; but this short episode at Mary’s house in Bethany shows us that we too can be captivated by The Teacher when we open our emotions to our relationship with him. We may even find ourselves making acts of extravagant love, just like Mary of Bethany, as we respond with love to the love we are shown.