At this time of year, at this moment in history, many of us are painfully aware of the fear and hopelessness, of the violence and suffering, in our world. In the midst of all this Mary takes costly perfume and anoints the feet that will soon be pierced by violent nails. This act of extravagant love is remembered through the ages. (RCL Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:3-14; and John 12:1-8.)
Many of us love this story - for lots of different and good reasons. Including that it is one of the few stories that focuses on a woman – and a woman given her name at that! There is an extravagance and tenderness to the story that is attractive, mysterious and inviting. And there is the controversial statement “the poor you shall always have with you” that needs to be wrestled with.
Each gospel has some version of this story but they vary greatly. In Mark she is an unknown woman who visits Jesus in the house of Simon the leper and anoints his head in his last days as preparation for his burial. Matthew changes little. Luke emphasises that she is a woman of the city, a sinner, and it is in the home of one of the Pharisees and the criticism is not that the money could have been spent on the poor but that didn’t Jesus realise what sort of a woman she was. And in Luke it happens much earlier in his ministry, not in the last week. In John’s account, as we hear this week, we are told that it took place in the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary so it is Mary who is well known who anoints him in her own home in preparation for his coming death. And it is Judas rather than the other disciples who criticises her for wasting resources.
It is important that we respond to the gospel as it is rather than blur the different versions into one tame account. Each version has a different emphasis. In John’s gospel this encounter happens six days before the Passover, before the self giving death of Jesus. It begins the last week of his earthly life and sets the scene. There is a mounting sense of dramatic tension and focus. And it is this story that lets us know that the last stage of the ministry and life of Jesus is intentional, sanctified, lovingly shared in by those who glimpsed his vision – not as a result of a random act of violence.
While in John’s account it is Mary, a woman who knows Jesus well and has often provided hospitality and company before and therefore in this telling there is no suggestion that she is not a woman of repute. However it remains shocking that Jesus would be so comfortable and intimate with a woman who is not his relative. Jesus’ relationship with Mary, sister of Martha, is in some ways typical of what was so controversial about Jesus’ relationship with women and others of little account in first century society. Remember it is Mary who took the better part and sat listening to his teaching rather than serving in the kitchen, it is Mary who is witness to Jesus’ resurrection of her brother and who is now the extravagant host. Jesus accepts Mary as disciple, as one who listens and as one who serves and supports.
And maybe even more shockingly Jesus is reliant upon Mary and her ministrations. She is the only one who anoints him as the holy one of God who will shortly be crucified under the title King of the Jews. Mary provides the only preparation for burial that Jesus will receive before being hurriedly placed in the tomb. And while the rest of the disciples are becoming agitated in response to the mounting drama and increasing likelihood of violence it is Mary who pours out extravagantly the sweet smelling ointment that seems to gives Jesus great comfort. As we will hear in the weeks to come, it is the women who were faithful to Jesus in a way that the other disciples were to fearful to be. Mary is thus an example of a faithful, tender, extravagant disciple who listens and serves. All of us, men and women, can look to this story for encouragement and challenge that we too are called to be extravagant hosts to the divine one in our own homes and community and especially at pivotal times of fear and danger.
This story follows on for us from last week’s parable of the prodigal sons (in Luke’s gospel) which demonstrated that the nature of God is to extravagantly and tenderly love and suggests that we too are invited into reciprocal extravagant loving. Mary’s tenderness is then carried on in the humble act of foot washing that Jesus will carry out only days later. If we dare we might ponder that Jesus learnt this act of humble service and pointed teaching from Mary. We are not only called to be extravagant hosts to the divine but to open ourselves to the extravagant tenderness of God for us and for one another. Soon it will be time for us to wash the feet of others and to allow others to wash our feet.
At some point we need to engage with the difficult statement that “the poor you will always have with you”. People have struggled with this for centuries and tragically it has often been used to excuse allowing terrible human suffering to continue under our noses as though nothing could or need be done. Given everything else we know about Jesus’ ministry this seems to me to be an inexcusable interpretation. For Jesus shows such a generous and consistent preference for the poor choosing to spend his time and ministry with the lepers, the tax collectors, and the prostitutes. And frequently he heals those who are excluded from society and the economy, restoring them to full functioning membership. So what might be happening here? Remember Judas is using the argument that he would rather the money that the ointment cost had been spent of the poor. But the narrator is telling us that this is not so, for Judas steals from the common purse so it is a guise for something else, a much more base impulse of greed and maybe despair or dissension with the direction of the cause. Jesus, I think, is not suggesting that the poor are of little concern because there are so many of them or that poverty is inevitable (his very ministry should make it clear that this is not something he would ever say) but that he is pointing out the hypocrisy of such an argument and saying that if you are truly concerned with the poor then there are always opportunities to care for them. Indeed I believe it is a call to step us, to share as generously as Mary is with him, with the poor, to enact the abundant love of God’s reign with those most in need of the good news.
Indeed when we come to reflect on what this strange if delightful story can mean to us in our contemporary situation it is I think, the invitation if not challenge to anoint Jesus in our time by: glimpsing the in-breaking of the reign of God’s holy love and peace in those persons and situations around us; to attend to those in front of us with tender and attentive love and to do what we can even when we cannot prevent suffering; and by so doing to proclaim hope even in the face of much opposition, violence and fear. We may not be able to halt the war in the Ukraine, or end the pandemic, or limit the impact of climate change, quickly or radically enough to prevent the great suffering we see but let us not look away in despair or fear but like Mary let us give our tender best when and where we can. And if enough of us follow Mary’s example then we may indeed be making a holy difference.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come and let us anoint you with all that we have, let us love you as you go on your way to your great passion for us.