Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/7MoRtwkWoTk.
Lent 5 13th March 16
What a fascinating text this is for today- this section of John brings the beginning of the end for Jesus and when you look at the big picture of the narrative you find all kinds of parallels and echoes. John, the evangelist, has written the most highly poeticised account of Jesus life and he often has events in a different order from the three synoptic gospels. This is probably because he more consciously constructs the narrative, moving events and details to suit his theological purpose. This is not to say, however, that the other gospels are not constructed, they are and strangely Mark, who uses the least material and the simplest Greek has the most complex structure of the three synoptics. Luke, whose account we are following this year has the most elegant style and includes complicated theological ideas. John, however, is the least straight-forward because he is always embedding hidden meanings or multi-valencies in his text. This end of life narrative really begins back a little bit with the raising of Lazarus and that pericope and this one have several points in common. I have some complicated ideas about the chiasmic structure of this narrative, which I haven’t quite worked out yet, but that thing that is certain is that the elements in this little chunk have echoes in the rest of the text. That first element in the story- the death and raising to life of Lazarus is directly correlated to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and is alluded to in today’s text- we’ll get to that in a minute.
This section begins by Jesus arriving in Bethany- six days before the Passover, which will of course signal the end of his life. From here he will travel into Jerusalem, and enter riding on a donkey while the people wave palm branches and lay down their cloaks on the road. In Bethany, John tells us that “they” gave a meal for him- this is the parallel of the meal that he will share with his disciples, which we call the Last Supper. We presume that ‘they’ are Lazarus, Martha and Mary but the text is not explicit- however they all feature here. Lazarus, returned to life, eats this meal with Jesus- this will be echoed on the occasion recorded in chapter 20 where the risen Jesus shares a meal with the disciples.
Martha, as is usual, serves them. Martha is the model of sacrificial service that Jesus is going to talk about at the Last Supper, in his long discourse on what he expects his church to be like. Again I am reminded of something from another text, but this time Luke, in the picture of the early church in Acts, where the leaders are chosen to wait on tables- Martha, prefigures them.
And Mary- well what does Mary do? She washes Jesus’ feet. Mary prefigures the act that Jesus takes upon himself to express what we are to be like as his people. We are to be foot washers for others. In this particular case, Mary not only serves Jesus by a most extraordinary act, but provides a model for us in that service.
Last week we read the story of the “prodigal” Father- a man of such generosity that he could give, and then give again in a most unreasonable and socially unacceptable way. We didn’t discuss the cultural aspects of that parable, but Jesus tells the story of a man who flouts custom and allows himself to be ridiculous in his generosity. Here we have a very similar impulse on Mary’s part. She takes pure oil of nard and pours it over Jesus’ feet. Judas tells us that it could have been sold for 300 Denarii- that is almost a year’s wages, so perhaps $40,000 in our currency. Does that sound impossible? Well when you consider the price of some precious oils, even today, that is the kind of money they fetch. It was so large a quantity that it would have anointed the dead of the family, for generations. And what does Mary do- she pours it all out on Jesus’ feet. Then we are told that the smell filled the house- I’ll bet it did- it must have been the most overpowering scent you can imagine. Does that remind you of anything?- Remember when Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb and what does Martha say, “Lord, there is already a stench”. In this scene the stench of death, overpowering and foetid which filled the lives of Mary, Martha and Lazarus only a short time before, is replaced here by the overpowering scent of love. Someone once suggested to me that the reason Mary pours out the whole of the jar of nard is that Jesus’ death does away with death forever.
Then Mary wipes his feet with her hair. Again we have custom turned on its head- this was totally inappropriate behaviour from Mary. Last time her sister was telling her off for sitting at Jesus’ feet- so behaving like a man. This time she is behaving like a prostitute. We know that culturally the only women who got around with their hair loose- were just that- loose women. It is true that we can wear our hair loose now if we wish to, but when you think about Mary’s actions they still would be considered inappropriate today. I had never thought about the sensuality of Mary’s action until one day, in an Ignatian way of thinking I imagined what it would be like for Jesus and for Mary. I realised that, whether or not I liked the thought, it was a very erotic moment. I’m not surprised that Judas was scandalised- Martha had probably totally given up on her sister at this point, and yet Jesus welcomes her attention. I don’t think we should read into this a mandate for sexual immorality but I do think that Jesus has very little regard for the social mores. He accepts her love and devotion for what it is, extravagant and whole of body, not holding back because of what people will think. In a strange way, it’s also humble because Mary doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her in her devotion to Jesus, she is not counting the cost because compared to Jesus she, in her own estimation, doesn’t matter. One of the commentators describes Mary as “unselfconscious” but I think this is a conscious act disregarding the consequences. And it is a parallel act to Jesus’ complete and unconditional giving of himself on the cross. His death isn’t sensible or polite – he holds back nothing and gives with the same ridiculous generosity as the prodigal’s Father and Mary.
Mary’s love here, prefigures all that Jesus is going to teach the disciples in the last great discourse in this gospel-all about love. It is as if John shows us this concrete example in case we don’t quite get it from Jesus’ teaching.
Another thing that I find remarkable about this scene is that Mary seems to know that Jesus is approaching his death. Jesus commends her for that knowledge and of course, it is obvious to us as we read the text, but the disciples never seem to be able to see it coming. Mary has a prescience that others lack- maybe that is why there is no record of Martha scolding her here, for Martha too, knows what is going to happen.
Judas is the last big player here and somehow I always feel sorry for him. John leaves us no room to misunderstand Judas- he tells us that his response is not that of a noble man scandalised by the waste of money, but a thief, who cannot even be trusted to respond properly to this act. There is an interesting little linguistic thing here, which is that the noun used to describe Judas as a thief, kleptes is the same, unusual one, which is used for the thief that enters the sheepfold in John chapter 10. That thief means trouble for the sheep and perhaps Judas means trouble for Jesus’ followers as well. He is certainly the means of Jesus death which leads to them being scattered- but Jesus, in both cases, is the good shepherd who won’t allow his sheep to be troubled for long.
So, this story parallels and explains the passion narrative that we are beginning next week. It helps us to recognise the incredible generosity of Jesus, and asks from us a similar kind of love. We are called, by Jesus himself, to wash the feet of others and Mary has given us an example of what it might look like. She washes feet with extravagance and devotion that counts no cost. She pours out love, which is as precious as the nard that expresses it and fills the whole house with a beautiful scent by her actions. She does all this in her own body, not at a distance. She does it to serve Jesus, but Jesus teaches us that by serving one another we serve him. Mary takes an ordinary action, foot washing was a courtesy always offered to a guest, and elevates that ordinary thing into an action of devotion to God. The challenge for us this week is to be Marys. To give in our acts of service, even the most mundane, the kind of love that Mary expresses here, to those around us. And the scent of that outpoured love will perfume the lives we touch, and be a sacred incense poured out for worship of God.