Mary Understood ~ The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Sermon Given April 3, 2022

The idea of a woman breaking out expensive perfume, pouring it on a man, and then rubbing his feet dry with her hair is absolutely scandalous, yet a version of this story appears in all four of the gospels, though the details of the story vary. This makes this story one of a dozen stories to appear in all four gospels. It’s integral to the story of Jesus, a historical reality that shaped the early community of believers. 

What makes John’s version distinct though is that it isn’t just a woman who anoints Jesus, it’s Mary of Bethany. And it’s not just his disciples or others who complain, it’s Judas Iscariot. The setting and the names of the actors in this story are deeply important to John. 

We know Mary and Martha of Bethany from the story of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his message and Martha complaining. What we sometimes forget is that encounter is in Luke’s gospel, not John’s. In John’s Gospel, where we find ourselves today, we meet Mary and Martha for the first time when their brother is sick. Chapter 11, where we first meet them, begins in this way, and I quote: “A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill).” (John 11:1-2 CEB). We meet their brother first, but he is introduced as the brother of Mary and Martha. Lazarus’ sisters were more well known than their brother, especially Mary, who is known for this anointing.  In the narrative of Lazarus’ resurrection, Mary and Martha both have deep, intimate conversations with Jesus. Lazarus never says a word. It is not Lazarus’ faith or relationship with Jesus that is important to John. It’s Mary and Martha’s.The fact that it was Lazarus that was resurrected makes this all the more remarkable. Mary and Martha were deeply influential and well known to John’s community. 

Mary especially is praised because she is prepared for what is about to happen to Jesus. Jesus has been on the run. The chief priests had essentially called a hit on him after he raised Lazarus from the dead. The chief priests believe that if Jesus doesn’t die, he will create an uprising and the Romans would take away the temple and the people from them. So they want Jesus gone. John tells us that Jesus was no longer active in public ministry but rather hid away near the wilderness in a city called Ephraim with his disciples. He got out of dodge. 

But then the Passover came around and that is a festival that is properly celebrated in Jerusalem. The chief priests gave orders that if he should show up for the festival, he was to be arrested. Jesus decided to go to Jerusalem anyway to celebrate the Passover. He knows it will be the last time he enters the city and he is prepared to die. 

Right before he enters the city, he comes to Mary and Martha’s house in Bethany, just a couple miles away from Jerusalem. You can see Jerusalem from Bethany. The city is the backdrop to this story. They set the table and lay out the meal knowing that Jesus is heading to a place where he will be arrested for treason. Mary knows he’s not going to get out of this alive. She’s prepared. She’s gone out and spent nearly a year’s worth of wages on nard to prepare him for his burial. 

I can picture that supper, Jesus and his disciples dining with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus is a visible reminder that there is life after death, yet still the meal is somber. Jesus is about to do a very dangerous thing. Mary knows that this will be her last time seeing Jesus alive, and out of pure love, she pours all the perfume she has bought for his burial over him. She weeps and kisses his feet. She washes his feet, a sign of servitude and obedience. This is a sign that Jesus will then give to his disciples on the night of his arrest, but Mary does it with fragrant perfume and her hair. I don’t think any of us would engage in foot washing ceremonies if we were asked to emulate her. It’s almost too intimate. She understands Jesus. She understands his ministry. She’s one of the few in the room that has truly comprehended his message. She breaks open the jar and pours out her grief and her love in a truly remarkable and extravagant way. 

I’m sure there was plenty of discomfort in the room, but Judas was not only discomforted by the actions, he was disgusted. Unlike Mary, Judas believed that Jesus wasn’t going anywhere. Surely Jesus would come out of the arrest and be triumphant over it all.  There was no way the chief priests would reject him once they met him. There was no need to mourn, Jesus would be right back in that room in a week or two, having escaped the captor’s hand. Using all that expensive nard was a waste of money, and there were so many better uses of their money, such as giving it to the poor or lining Judas’ pockets. He never was able to see what Mary saw. He was never able to understand what Mary understood. Judas only saw his ideal version of events, one in which the messiah never died. 

But Jesus was going to die. As soon as he stepped into Jerusalem his fate was essentially sealed. Mary knew that. She wasn’t going to hide her emotions for the sake of other people’s comfort. She wasn’t going to pretend like she could control the narrative. She simply opened up her heart and poured the perfume out. 

Sometimes we simply can’t stop death from coming. We know that it will come to all of us eventually, but it’s hard, especially when it comes with suffering. Sometimes death isn’t pretty or kind. It certainly wasn’t for Jesus. It was brutal for him. Judas wanted to deny that such a death was possible for Jesus. He was the messiah, the Son of God. How could Jesus really die the death of a criminal? It didn’t compute. 

