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John 12:1-8

 Jesus Anointed at Bethany

     Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

     4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

     7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

This point in the two-year lectionary cycle of daily readings happens to have two different groups of readings that are especially important to how we understand our relationship to God in Jesus. Last week, when we were thinking about the story of the death and raising of Lazarus, the readings in Acts were telling the story of the first big meeting of leaders in the early church. That’s an important story, and after today, we’ll go back and look at that story. But today’s listed gospel reading from John is also one that’s too important to skip.

There are two reasons that this passage seems so important to me: First, it shines a light on some aspects of Christian discipleship that we tend to overlook in the modern church, and especially in the Protestant church. And second, it tells about an incident in the life of one of the early disciples who strikes me as one of the most under-appreciated of all the early followers of Jesus.

So, you might wonder, if this story is so important, why doesn’t it get more attention in church teaching? That’s a good question. But my suspicion is that the story illustrates a feminine version of spirituality that has been largely overlooked by the male-dominated leadership of the church over the years. (Until recently, for instance, very few hymnals have had any hymns about this story.)

OK, so let’s see what happens in this story.

This reading tells the story a dinner in the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. You might remember that last week, when we were thinking about the story of Lazarus’ death and resuscitation, we said that these three siblings seem to have been among Jesus’ closest friends. And that was before Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb.

So this dinner in Jesus’ honor must have had an unusual emotional atmosphere, don’t you think? It was a celebration, but one with a spiritually powerful aspect. When people gather for a birthday party or a wedding reception, there are certain conventions we observe – blowing out the candles, a toast to the bride and groom by the best man, etc. But what are the conventions for celebrating someone’s rising from the dead? The answer, of course, is that there weren’t any – at least back then. We do it every Sunday, but we’re on the other side of Jesus’ resurrection.

But in this story from John, Mary and Martha were honoring a dear friend who had just demonstrated the power to raise the dead. And he had done that by raising their beloved brother. So the emotional tone of the gathering would be pretty different from anything we might ever have experienced. Joyful, and relieved, but also marked by a kind of reverence that would be hard to adequately express.

In the course of the dinner, Mary got up from her place and poured a jar of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet, then wiped his feet with her hair. Imagine the power of that moment. Put yourself in the scene, as people watched silently and the air was filled with that fragrance. Don’t you think you’d be holding your breath?

There are two things about this gesture that we need to keep in mind:

First of all, it was a gesture of profound worship. By pouring out this expensive perfume, Mary was expressing her belief that Jesus was worthy of the most extravagant of praise. In the Hebrew tradition, the fragrance of special oils and incense was regarded as an important way to celebrate the holiness of God – and a practice of deep devotion.

And second, this was a very intimate gesture. In fact, the people around that table were probably a little shocked. In their culture, a modest woman would not unbind her hair around men other than her husband. So for a woman from that culture to wipe a man’s feet with her hair would have left most people speechless. I suspect what we’re supposed to see here is a form of sacrifice – a sacrifice of this expensive perfume, but also a sacrifice of some of the modesty Hebrew culture imposed on Mary.

And that’s where the issue of gender seems to come in – it’s hard to imagine a male disciple wiping Jesus’ feet with his hair. Probably about impossible with the short hair men were supposed to maintain, but even so, Mary’s gesture strikes me as an expression of uniquely feminine spirituality.

Of course, someone objects to the great cost of this gesture. John says it was Judas Iscariot, and that he objected because he kept the money for the disciples and stole from it. But I can’t help wondering if this wasn’t a case of men in the movement who couldn’t deal with this expression of feminine spirituality, and so looked for something about it to criticize. It’s easy to imagine objections like this being raised even today. (As they were raised over the feminist “Reimagining” conference.)

It has always seemed to me that no other disciple understood the mind of Jesus as well as Mary of Bethany did. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and hung on his every word. She seems to have understood what escaped her sister and the other disciples: that the teaching of Jesus was something far too important to be missed. There would be centuries to serve snacks and help the poor, but only a few days to listen to the words of the Messiah. And to perform acts of reverent worship like the one described in this story.

Jesus’ life and death and resurrection was a one-time event in salvation history – an event that warranted an extravagant expression of reverence and emotion. God was physically present in the room that night, in a form that allowed Mary to see him as a beloved friend as well as a divine healer.

That’s why I think maybe Mary of Bethany was the only one who really grasped the significance of what was happening in Jesus. Maybe if we all understood Jesus as well as she did, we’d all be lifting up extravagantly emotional reverence and praise all the time.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for Mary’s great gesture of reverence and praise, and we pray that your Spirit might bend our hearts to be inspired by her example. Make us hunger to sit at Jesus’ feet, and make us willing to sacrifice everything – including our own dignity – to honor him. Amen.

May God bless you extravagantly!

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 112 and 135; Job 40:1-24; and Acts 15:36-16:5.)