Our eyes have turned toward Jerusalem. Jesus is only 6 days away from the Passover; he will enter the city on the back of a donkey to shouts of Hosanna and blessings, he will be tried and crucified, he will be buried. The stress, anxiety and tension are palpable for the disciples and others who have been on the journey with Jesus. And on the way to Jerusalem, the group stops at the home of friends--Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany.
Sometimes, we forget these friends. We haven’t heard much about them this lectionary cycle because we’ve been in Luke this Lent. So we haven’t read the story of Mary & Martha welcoming Jesus into their home, and Mary being scolded for sitting at his feet instead of helping her sister in the kitchen. We haven’t read the story of Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb and restoring him to life. These are pivotal moments in the gospel of John in helping us to understand the narrative of discipleship. This little group of siblings in Bethany, friends of Jesus and the disciples, welcome him once again as he is preparing for his entry into Jerusalem.
Can you imagine for a moment, the scene in the house? It’s evening, Jesus and the disciples are weary from having walked all day in the hot sun. Cushions are spread around a low table, and on it are figs, cheese, olive, bread, wine, and maybe a roasted lamb. Conversation and the light from oil lamps fill the warm room. Jesus and the disciples are pleased to see Lazarus and Martha is bustling about. As the meal is cleared away, Mary comes back in with a bottle of perfume. Her hair is loose, not hidden under the head-covering she would normally wear in the presence of men. She kneels at the feet of Jesus and pours the perfume on his feet, massaging the oil into the calluses and rough places on his heels. And as she does this, her hair falls down in front of her face and brushes the feet of Jesus. In love and humility, with tears in her eyes, she uses her hair as a towel as her brother, sister and the disciples watch in awe.
And that incredibly intimate, sacred moment is shattered by the angry voice of Judas--criticizing Mary for this extravagance. Why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money given to the poor? Why was it wasted in this way?
And Jesus rebukes him--did he know at this point what was in Judas’ heart? Did he know that Judas wasn’t really concerned about the poor, but rather saw this as money to go into the common purse, which Judas stole from? We don’t know for sure. But Jesus rebukes him and says “Leave her alone. She understands something you don’t.”
So there’s a lot here in these 8 verses and probably no way to cover it all on one Sunday, but I’m going to share a few reflections that I think are key to this passage as we prepare to enter into Jerusalem with Jesus next week.
First is the question of what it means to be a disciple. In this text we have two main characters in addition to Jesus--Mary and Judas.
Judas has been traveling with the group since it originated and has been witness to the healings, teachings and miracles that Jesus has provided. We don’t know much about Judas other than he is part of the plot to kill Jesus--and it makes me wonder what changed for him during his time with Jesus; what made him participate in the conspiracy to have Jesus arrested, tried and crucified. Given that the gospel writer tells us that Judas was in charge of the common purse, and that he stole from it, and given that Judas accepts payment for betraying Jesus, I can’t help but wonder if money is what matters to him...is he a disciple not of Jesus, but money?
Mary, on the other hand, is a friend of Jesus who, while not officially a disciple, has sat at his feet during his teachings, witnessed the miracle of her brother being resurrected, and somehow KNOWS who Jesus is and what he is about--she recognizes that he is the Messiah, even when others do not. Now Mary of Bethany has been conflated with other Marys in the New Testament. For years, the Mary who washes the feet of Jesus has been confused with Mary Magdalene. And in Matthew and Mark, the woman who washes Jesus’ head with perfumed oil, is an unnamed woman who is a repentant sinner, again, confused with Mary Magdalene. So let’s be clear--these are two different Mary’s. And why this is important to understand is because Mary of Bethany (and even Mary Magdalene) isn’t the prostitute or adulterer that for centuries the church has portrayed her to be...she is a friend, a believer, and one who knows--she is loyal to the end when the other disciples desert Jesus at the cross.
This story also sets the stage for the Passover (or what we call “the last supper). Here we have Mary modeling service in her actions--she washes the feet of Jesus. This is what Jesus will do for his disciples--he will wash their feet. And as we know, or will find out on Maundy Thursday, this washing of feet is symbolic of the life of discipleship. It is a way of showing care for another. It is a symbolic way of saying “we’re in this together as friends”. It is a way of showing that the disciples will carry on the ministry of Jesus after he departs.
So this story reminds us about discipleship. That being a disciple of Jesus is about faithfulness to the ministry, a willingness to take risks for the Kingdom of God, and the courage to stand in solidarity with the persecuted. It also reminds us that even in the midst of treachery and betrayal, extravagant love is extended.
The other thing I believe that is important to consider in this text is verse 8...the final verse for today’s lesson. After telling Judas to leave Mary alone, he follows it up with this statement: You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. On the one hand, he may be speaking directly to Judas, the keeper of the common purse, indicating that he knows of Judas’ deception of stealing from the purse instead of giving it to the poor as he was instructed to do so. 300 denarii in those days would have been a year’s wages. On the other hand, perhaps we are supposed to hear an instruction in this rebuke...for far too long, the church has used this verse as a justification to ignore the poor among us, which is contradictory to the message and ministry of Jesus. So I did a little digging, and contemporary liberation theologians and scholars believe that what is really happening here is Jesus is referring back to Deuteronomy 15:11, which reads “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand...to the need and to the poor in the land.” Therefore in putting this text next to Jesus’ prediction of his death and burial, the writer is reminding the disciples and us to be prepared to be of service and care for the poor--for that’s where Jesus will be--among the poor. Perhaps this is also part of what Mary understands that the others do not; that in his extravagant love for everyone, Jesus is found not just among the disciples, or a family in Bethany, but also among the stranger, the widowed, the orphaned, the ill, and the poor. And as those who have been called to continue in the mission and ministry of Jesus, there too we should be.
Let us pray:
Extravagant God, lavishing your love on our poverty of heart: inspire us to give without stint, to lose life that we might find it again, so the world will be filled with the fragrance of your love; through Jesus Christ, who offers himself for us. Amen. (Prayers for an Inclusive Church)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.