But Mary understood perfectly how Jesus could die such a death. Judas held within him an illusion of how the chief priests worked, how they interacted with Rome, what they could and could not do. He had learned and held onto the ideals about how they were to operate. He never had experiences that shook those ideals. But Mary held no such illusions. 

She, like Judas, had learned the ideals of the chief priests. She learned how they would optimally operate and interact with Rome, how they were supposed to act, but she had also seen the uglier side. She was a woman without much money or privilege living near Jerusalem. She interacted regularly with others who didn’t have much privilege, who had interacted with the chief priests in ways that rocked their ideals and visions of their position. They saw the stark differences between the ideal chief priests and the current chief priests. The chief priests in Jesus’ time were not following God’s ways nor were they upholding the values assigned to their office. That they would even think of asking Rome to kill a man was scandalous. Yet they did so, and there’s reason to believe this wasn’t their first time. They broke their ideology routinely, mostly in their dealings with those who had less power.  

 A Jewish man who held a purse of money that he could freely use could easily be blinded to or excuse their corruption. Average Jewish men weren’t supposed to see the ugly side of the chief priests, the chief priests purposely hid these realities from them. Men with some money were treated differently than others. They were given more respect, more honor. They were shown the best side of the chief priests, the one that fit with what they taught the chief priests were supposed to be. Mary and her friends were the ones impacted the most by the corruption, they saw the reality, so they couldn’t turn a blind eye.

That’s part of the problem of privilege. Those without privilege face the gaps between the ideal and reality on a daily basis. Those with privilege are shielded from the gaps or taught to minimize them. They are treated better and can easily assume that their experiences are the norm. It is rarely the privileged community that is affected by the disparity between what is proclaimed and what is enacted. When they do see it, they are told it is an anomaly, even when reality shares a different story. 

We all have gaps between the ideals and the current reality. It’s not just the chief priests who lived in politically corrupt ways, we all have to admit that there is corruption in our society today as well. Those with less privilege can often see more clearly where the gaps are. Those with more privilege are shielded from them. When we don’t mind the gap between an ideal and reality, that’s when we can get into real trouble. That’s when we can sometimes unintentionally bring real harm upon others. 

I don’t think Judas was a bad person. I really don’t. I think he was a guy with money who was very ideological. I think he betrayed Jesus because he truly believed that once Jesus was face to face with the chief priests, they would see him as the messiah he was and turn their condemnation into support. They didn’t need to waste money on preparing for Jesus’ burial because Jesus was not going to die. That’s what was supposed to happen in Judas’ ideal world. But reality and his ideology were in deep conflict.

Where do we find the gaps and conflicts between reality and ideology today? There are numerous examples I could give, but you are likely already thinking of one. There are gaps everywhere based on class, gender, race, sexual orientation, you name it. What do you see? What do you struggle with? 

Can you, like Mary, prepare for reality in a way that honors God and God’s power? She poured out love and grief. She wept. She lamented. She put her whole heart on display and was deeply vulnerable. She did what she needed to do, what her heart cried out for her to do. Do we have it within us to lament? To stare at the brokenness and instead of turning away, allow ourselves to feel it? Can we do that without getting defensive? Because there is so much that is broken.

It’s only after we’ve sat with it, after we’ve lamented and grieved, pouring out the perfume, that we can turn to resurrection power. The power of resurrection has always been there, like Lazarus sitting at the table, but unless we mind the gaps, we can run into the mistake of trying to make everything okay before we even share the reality of the situation. We can live in fantasy worlds where we pretend we can control the outcomes and don’t see where a different agenda is being played out. Once we’ve seen reality, we can also see resurrection. The truth of the moment needs to be told before redemption can truly take hold. 

Once we’ve lamented the reality, God gives us the ability to live in the world in ways that embody the ideals and values of God’s kingdom, of true justice and peace. We might not be able to fix everything, but we can show within ourselves and our communities what God’s way looks like. If we can embody it, there’s a chance the world can embrace it. Jesus died, but Jesus also lives today. Not just in ideology but in reality. His spirit still shows us the way. But in order to see fully what Jesus would have us to do, we have to attend to the reality of harm and destruction in this world. 

This is hard work. It’s challenging because we continually have to assess the gap between our ideology and reality. We continually have to mind it, to evaluate it, to recognize what we can do as individuals and what can only be done on a community-wide, national, or global level. We have to grieve the losses that come our way, sometimes more abundantly than our wins. But we do it all because we believe that resurrection is possible, even in the hardest of times. We continually work toward the day where there is no gap. 

May we be brave enough to be like Mary. May we open our hearts and lives in ways that fill our communities with the fragrant scent of truth telling. May we be brave enough to see things as they are, turning them over to God in lament, and asking how we might live into God’s way. May we do this all in Mary’s name. Amen.