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Tissot Mary MagdaleneFifth Sunday in Lent
March 25, 2007; New Oaks Church, Washington, IA
Isaiah 43:16-21 Psalm 126 Philippians 3:4b-14 John 12:1-8

We sang:
Here I Am To Worship
Lamb of Glory
When I Survey
You Are My All In All

Pastor Sharon Armstrong prayed, Evie Richardson greeted, and I preached something like this:

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.

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.

“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.” [from John 12, New International Version (NIV), Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society]

What’s going on here?

[Note that there are several similar anointings mentioned in the gospels. The artworks included here, one by Tissot and one unknown to me, probably reference Mary Magdalene, rather than the story as John tells it. But I include them here to give a couple of guesses at what dinner seating—so different from our own—and thus Mary’s act of care, might have looked like.]

You may remember first entering the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus back in Luke 10. A crowd of people had dropped by to listen to Jesus. Martha was struggling to serve them all. Mary was ignoring the work and listening to Jesus, for which she receives Martha’s irritation and Jesus’ commendation. We often use the story to teach something along the lines of “it’s good not to get too busy, but to take time to listen to God.” But the story (as Lawrence at the wonderful Disclosing New Worlds once pointed out) is quite a bit more controversial than that.

Remember, this culture was pretty segregated by gender. It would be common for the men to listen to a traveling rabbi; but women did not receive education of this type, and certainly would not be invited to mingle with male guests. Could be Martha’s embarrassed: her sister Mary, rather than sticking to the “women’s work,” has deposited herself in the midst of the men, learning what only men “are supposed” to learn. That’s what Jesus commends. Mary’s so attracted to what Jesus has to say that she risks breaking a gender barrier to hear him. He says, when Martha tells him to tell her to quit, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

You see them again at the famous story of Jesus’ raising of their brother Lazarus from the dead. This one’s in John c. 11, a chapter before today’s story in John 12. But look how 11 begins:

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.

feet MagdaleneSee anything strange about that? John reminds you of what she hasn’t done yet (at least in his telling of it). Apparently, the foot-anointing was big enough in his mind that it becomes part of his way of identifying which Mary we’re talking about.

Back to the Lazarus story: Jesus delays, Lazarus dies, Jesus shows up and takes the blame. He responds by talking to them obliquely, strangely, about resurrection. About Messiah and resurrection (interestingly enough, Messiah or Christ mean “anointed,” neither being surname-like, the way we use Christ today). They all weep together. And then, he demonstrates the impossible: his control over resurrection. Lazarus is alive again.

By the way, where is Jesus headed through these stories? These are mostly the stories that happen on the way to Jerusalem, where he will face his own death. Might he be setting them up to understand it?

Now it’s dinner, six days before Jesus’ death. Remember the dinner scenario in this segregated society: Who’s eating? Men. Who’s serving?
Women. And in the midst of it, here comes Mary.

Think of a society you know of where there is a lot of segregation between men and women. What kind of touching happens in public?

And her hair- just as many Muslim women show modesty by covering their hair, Jewish women of this day would have had their hair covered up or at least wound up – and would likely never take it down in public.

But Mary breaks open a sealed bottle of perfume. It likely is the most expensive thing she owns. She pours it on Jesus’ feet, takes her hair down—and in what must have been an unheard-of public act of intimacy—wipes off his feet with her hair.

How are they going to respond to this? They might blush. Perhaps Martha and Lazarus are thinking, “Oh, no, Mary’s at it again.” Or perhaps not, given what Jesus had done for them. Maybe they cheered her on, this time.

But one fellow finds it outrageous: Judas Iscariot, who seizes the moment to demonstrate indignation at such unrespectable behavior (masking the fact that he had missed a chance to make a buck off of it by appearing to be concerned for the poor). [Ah, way to go, Judas. Looking good. Religions will need voices like yours in the centuries ahead to keep them respectable. Else they might turn into something costly. Tolerant. Kind. Maybe even useful. Nah, surely not!]

And how does Jesus respond? “Leave her alone. [It’s]…for my burial.”

What was the Lazarus story about? Death. Resurrection. Have a guess as to why this incident might have been mentioned at the beginning of the Lazarus story?

Perhaps Mary is the only one present other than Jesus who understands that he is about to die. He’s been telling them all along, but they mostly haven’t heard it. Mary, in sorrow and in love, may understand something that no one dares consider, and acts with courage to express it.

Every once in a while, we catch a little flash of how much love God is pouring out on us. Even more seldom, we catch a glimpse of how much his love for us cost him.

And when Mary did, she had love to express, and she couldn’t let the limits of acceptable behavior stand in her way.

In the Mary and Martha story, she wanted to get close to Jesus and no one was going to stop her. And now, she wanted some way to show Jesus that she was getting it, just a little bit, and she was so grateful, and so sorry, and so full of love for him, that she just couldn’t let the rules of what nice people do get in her way.

“Love extravagantly” – Paul would later say. Mary showed her love extravagantly. Little else mattered.

Suppose we take Mary as a model. What might God be saying to us? Perhaps it could be something like, “When you get it, act on it.”

Most moments of my days are pretty ordinary. But every once in a while something happens in my heart, and I find myself wanting to love. Mary showed her love to Jesus directly, but Scripture encourages us, now that he’s not physically available, to show our love to God by loving others.

So here’s a take-away: This week, when that something happens in your heart that gives you a moment’s tenderness, or an idea for loving, act on it. Follow Mary’s example. Never mind how orthodox or conventional or practical it may be. Go for it. I find myself having these wonderful thoughts of loving, only to discover, a few hours later, that they’ve grown cold standing in the winds of busy-ness. Nothing comes of them.

Perhaps God is trying to teach me how to love. Perhaps, when I sense those moments, I should act quickly, before the impulse fades.

And perhaps I could become a person who loves more intensely as I grow accustomed to using the love that comes my way.


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Written by Monte

April 6, 2007 at 8:57 am

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