Sermon Text: John 12: 1-8
I often joke that I must have been especially hard to train for ministry because I had to go to seminary twice. The first time, I was right out of college and at the ripe old age of 21, had a difficult time imagining myself as the pastor of a church. Part of it was my age, but part of it was also my gender. Even though I was born after many of you took to the streets and the courts and the boardrooms in the 60s and 70s to give your daughters and granddaughters choices you never had, the church has always been a little slow to change, and when I went to seminary as a 21-year-old, I saw a woman preach for the first time in my life. Fast forward five years and when I went to seminary the second time around I had been a part of two congregations that were served by female clergy.
There was something about seeing women up front, leading worship week-after-week that helped me believe I could do it. There was something about seeing someone who looked like me in the pulpit that led me to imagine myself in the role.
Some would say it is a gift to have diversity in leadership. I would say it is absolutely essential.
Diversity is something our Holy Scriptures provide abundantly. Story after story in our gospels are of Jesus interacting with almost every type of person imaginable….rich men and poor men; women who were propertied professionals and women who were unnamed; his closest friends and his toughest critics; young children and people in the prime of their lives; religious officials and those who never graced the Temple door. For a man who was in ministry such a short period of time, this Jesus certainly encountered the multitudes.
And this is to say nothing of the diversity of our Gospels themselves. Each Gospel has its own flavor. Many of the basic facts are similar, but Jesus comes off differently in Mark than he does in John, certainly. And there are stories that only exist in one gospel or that are obviously changed from one to another.
Today’s passage from John 12 is one of those rare gems that exists in all four gospels. Over the years, attempts to harmonize the difference in the four versions has led to mass confusion about one of the characters – more on that later. John’s version is what we have today and the scene takes place at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany, just six days before the Passover feast. I am about to get pretty in-depth on the passage, so if you are a visual learner, I encourage you to get out a Bible and follow along.
We are at the very end of Jesus’s life, folks, and his nearest and dearest are starting to feel the pressure mounting. Jesus has just performed his greatest sign yet in John’s gospel – the resurrection of Lazarus. Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, had been dead and buried for four days and Jesus brought him back to life. Jesus’s power and authority are growing and he is a wanted man.
It is in this time of desperation and darkness that our story takes place. People in the big city of Jerusalem were speculating on whether or not they would see Jesus at the Passover Festival. Some said he wouldn’t dare to come because if he showed, he would certainly be arrested. But Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, come what may, and he spends the evening at his friends’ home in Bethany, just a mile outside of the city.
I don’t know about you, but there’s something I just need to deal with up front. Jesus says something pretty shocking in this passage, “The poor you will have with you, but you won’t always have me.” One of my favorite commentators, D. Mark Davis, translated this passage this week and in his notes said, “Anyone who quotes this verse to dissuade against giving to the poor should be slapped. There, I said it.”[i]
I’m not one to advocate for slapping people, but I do agree with Davis that it would be a gross misrepresentation of everything that is happening here to ever use this text to discourage anyone who is fighting poverty. For starters, Jesus is almost directly quoting a well-known passage from Deuteronomy 15, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” This commandment comes at the end of a long passage that is all about sharing with those who are in need – both in individualized ways and in larger, systemic ways such as the Jubilee.
So when Jesus says, “Remember…the poor you will always have with you…” it’s like there’s a little dot-dot-dot after it. And everyone there would have known he really meant, “You will always have the poor with you, dot-dot-dot AND you should always help them.” Kind of like when I say to someone, “A bird in the hand…” and they all know I mean, “A bird in the hand…” (is like two in the bush)
Also, there is one other problem with trying to use this little quip to justify selfishness. There is only one person in this story being selfish and he has a name. It’s Judas. This is Judas’s first real scene in the Gospel of John and the author wants to make sure we know what he’s up to. We get two little parenthetical references about his behavior. First, Judas is introduced as one of Jesus’s disciples – parentheses (“the one who was about to betray him”). Next we hear Judas’s impassioned speech about how the money would have been better used on the poor – parentheses (“He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it”). Methinks St. Francis and his namesake Pope Francis would not approve. Jesus certainly didn’t.
So we know that Judas was not being real when he brought up this point about the expense of the ointment Mary was using. He had an ulterior motive. And I am inclined to agree with UCC pastor Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey when she says, “Perhaps the only thing worse than not caring about the poor is pretending to care about them.”[ii] And Davis notices something very interesting in this passage about the dichotomy between “extravagant worship and acts of charity”:[iii] Judas is the one who sets up that contrast. Judas is the one who tries to divert attention from what is really happening in this sweet scene by creating a false dichotomy between loving worship and caring for the poor. There is really no reason to assume the two are in competition at all.
