Burton Cooper, March 13, 2016
Phil 3; John 12:1-8
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,
Anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair...
But Judas Iscariot said, “Why was this perfume
Not sold for three hundred denarii
And the money given to the poor?”
... Jesus said, “Leave her alone...
You always have the poor with you, But you do not always have me.”
So, was Judas right? Would it not have been truer to the spirit of Christ to sell the pound of perfume for three hundred denarii --- a lot of money in those days --- and distribute the money to the poor? Yet Jesus puts Judas down, telling him, “Leave her alone.” And what are we to make of how Jesus’ justifies Mary’s, perhaps impetuous, act: “You always have the poor with you,” Jesus says, “but you do not always have me.” Not exactly a response in keeping with Jesus’ spirit of humility. A little uncharacteristic. So some strange things are going on in this gospel episode, but stranger still is how these voices from the past find there echo in our own time, only more so.
Consider Mary. We know her from the Mary and Martha story in the gospel of Luke. The two are sisters, Lazarus is their brother. All are followers of Jesus. In the Lucan story, Mary, along with the other disciples, is sitting at the feet of Jesus, and Martha is complaining that she is left alone to serve the meal while Mary just sits there. Jesus says more or less the same thing to Martha that he says to Judas in today’s story: that Martha should leave Mary alone; that Mary’s doing the right thing. That’s a little harsh to Martha; I’m sure we all wish --- well, at least some of us might wish --- that the story ended with Jesus saying to Martha: “Martha, let Mary do what’s right for her. I’ll help you with the serving, and I’ll even do the dishes after the meal.” Well, Jesus did not respond in that nice, understanding, conciliatory way to Martha, no more than he responded in a nice, understanding, conciliatory way to Judas in today’s gospel story, where he’s a little short with Judas, though that shortness allows the gospel writer to speculate on why Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities. All that be as it may, what we need to ask ourselves is what Mary thinks she is doing when she pours an expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet. Consider, first, Mary’s position, her social context. The gospel makes that eminently clear. Mary, Martha and Lazarus share the same home, but the gospel tells us that Jesus has come to the home of Lazarus. Further, we are told that Martha serves the meal, and that Lazarus sits at the table with Jesus. Nothing odd sounding about any of this, in fact it sounds quite familiar, but particularly this past week, in which International Women’s Day fell, this story reminds us that Jesus’ life, his mission, took place in a Patriarchally organized society. In that patriarchal social setting, Mary, who is neither sitting at the table nor helping to serve, pours a costly ointment on Jesus’ feet and wipes it with her hair. What was she thinking?
Well, before we delve into Mary’s consciousness, a word of caution. It’s always a risky matter to think we know the inner thoughts that lie behind another person’s actions. I’m sure we all know this. Sometimes we’re not even sure of our own inner thoughts.
