Based on John 12: 1-8 “Mary anoints Jesus with costly ointment”
Opening Prayer: Holy One, Source of love, Ground of our being, gracious and abiding, God, may we experience the soothing balm of your grace holding us tenderly as we reflect together on your word for us from scripture this day. Amen.
If we were to try and sum up the underlying message we might glean from the story in this morning’s reading from the ancient texts, a couple of things come to mind.
The first, a saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. You might remember him? A 12th century Italian ‘out of the box’ thinker, lover of all creatures great and small, and builder of radical community, who, eschewed all things having to do with money and privilege?
Many folks believe that it was St Francis who advised his followers to “Go out in the world and preach the gospel and if necessary, use words!!!”
The second thought that comes to mind are those wise words from the Wisdom Tradition found in the third chapter of book of Ecclesiastes: ‘For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: A time to born, and a time to die, a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance…For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’
Here on the fifth and last Sunday in the season of Lent, our reading from John’s gospel plunks us down in the middle of a family dinner party as onlookers.
What’s the occasion?
Jesus and his followers and Lazarus seem to be the esteemed guests at the family home of Martha, Mary, two sisters, and their brother, Lazarus, at Bethany, near to Jerusalem.
In my mind’s eye, I can see Martha bustling about making sure the meal preparations are just so.
Well, we get to her in just a minute but first, what’s the back story here?
Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead.
In the family and the community’s celebration of that miracle, Lazarus, appears to at table with Jesus and the 12; 'reclining', the passage tells us 'next to Jesus' at a low set table as was the fashion in those times.
Against that backdrop, we know also know pilgrims are thronging into Jerusalem for the festival of Passover starting in just six days.
We are also aware that the religious leaders of the day are strategizing a plan for dealing with this backwoods Galilean upstart; this son of a carpenter, whose radical approach to being faithful to God’s law and God’s mercy brings with it, challenge, uncertainty, and chaos.
This ‘Jesus’ has amassed quite a following of those on the margins, hungry for a new order, a new understanding of what it means to live in right relations and faithful living in the context of first century Roman occupied Palestine.
For all of that and more, we might imagine a growing sense of alarm and foreboding.
But, here, at the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus, the recent dark cloud of grief has been lifted and replaced with a sense of joy and celebration, of hospitality and laughter over the evening meal.
Still, its difficult not to be aware of that mounting sense of tension and division lurking in the background.
Here, too, is where we notice Mary, the sister whose preferential position in the past has been to sit and learn at the feet of her beloved Teacher.
Mary, the sister whose anguish at losing her brother was appeased at his resuscitation.
This Mary is about to do outrageously brave thing.
This brave thing will catapult her and women of her ilk, forever out of the role of student into that of teacher and prophet.
In choosing to do what she does here in John’s gospel, Mary is about to become known as the first disciple.
Daring to risk crossing over the cultural divide between men and women of her era, Mary arrives on the scene of the dinner party with a very costly container of nard (or of oil of anointing) typically reserved for preparing the bodies of those who have died.
Unannounced and uninvited, Mary wordlessly lavishly pours the oil on Jesus’ feet, and then unpinning her hair, she proceeds to both wipe his feet with her hands and with her tears.
In a culture where only married women let down their hair in the most private of circumstances, such an extravagantly bold action would have been met with a disapproving silence more deafening of words.
Further to that, unlike the other versions of this story found in Mark and Luke’s gospel, Mary here anoints, not Jesus’ head, but rather his feet.
The significance of this?
In Jesus’ time, anointing of oil on the head would designate the confirming of kingship.
As such, it would be a man to man ritual. By contrast, anointing of a man’s feet by a woman would only be done as part of the ritual preparation of a loved one’s body for burial.
This further gives us a glimpse into the outrageous nature of Mary’s behaviour.
By anointing Jesus’ feet rather than his head, Mary communicates to all gathered at the dinner party her awareness of Jesus’ impending death and the need for burial.
Jesus, himself, will repeat this same action of self emptying love for his disciples in the very next chapter of John’s gospel as they gather once more on the eve of the Passover six days hence.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, here, this morning, in this radical, countercultural action, it is Mary who is the first to show who Jesus is.
Is it any wonder then, that her most genuine and sincere action would be greeted with hostility and pushback from none other than Judas Iscariot, newcomer to the band of twelve, and keeper of the communal purse?
Judas, portrayed here in John’s gospel as insincere, pious and deceitful is Mary’s polar opposite.
As such, Judas, outraged at Mary’s extravagance, speaks vehemently against her wasteful actions, telling all who have ears to listen, that the funds used for this occasion might have been put to so much better use!
In response, Jesus rebukes Judas reminding him that this is not the occasion for a dissertation on the needs of the poor.
Thought to be quoting from Deuteronomy 15 that oft used phrase: “The poor we will always have with us”, Jesus brings everyone back to the needs of the very present moment.
Indeed, there is a time for ever season under heaven!
From our study of scripture and our faithful keeping of the seasons through the church year, we know that in a week’s time, the story of this dinner party at Bethany will give rise to other yet more poignant and stark stories.
Stories commemorating Jesus’ arrival at his fateful destination, the Holy City of Jerusalem; the place where we know he will first be greeted as royalty, then betrayed, and crucified as nothing more than a common criminal.
How timely this story from John’s gospel seems to me here in Canada having just celebrated International Women’s Day, a time when we celebrate not only the personhood but the freedom of women to be themselves whenever it is safe and possible to do so.
How timely this story about a woman such as Mary tending to what needs tending seems to me as I observed Sophie Gregoire and Michelle Obama, the wives of two important national figures, gathering with high school students to affirm the rights of young women and young men to be their most authentic selves, alone and together.
How timely this story about Mary’s most hospitable and gracious enactment of God’s love seems to me as 80 or so of us gathered to break bread together at our monthly community lunch last Wednesday.
How very timely this story about Mary’s doing exactly what needs to be do as I observed some of us so graciously attended to what needed doing on behalf of the last and the least of us that very same day.
How timely this story about Mary seems as we continue the ongoing debate about budgets and deficits over and against the needs of those we are called to serve within and beyond our doors as a denomination grappling with the decline of critical mass and large buildings.
How timely this story about Mary’s deliberate boundary crossing efforts seems to me as 30 or 40 of us met last evening here in our gym for a communal meal and a time of learning about how our faith and our responses to climate change and climate justice might intersect with some of our Jewish and Muslim neighbours.
May this time of reflection on Mary’s radical gratitude for her relationship with Jesus, her anticipatory grief at losing the light of her life, and her abundantly courageous and extravagant use of resources in a crisis, may all of it inform our own thoughts and actions as followers in the Way of Jesus as together in these final days of the Lenten season here at Knox.
May the cautionary note about timing being 'all' in Jesus’ response to the character of Judas, personified here in John’s gospel as a corrosive and deceitful influence give us still further food for thought for the journey.
Indeed, there is a time for every season under heaven. Here and now, may it be so. Amen.