There are times when the practical and wise choice is not the best one. Frederick taught me that. Like the field mice, we the snippets of beauty that Frederick collected to brighten up the long nights of winter. Now, the daylight will last long into the evening, the mud is already drying out, and our stores of beauty will be overstocked with springtime pleasures. Frederick built up a stock of beauty by daring to do his own thing. The field mice were worried about survival and perplexed by one of their own mulled over words when there was vital work to be done. The pressure was on, but Frederick persisted in following his own voice. It is a good thing too, because months later when the bounty of the harvest had dwindled, Frederick shares what he had gathered and it was exactly what they needed to make it through the cold and dark days. Frederick found his calling. He is a poet and he knows it. His work is not practical and pragmatic, but it helps the mice when they need it the most.
I know we are from a variety of religious backgrounds, so I don’t want to generalize too much, but we have all found our way to this grand old Congregational church. The tradition that has gifted us with this space and this community is tilted towards the practical side. Our worship spaces tend to be simple. We would not want to spend thousands of dollars for an altar carved out of granite. We would be appalled if someone suggested that we should spend a year’s worth of someone’s income for incense to spice up our worship. If we did, someone would surely say, why wasn’t this money given to help the poor? Let’s see, are the Trustees nodding their heads? The Missions committee? I am over-simplifying, but it is safe to say that in Frederick’s story, Congregationalists would be the field mice. We are practical and pragmatic. Our forebears pretty much invented the Protestant work ethic. Thundering Congregationalist preachers taught that we should be hard at work glorifying God in our labors. If we tend to be practical like the field mice, we come by it honestly.
We shouldn’t be surprised that God gives us a completely impractical story to mull over this morning. This is the way it usually works, right? Jesus specializes in upending expectations. So, what are we to make of this story? By any accounting, what Mary does is completely impractical. Washing Jesus’ feet would have been okay. Instead, she brings out this precious ointment. It smells wonderful. Spicy, deep, rich. The fragrance fills the room. She falls at Jesus’ feet and rubs this luxurious ointment into his feet. Her hair is down and she caresses Jesus’ feet with her hair. You can understand why the men in the room were scandalized. They are somewhere between astonished and apoplectic, so they latch onto the cost of the precious ointment. It is outrageously expensive. It costs as much as an average laborer’s yearly wages. This had to be about everything she owned. What she does is not just loving and generous, it is lavish and extravagant. She sees Jesus in her house and she is so moved by what is happening in his life that she gathers up everything she has and offers it to him. She gives her all.
This passage is usually read and preached as a story of loving devotion. Mary lets down her hair, caresses Jesus’ feet with expensive oil, and dries them with her hair. It is a lovely story, but it is too neat and tidy. It reduces a daring woman and a boundary-crossing event to familiar tropes. Mary of Bethany, who was last seen as a quiet contemplative in contrast to her active sister Martha, now has the gall to violate social rules and claim authority that men will not yield. This is not a simple story. On closer look, it is quite complex. Questions like who is involved and what is happening are not easy to answer, because there are different versions of this story in each of the four gospels. That gives us a lot of information to sort through. It also helps us see this event from different angles and to contemplate the messages conveyed in the various tellings. It should not bother us that the story is told in different ways. As you may know, these stories were written about 100 years after Jesus died. We have bibles with red letters for everything that Jesus says, but they are misleading because there was nobody there taking dictation. There were no cell phone video cameras. No gotcha moments uploaded to YouTube. The way they recorded events was through story telling. They told stories to remember their history and figure out their place in the world. Each person telling this story would have reasons to tell it a certain way. It was a performance art. So, the differences between these stories are interesting and informative.
The first story that was written is Mark. In this one we have Jesus at the home of Simon the leper. An unnamed woman comes into the room and pours ointment on his head. So, think about this. Jesus is in a room with his followers – presumably men, from the way they react – and a woman who is not named comes into this room. This alone was a courageous act. This is not something that women did, especially if, as we hear in the other stories, she has her hair down. She comes into the room, and then she takes out the oil and anoints Jesus’ head. Anointing the head with oil was a common way to show hospitality to guests. Women also anointed bodies for burial. Howwever, prophets and kings were also anointed when they were installed in office. So, this could simply be an act of hospitality, or it could be a courageous act that claims some type of authority. Jesus does not see it as the ordinary anointing of a guest. In his response, he associates it with burial. He explains that she is preparing him for the carrying out of his mission. She is the one who understands who he is and what he must do. The men must have been affronted because they do their best to dismiss her. What is she doing? Why is she wasting this expensive ointment? In response Jesus says, “whenever the gospel is told in all of the world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” So, out of all the men in the room, she is the one who will be remembered whenever the gospel is told. She is the true disciple, the one who sees and understands. She understands that Jesus has to die and reveals his purpose to the men who are clueless. Jesus says that her act is a proclamation of the gospel. You can imagine how this was received. The objections of the men in the room are about much more than the cost of the oil. Jesus even says this explicitly in John when he says that Judas didn’t care about the cost of the oil, because he was a thief. They object to a woman stepping out of her prescribed role, daring to proclaim what she knows, and being recognized as the true disciple by Jesus.