“What was I thinking to have done that?” How many times have I said that to myself. Still, I take up my courage with regard to Mary’s inner thoughts partly because we only have Mary in a literary mode, but also because there’s an incident in a novel by the Czech writer MIlan Kundera that startled me when I read it and that throws light on Mary. The novel is “Immortality,” and the incident takes place in a high end Paris health club, specifically the sauna. The heroine, Agnes, is sitting quietly in the sauna when a young woman comes in and immediately begins ordering everyone about, making them sit closer, dominating the conversation, passionately proclaiming that she loves hot saunas, can’t bear modesty, adores pride, hates hot showers, loves cold showers, and so on. When the woman leaves, Agnes asks herself, why all this passion, a question we might well ask of Mary, and Agnes’ answer goes at least some way towards helping us understand Mary, and ourselves for that matter. We are thrust into the world, Agnes thinks, without the sense that our face, our body, the way we are seen by others, expresses our character, our soul; without the sense that the way we appear to others expresses our irreplaceable essence, our uniqueness; and that our need to express our self to others, to have others see us as we see ourselves in all our individuality, with all our hopes and intentions, (that need) is so strong, that we will express ourselves passionately, outrageously if necessary, even to the point of life and death. Do we not have Mary here? Does not Mary know that others see her differently from how she sees herself. Even her own sister, Martha, sees Mary through the generalizing lens of Patriarchy, as a prototypical woman whose role is to serve the men, do the dishes, clean the house, not as a disciple sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him, taking in his spirit. But Mary sees herself as a disciple, for what is a disciple, I mean the Greek word disciple, except a learner, a pupil, and Mary certainly sees herself, feels herself, as that. Though obviously not in the eyes of the first century church who, when it came to the writing of the gospels, saw only men as disciples. But perhaps in Jesus’ eyes she was a disciple, perhaps that’s why he tells Martha in the Lucan story that Mary has chosen the greater portion, and why he tells Judas in today’s Johannine story to leave Mary alone. And also perhaps the reason for Mary’s passionate, outrageous act of pouring three hundred denarii worth of ointment on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair is to express her soul’s intense longing to be seen as she is, as a devoted disciple to Jesus who hangs onto his every word so that she can get discipleship right. And do we need to remind ourselves that it’s only in the last few decades, after almost two thousand years of church life, that, finally, some churches, and it is only some, to our great shame, (that some churches) have come to understand that not only men but women, too, come to see themselves as pastors, as priests; that women, too, find themselves called by God to the ordained ministry, and that this calling is the very expression of their soul, who they are, how they want to be seen, how they yearn to be. And now we come to Judas. The church remembers him darkly, as a traitor. But we must also remember that he, too, was a disciple, a follower of Jesus, and his outrage in this morning’s gospel lesson --- that three hundred denarii worth of ointment was poured out on Jesus’ feet instead of doing some social good by distributing the money to the poor --- does not Judas’ outrage, his display of passion, reflect a person who has taken
in the spirit of Christ, who is trying to live, to express that spirit in his life, for what is more in keeping with the spirit of Christ than concern for the poor, for the underprivileged. When Jesus says to Judas, “Leave her alone,” we need not take that as meaning that Jesus’ concern for the poor is now shown to be weak or hypocritical, though Judas, understandably, might take it that way. What Judas doesn’t see, because it seems so counter-intuitive, is that values, even Christian values, can conflict with each other. We have a current example of that in today’s immigration debates where we find ourselves caught between justice and compassion; justice calling us to enforce our laws against illegal immigrants; compassion calling us to admit people fleeing from violence and poverty. When we choose compassion we are not denying the justice, the value, of enforcing immigration laws; and when we choose to enforce immigration laws we are not denying the value of compassion --- no more than when the German pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer, a proclaimed pacifist, involved himself in the plot to assassinate Hitler, was denying the high value of non-violence in the Christian life. We have to choose, sometimes, against one of our own values, in order to uphold another value. That’s always agonizing, and I’m sure we’ve all had such agonizing moments in our life; and it was just such an agonizing moment in Jesus’ life when he says to Judas, “Leave her alone.” In saying that, Jesus is not denying his concern for the poor; he is showing the great weight he gives to Mary’s passionate need to express who she is, a disciple of Christ.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, this conflict of values is one of the reasons, not the only one, why our moral life, our life in Christ, let alone the larger history in which we live, can sometimes feel so ambiguous, so divisive, so unresolved. History just goes on and on, new evils cropping up, unanticipated negative consequences flowing even from the best of our actions. God’s kingdom on earth seems to be a never ending embattled kingdom. All the more reason, what’s most important for us believers, to keep ourselves open to the spirit of Christ, a spirit which remains loyal to humanity despite its brokenness, a spirit which remains hopeful for a humanity yet to be, a spirit that refuses to give up faith in reconciliation despite the conflicts, prejudices and violence that divide us. I know only too well how difficult that can be; how partial is our fulfillment of it. Yet, let us never forget that the God who gives us our being, the God whose spirit Christ incarnates, that God waits and bears with us, not only with patience but with compassion.
Praise God for this great mercy. Praise Christ.