Sermon: A Multiplicity of Marys

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 Jesus. 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.”

We’ve said before that Jesus perceived God as radically alive and that he trusted his whole life and death to his perception of the overwhelming nature of that aliveness. All these weeks, we’ve been looking at Jesus as human first in an effort to understand what he did and why he told the stories he told. From this, what seems to have emerged is that Jesus as human sensed that God could share some of God’s nature. The way Paul said this is that “The first Adam became a living being; the last Adam, a life-giving being.” And now we see the gospels shift emphasis to share their amazement about how Jesus was a life giving being. One way the gospel writers did this was by seeing him through the eyes of others who shared his story.

When Lazarus died, Mary said to Jesus, “if you had only been here, my brother would not have died.” This is a startlingly new way of looking at life and death, one that includes Jesus’ radical view of God’s aliveness forever. So, from the depths of his compassion and against all human understanding, Jesus called out – and Lazarus stumbled from his tomb.

Because of the uproar caused by all this, the Pharisees called a meeting of their highest court and came to the conclusion that, if they let Jesus continue to heal and teach, the Romans would destroy their nation. It is better, they decided that “one man die for the people, than the whole nation perish.” And so the end began to close in.

Back in Bethany, all unaware that storm clouds were gathering, the celebration of Lazarus’ new life was going strong. The family was serving supper in Jesus’ honor and this time, Mary brought out an extravagantly expensive perfume – precious nard worth enough to feed a poor family for a year. She anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. An extraordinary  gesture, but why?

We need to stop here and think for a moment about how Jesus might have sensed God’ aliveness and – from what we read in the biblical stories – he learned about it by sensing God’s love. “You are my beloved son,” the text says over and over again. “With you, I am well pleased.”  John would later write that “God is love…[and] if we love one another, God abides in us and God’s love is perfected in us.”

In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the story of Mary’s tribute is remembered as one in which she anointed his head.[i] The gesture reminded people of the prophets and kings like Samuel who anointed King David. In the gospel of Luke, Mary is portrayed as a sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet in an expression of faith and love for which, Jesus said, “her sins were forgiven.” But what was John’s reason for adapting this story, and what might it mean in our world where anointing and foot washing are ancient, forgotten gestures? Might it be a way to talk about love – Mary’s love, Jesus’ love, even God’s love?

We’d miss this point if we missed the link between this and the Last Supper. Then, Jesus would wash his disciples’ feet as an expression of his love for them. He would ask them to repeat this act of service to each other as a sign of God’s love. I will be your servant and wash your feet, he said in effect, so that you, and everyone who comes after you, can understand that serving each other is the way human beings actually live out God’s love.

Here, Jesus would allow Mary’s washing his feet and dying them with her hair. Her gesture and his acceptance were about outrageously extravagant love. What she did was give to Jesus what Jesus would later give to the disciples when he washed their feet at the Last Supper. She fulfilled his desire that we love and serve each other even before he said it to the twelve.

Like Jesus’ own, Mary’s was a faith that says “no matter what others may think, no matter what the respectable may say, no matter what it may cost, this is how God loves and this is how I will love also.” And no matter how one tells her story, the woman with the alabaster jar was the one whom Jesus loved, the one who would be first to meet the risen Christ..    Amen.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton

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