In what we might call an example of biblical mansplaining, Judas pointed out to Mary how wasteful she was being and how many poor people could have been helped if she would’ve donated the perfume to the cause instead of being so thoughtless, but the guest of honor quickly came to Mary’s defense.
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.”This is the story from John’s Gospel before us this morning and it deserves our thoughtful attention.
When Jesus chastised Judas he drew a connection between Mary’s extravagance and his impending death. He said that she was anointing him for burial. In doing so, Jesus took the opportunity that Mary’s offering gave to him to imbue a situation with meaning that wasn’t readily apparent to the others who were present.
Jesus often acted like this. Sometimes it caused consternation and confusion, but Jesus regularly took a simple action or an everyday observation and added a new and deep level of significance to it.
We recall, for instance, the conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman at a well. She started talking about hard work and needing a drink of water, but he told her about springs of living water.
He said, “The water that I will give will become in [those who drink it] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”She said, “Sir, give me this water!” and recognized him as the Messiah. John also tells us about a moment when Jesus fed a great crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish. When that miracle led another hungry crowd to seek him out, again, he took the conversation in another direction by talking about bread from heaven.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”Like the time when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, these examples show us how Jesus regularly revealed to his followers a deeper understanding than what was most apparent.
Talk of water, bread, and an anointing—Jesus used all these to invite his disciples to discover who he was, what he was doing, and what God was up to in that moment.
But Mary’s encounter with Jesus was unique.
The story we’ve read this morning doesn’t tells us about Jesus turning some ordinary every day meeting into something significant.
No. When Jesus entered Mary’s house that day she was keenly aware that she was in the presence of true greatness and true power.
You see, when Jesus chastised Judas he drew a connection between Mary’s action and his impending death, but I think it’s clear that Mary had the death of another man on her mind—the death of her brother Lazarus who sat at the table that night with the man who raised him up to live again.
Lazarus died several days before Mary anointed Jesus.
He became ill so his sisters Mary and Martha sent for Jesus, but their brother died before Jesus showed up, and the sisters were devastated. They were angry.
Mary and Martha came to Jesus separately with the same charge, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
In John’s telling, Martha somewhat maintained her composure, but Mary was reduced to nothing.
Here’s how the Gospel describes their meeting.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet…When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.From there, Jesus went to Lazarus’ tomb where he wept, too. Then, in the face of death’s stench, he cried, “Lazarus, come out!”
And the formerly dead man obediently walked out of his tomb.
John tells us that some believed in Jesus when they learned about this miracle and some plotted to kill him. But the next time we see Mary, she’ right where we left her. She’s back at his feet, but this time everything has changed.
Hear this again from John’s 12th chapter,
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 him. 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.Notice the remarkable reversals in this story. Lazarus has moved from the tomb to the table, the fragrance of perfume has chased away death’s stink, and Mary’s grief has turned to joy. Mary’s words of indictment have become speechless praise.
Mary’s experience embodies what Walter Brueggemann calls praise as a knowing act. She unflinchingly challenged Jesus and, finding him to be up to the challenge, she worshiped him without reservation because she knew him to be trustworthy. She came to Jesus with her anger and disappointment, which allowed him to lead her the reality of resurrection. By this, she leads us to see that the quality of our praise depends on our willingness to go to Jesus with our questions and heartaches so that we might discover for ourselves that God is faithful.
By terming praise “a knowing act,” I mean that the moment of praise arises out of a long and troubled history, and it is a hard-won verdict…What concludes in praise does not begin in praise. It begins rather in hurt, rage, need, indignation, isolation, and abandonment. [The faithful’s] first speech to God is not a speech of wonder but of deep need. (p. 115)I can’t help but wonder if part of what ails the Church and the practice of Christianity in our time is our failure to welcome the dynamics of praise that Brueggemann describes and Mary demonstrates.
Perhaps the 21st century Church is simply reaping the fruit whose seed was sown among generations of believers who were told never to question God’s wisdom and never to doubt God’s plan.
Can we really blame people for having little interest in a Faith that they’ve been told offers nothing but the opportunity to sit down, shut up, and take what God gives them?
How many people have been made to believe that their questions and challenges to God’s authority render them troublemakers, instead of being encouraged to see those exact same questions and challenges as an opportunity to enter into the space in which they could worship God more perfectly?
What’s that? Life’s heartbreaks have stirred up doubts in your heart?
What’s that? Answers that satisfied you when you were younger just don’t cut it anymore?
You must be weak. You must not have real faith.
God forgive us for letting that be our witness, because that’s not the story God gave us.
No, we have Mary—Grieving Mary, Angry Mary, Frustrated Mary—who reached the hard-won verdict and laid herself, her all, at Jesus’ feet in praise—Grateful Mary, Joyous Mary, Worshipful Mary.
Mary unflinchingly challenged Jesus and, finding him to be up to the challenge, she worshiped him without reservation because she knew him to be trustworthy. She came to Jesus with her anger and disappointment, which allowed him to lead her the reality of resurrection. By this, she leads us to see that the quality of our praise depends on our willingness to go to Jesus with our questions and heartaches so that we might discover for ourselves that God is faithful.
And that is why we call her story, our story, Good News for all people.
Thanks be to God. Amen.