When Jesus was in the Galilee, he lived in
, in or near the home of Peter’s mother-in-law. It appears that when he was in Capernaum Jerusalem, he spent a lot of time in , at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, or perhaps at the home of Simon the leper. Bethany
The anointing of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson is recorded in all four gospels, with some variations. In Matthew and Mark the anointing was done by a nameless woman at Simon the leper’s house. In Luke, the anointing occurred in the home of a Galilean Pharisee, and the woman was a sinner who came in off the street. In John, as we have just read, the anointing was done by Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, in Lazarus’ home.
In John, chapter 11, immediately prior to this reading, Martha and Mary’s brother dies, and is raised from the dead after four days, when his body has had time to begin to rot and stink. Both sisters berate Jesus for not coming soon enough to prevent Lazarus from dying, but continue to have faith in Jesus. It could be that this meal is a party to celebrate Lazarus’ return to life.
There is another biblical reference to these sisters. In Luke, Jesus visits Mary and Martha. Martha is busy cooking and serving the meal, and Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus praises Mary, and suggests that Martha should come and join them. Clearly, this family has a close relationship with Jesus.
Remembering this, I got to wondering what might have been going on in Mary’s mind. Was she so grateful to have her beloved brother back that his life was worth the jar of expensive ointment she opened and spread on Jesus’ feet? Did she believe what he had been saying, that he would die and come back to life as Lazarus had done?
For Mary to have sat in Jesus’ presence, amid the male disciples and any other men gathered around would have been counter-cultural. Women should know and keep their place, and that definitely was NOT as a disciple sitting in the same room with men as an equal. But Jesus encouraged this behavior, treating women as valuable persons in their own right, not objects to be owned by men.
For Mary to have removed her head covering and sat at Jesus’ feet was also counter-cultural. The tradition of women appearing in public with their head covered is ancient, yet contemporary in some parts of the world. In Muslim culture, women still cover their heads in public, in the belief that they should only show their hair to the men in their immediate family. In fact, most Muslim women cover their bodies, exposing only face, hands and feet, because Muslims believe in modesty. Showing too much skin is not modest! By the way, this is true also of Palestinian Christian women.
So, in Jesus’ time, for Mary to have removed her head covering would have been shameful behavior. For her to sit at Jesus’ feet and touch him was even more shameful. These actions were only done by disreputable women. And yet, Jesus recognized this behavior as a gift to him, in preparation for his death and burial. Mary gave up her honor in order to give Jesus this gift. What love must have filled her heart as she touched his feet!
… Not all at the table let her gift be simply given. Judas was concerned with the extravagance of this gift. To be fair to Judas, figured at minimum wage, the price of the perfume would have been $17,400 today. That would sure feed a lot of hungry people.
If someone gave Hope a gift of $17,000, what could we do with it? The usual practice would be to analyze it, using a cost-benefit approach. How much good could we buy with that much money? A new kitchen in the hall? VBS and Sunday school materials? A new copier or phone system? Increased advertising? Extra staff time? Send the money to Dade, to the Worker’s Self-help program? To the synod or the ELCA? To World Hunger Appeal? To
Haiti or ? It’s easy to find ways to spend extra cash. We’re really not so different from Judas after all! Chile
In reality, if our heart is filled with as much love and trust as Mary’s was, we could afford to do anything we set our mind to, even without the gift of extra cash. God can work wonders with very small amounts. This past Wednesday, we read the Old Testament text of Elisha taking care of a widow. One small jar of oil became an overabundance that she could sell to pay her debts and take good care of her children. And we read the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish to feed five thousand men and their families.
God has already given us all we need to do ministry here, if we put our hearts into it. Can you imagine what we might be able to do if we loved Jesus the way Mary of Bethany did? How extravagantly can we give? How extravagantly can we love?
Your challenge for this week is to consider anointing someone’s feet. If Jesus were sitting with you at the dinner table, what would you be willing to spend to anoint his feet? Would you dip into your savings? Cash in a CD or IRA? Would you reprioritize your spending habits to give as much to Jesus as you could, to show how much you love him?
Could you see Jesus in the face of a homeless person and anoint that person’s feet? Would you anoint the feet of someone with whom you have a serious disagreement?
In the chapter after this one, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, showing how much he loved them, and how much he wanted them to pass on such servant love. Are you willing to pass on the favor?
Please pray with me: Dear Jesus, how much we wish you were here with us in person, as you were with the disciples and Mary that evening. Yet, perhaps we would not want to hear what you have to say to us any more than Judas did. We need your forgiveness. Help us to be as generous as Mary was, and as generous as you were, offering your whole life for us. Amen