Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 17, 2013
Two Irishmen were sitting in a pub having a beer. Well. It is St. Patrick’s Day, after all. They’re looking out the window at what was a well- known house of ill repute across the street. They saw a Baptist minister walk into the place, and one of them said, “Aye, ’tis a shame to see a man of the cloth goin’ bad.” A little later they saw a Rabbi go in, and the other Irishman said, “Aye, ’tis a shame to see that the good Rabbi a fallin’ a victim to temptation.” Half an hour passed and a priest got out of his car and went into the house, and they both shouted, “Glory be to God…one of the ladies must be dyin’.”
It is interesting how cultural mores inform our disparate perceptions of a single event and how the Irishmen reacted to each scenario. So, that is my opener for what is one of the most provocative stories in the Gospels. She was a simple first-century woman from a negligible village in a country overshadowed by the Roman Empire, yet her memory has endured through two millennia. We know nothing of her birth or background but the descriptions of her encounters with Jesus give us a clear picture of her.
In each of the stories told about her we always find Mary of Bethany in the same place—at the feet of Jesus.
In today’s reading from John, we peer through the window of her home where her household is having a dinner party, and a rather awkward one at that. Lazarus, her brother and who was dead and now raised to life, is at the table. Three days earlier he was in the tomb; now he sits at the dinner table—a wee bit eerie. And they all know just enough to realize that their dear friend, Jesus, is himself on his way to death.
As everyone in the room watches, Mary does something that in their culture was considered seductive and absolutely taboo. She loosens and lets down her hair—which no respectable woman would do in the presence of a male religious leader. She pours sweet-smelling perfume all over his feet, another act that one would never do in public, especially if you were not married to him. Then she touches and caresses his feet and dries them with her hair—all intimate, strange, sensuous, provocative acts that were shocking to the other mostly male guests present.
Judas was quick to note that Mary had gone way overboard. Did she have to carry on so and why didn’t she sell that expensive perfume and give the money to the poor? What was she thinking?
Sometimes we must act in the moment, boldly and fearlessly, or the opportunity may slip through our fingers. Often the choices and decisions we make will confirm where our hearts are—and where our treasure resides.
In washing the feet of Jesus, Mary observed a custom that was a courtesy to guests when they arrived for dinner as a way to refresh them and remove the soil and sand from their feet, but it would not have been done by a member of the household but by a servant. Mary took on the role that Jesus would assume at his last supper and I would imagine that her behavior raised many eyebrows just as when Jesus girded himself in a towel and began to wash his disciples feet.
Even as Mary’s actions take on prophetic overtones that point to the death and burial rites for Jesus, the Gospel today is more than a forecast of the future and more than a collection of allegories and metaphors. It is a story of huge lavishness, of breaking cultural barriers and taking huge risks in order to exercise that extravagance.
Last Sunday’s Gospel told a similar story that teaches the extravagance of God who like the Prodigal Father just loves us—period—not because of what we have done or not done, not because of what we deserve. God just loves us because that is who our God is. The story of the Prodigal Son is a not a story about my faithfulness, but God’s faithfulness.
If we have imagined or have been led to believe that there are limits on God’s love or that we have to earn or win God’s love or that if we stray from God we can lose that love, the parable of the Prodigal Son sets the record straight for us. God’s love is simply a given—a constant, abiding, and unchangeable given.
In a sense, today’s story is the other side of the coin—the response to God’s radical love—in the risk taken by an unmarried woman who breaks a cultural prohibition by touching and washing the feet of an unmarried man and then drying them with her hair. And she is reckless with her use of expensive ointment.
Jesus looks beyond the demands of social convention, recognizes the love and the need behind Mary’s act, and tells Judas to mind his own business. His response is not meant to dismiss the obligation to care for the poor, but to remind them all of his impending death and that he will not always be physically present with them though, sadly, the poor will be—and still are.
Judas can’t cope with a leader who allows this woman to openly display her love for him. Judas probably couldn’t cope with a leader who allowed little children to approach him as equals, or one who mingled and ate with people that Judas looked upon as the scum of the earth. In this brief heated exchange we find a marked contrast between Mary, the true disciple who has acted selflessly and lovingly for Jesus and jealous Judas the counterfeit disciple, a thief and a conspirator.
But Judas’ question does have merit for us. I think it begs us to measure our own discipleship—our own response and level of commitment to the Gospel. When we are challenged to change our priorities in order to be more faithful, who or what discourages us from doing that? Where and how might God be urging us on to imitate Mary’s example of extravagance in the selfless giving of our energy, our gifts and talents, and our personal resources?
In Good Friday People, author Sheila Cassidy asks the question “Why did Mary do it—make a massive declaration of love by pouring a box of expensive oil over his feet and wiping it with her hair?” She notes how the Bible commentaries talk about her doing it for Jesus’ burial but does not think that makes a lot of sense. “I think Mary wanted to say,” Sheila writes, “I love you. I care that you’re lonely and afraid. I wish I could stop it happening but I know it’s got to be. So here is a sign, a sign that I know how you feel, that you are precious to me. My wasting this stuff on you is the only way I know how to make up to you for what you’re going through now.”
Mary poured out that whole bottle of expensive oil with no remorse whatsoever, knowing that it was but a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of God’s love emanating from the person’s whose feet she bathed. In that moment, she smells the fragrance of new life—an aroma of joy that fills the whole house where they are dining that Sunday night.
What is your “expensive oil?” “Your “pound of nard?” Where might God be asking you to take a huge risk and to be extravagant in its use? Sometimes we must act in the moment, boldly and fearlessly, or the opportunity may slip through our fingers. Often the choices and decisions we make will confirm where our hearts are—and where our treasure resides.
Mary of Bethany knew how to love without counting the cost. Hers was a gift of selfless, beneficent grace, a spirit overflowing with generosity. In her memory and to her honor, will we allow ourselves to lead not with our minds, but with our hearts?