What motivates Judas here? Is he truly just angling for the money? I don’t know that he is. I mean, the ointment is already used up. It’s not going to get sold now. He’s not going to pocket any money at this point. I think, instead, his mouth is trying to process his discomfort at what is happening in front of him. Judas is witnessing something that makes him queasy: this woman, this wealthy, powerful, property-owning woman, is sitting at a table with men (her brother and her teacher), and she is doing some really outrageous things – all because of her love for this man Judas is about to turn in as a criminal. This makes Judas uncomfortable, perhaps even enraged, and he jumps up to try and argue against it with the first thing that comes to mind.
Mary’s act of anointing is outrageous, but perhaps not for the reasons that might immediately spring to your mind. Mary is the one who has suffered at the hands of those who have attempted to harmonize the four versions of this story in our gospels. In two versions, she is unnamed. In John, she is Mary of Bethany. In Luke, she is “a sinner.” Over the years, in an attempt to make these into one coherent story, Mary of Bethany somehow got conflated with Mary Magdalene, who was turned into “a sinner” and, for some reason – maybe just because we have always loved a good sex scandal? – a prostitute. So we get art like Rubens’ painting of the anointing where Mary does have her hair down, but what is more noticeable is that her dress is mostly falling off, too.[iv] Hmm.
But John, who certainly knew who Mary Magdalene was, is clear that this is Mary of Bethany: a woman of means who lived with her brother and sister in a home that is referred to as belonging to the three of them. Mary has acquired some precious oil that costs what would have been a day-laborer’s annual salary. Jesus tells us that she has purchased it for the day of his burial, which is presumably beginning now.
Mary takes this container of ridiculously expensive oil and begins to anoint her teacher with it. She takes her hair down, which is something women at the time only did when alone with their husbands or when they were in mourning. Since there is nothing to lead us to believe that Mary of Bethany was in a sexual relationship with Jesus, I tend to believe she did this to show that she was entering a period of mourning for her friend and teacher.
Anointing is something that was done for status elevation – such as anointing a king’s head with oil upon their coronation. And it was also done during a time of status transformation – such as anointing the body after death. Mary of Bethany does not anoint Jesus’s head as the nameless women do in the other gospels. Instead, she anoints his feet. This comes as no surprise because Mary of Bethany is a woman who spent a lot of time at Jesus’s feet. The feet were considered to be the instruments of action in the Jewish body. Feet symbolized activity and Mary is preparing his feet for the road ahead. [v]
Mary often gets remembered as “the quiet one,” but boy howdy did this woman have a lot to say with her actions. She is the one who falls at Jesus’s feet weeping when he comes to see her brother after he has been dead for many days. Perhaps she is compelling him to action by falling at his feet? If so, it works. He is moved to compassion and action by her presence. And here, once again, she calls us to look ahead with Jesus to the activities that await him in Jerusalem. She prepares his body for its elevation and transformation. And Jesus pays attention. At the “last supper” in John there is no “Holy Communion.” Instead, there is a foot washing as Jesus echoes Mary’s actions and urges his disciples to wash each others’ feet – caring for each other in the midst of all the action which lies ahead.
Judas, God bless him, is right about one thing: Mary’s act is outrageous. It is over-the-top, uncomfortably-intimate, unbearably-depressing, and brutally honest. Mary, more than any of the others, is the one who gets it. She understands that they are following a criminal. She understands that Jesus, in raising her brother, has essentially traded his life for Lazarus’s.[vi] She understands that the day of his burial has arrived. She is being a disciple in the best way she knows how. She is answering that unasked question, “Who do you say that I am?” She is tying herself to her teacher and friend for all eternity as she tries her best to care for him in his hour of need. She is a disciple.
And here’s the thing: I think that one of God’s many gracious gifts to us is the invitation to be disciples in our own way. We are not all called to let down our hair, pour out a year’s wages on Jesus’s feet, and call it like we see it. But some of us are. We are not all called to sit quietly at the table with Jesus and ponder the reality that he has saved us from death just as surely as Lazarus was called forth from that tomb. But some of us are. We are not all called to busy ourselves in the kitchen, preparing the meal for our teacher, anxiously setting it before him, hoping it will feed his body and soul in some substantial way. But some of us are.
Being a disciple is a lot like being a good parent. There are probably a couple of ways to do it wrong (Judas, anyone?). But there are about a million and one ways to do it right. The gift of diversity in our scriptures means that we are invited to insert ourselves into all of these stories – try them on – see what works and take it with us for inspiration – leave behind the things that don’t resonate with us.
We are moving ever closer to Holy Week, when we will be asked to walk alongside Jesus and his disciples – the good, the bad, and the ugly – into a world of terror, confusion, cruelty, and – ultimately – new life. We are to use this time of Lenten preparation to find our own voices as disciples. What does it mean to be a follower of Christ? It doesn’t mean the same thing for me as it does for you, or you, or you. We are all differing disciples, struggling mightily to figure out how to best follow the one we call Christ. And that’s a beautiful thing.
[v] Information about anointing and feet from The Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John by Malina and Rohrbach. One of my favorite resources.
[vi] A thank you to colleague Rev. Alexis Fuller-Wright for sharing this observation with me this week.