Perhaps it is no surprise that in the next version of this story that was written, the one in Luke, this unnamed woman becomes a woman of ill-repute. She enters a room full of Pharisees rather than the disciples. It says: “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” The story is not about the proclamation of the death and life of Jesus, but a story of forgiveness. In this story, Mary is understood to be Mary Magdalene. She is a faithful person whose act of generosity is more pleasing to God than the Pharisees carefully keeping the religious law. I don’t want to discount this story. It is rich and sensual. It is transgressive: an embodied woman, shedding tears, rubbing in fragrant oil, and caressing Jesus’ feet with her hair. It is a passionate and moving story. It helps us understand and internalize what it means to be forgiven. However, it also does away with the messy issue of the authority of this woman. It lacks the line about what she has done being remembered whenever the gospel is told. It is a beautiful story, but it is also a story that is less threatening to the men who were trying to claim authority in early Christian communities.
The gospel of John comes along much later and it is different from the other three. John’s account combines the two traditions: Jesus’ feet are anointed as in Luke, yet the anointing is linked to Jesus’ burial like Mark and Matthew. Finally, the woman has a name. She is Mary and she is the sister of Lazarus and Martha. The story actually begins with the resurrection of Lazarus. Martha is the one who ran out to meet Jesus and pleaded with him to raise Lazarus from the dead. She proclaimed her faith in Jesus and went home to send Mary, and upon hearing her pleas Jesus was deeply moved and called forth Lazarus. It is clear that Jesus has a depth of feeling for this family. He is now in their home for dinner and Lazarus is at the table. Mary comes into the room and anoints Jesus’ feet with plenty of very expensive perfume. As is usually the case in John, there is much symbolism in the way this story is presented. It specifically mentions how the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. This is a nice touch. It draws upon our senses and helps us imagine the richness of the fragrance. It is also an intentional allusion to Mary’s comments about the stench of Lazarus’ body after he had been in the tomb for a few days. So, through her act, the stench of death has been replaced by the sweet fragrance of an extravagant outpouring of love. This is not the only way the story eludes to the death of Jesus. There are many links to the last supper. The word that is used for “dinner” only occurs one other time in John and that is in reference to Jesus’ last dinner with his disciples. Judas is the one who complains about the cost of the ointment, and the focus on him is another link between this story and the last supper. In the end, Judas – the unfaithful disciple – is contrasted with Mary, the faithful one. This story is carefully crafted to show that Mary is the one who recognizes that Jesus’ time is short and responds in love.
Whenever the gospel is told in all the world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. How do we remember her? How can we learn from her? How can we be like her? Perhaps something else that is going on in this story can help us find an answer. It is the way that Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. As you remember in Luke, the woman in need of forgiveness wept on Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. Mary’s wiping of Jesus’ feet with her hair does not make as much sense in John because she has not wept on them. Why is she drying them? This part of the story has been preserved for a reason. The verb used to describe the wiping of Jesus’ feet is the same one used to describe Jesus’ wiping of the disciples’ feet at the last supper. This is the reading for Maundy Thursday. It is the night when we are given the new commandment to love one another. Jesus tells us, “just as I have loved you, you are to love one another.”
Love one another just as Jesus has loved us. Just as Jesus has loved? Is that a reasonable kind of love? No, it is a love like Mary has shown. A love that is given without regard to what is appropriate or acceptable. A love that shows no concern for what might be received in return. A love that does not follow conventions. A love that goes as far out of bounds as Jesus will take us. What would this kind of love look like? Can we imagine it? Can we see it? Can we feel what is God doing in our midst? Where is God opening doors? Where is love breaking through our conventions? In the company of Jesus, the forces that diminish and demean did not win the day. This courageous woman, Mary, was not kept in her place. She saw the pathway to new life, she felt the stirrings of a new way, and she threw off the weight of convention to put her trust in the power of love. She has brought us good news. She has shown us the pathway to new life.
As we impress the good news on our hearts with another Holy week, let us remember what Mary has shown us. May we love radically. May our love be so extravagant that that its fullness radiates from the narrow courses of our lives into tributaries that gather into mighty waters and cover the face of the earth. This is a goal as broad and deep and high as the endless love of God. A love that wakes us, raises us, and sustains us, world without end. Amen.