Throughout these 40 days of Lent, I’ve been asking this question:
What does it mean for me be truly myself?
And I encourage you to do the same.
While we ask that question of ourselves, we are journeying with the story in the Gospels, following Jesus’ own journey of self-discovery. Most of this Lent, we’ve been reading Luke’s story, but this time we are following the 4th Gospel’s story—John.
Let’s set the stage. Use your imagination. John’s Gospel writers certainly did.
It was six days before Passover. Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead; some were people were amazed and some were mad. The religious leaders of the day were firmly in that mad group. So they were making their plans to kill Jesus as soon as they had the right moment. He was too popular now. Kind of a depressing start, but it gets better.
Jesus and company were in Bethany, just a small town outside of Jerusalem, but surely at its most crowded, because tons of people flocked to Jerusalem for Passover. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus make a cameo appearance. These three characters only appear in John’s Gospel, except for a short story about them in Luke’s Gospel. Who the heck were they, then? It’s a mystery. For real.
This story appears in all four Gospels, but each one has different characters. Mark has Jesus in Simon the leper’s house and he is anointed by an unnamed woman. Matthew’s version is pretty much a copy of Mark’s. Luke, on the other hand, changes it up. In Luke’s version of this story, Jesus eats dinner at the home of a Pharisee called Simon, and an unnamed woman called a “sinner” cries at Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair before anointing his feet with ointment. It’s yet another example of how the four canonical Gospels can tell the same story in different ways. I think recognizing this is so very helpful for us the readers as we try to glean some meaning from ancient texts. The stories aren’t the same—even the characters change! So this means that we should be reading this as a metaphor for something, but also we should see the different perspectives of each author.
It’s always good to see another person’s perspective.
If we don’t do that, we can come up with some really insane beliefs. For example, there are still way to many people who believe that the woman in the story is in fact Mary Magdalene, and a prostitute. This idea started to gain traction in the 6th century. Popes and other religious leaders assumed that a woman called “sinner” must be a prostitute and that even though the other Gospels do not name the woman, it must be Mary Magdalene.
It’s unfortunate, I think. Female characters of the Bible have enough trouble getting respect as it is. But to assume that the hero character in this story, clearly the woman who anoints Jesus, was a prostitute just seems lazy and irresponsible to me. What if she really was a hero? What if she really was the Christ figure in the story?
So let’s look at what she did. She took a pound of ointment, called pure nard. Another name for it is spikenard.
It is oil derived from a flowering plant of the Valerian family and grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, India and China. So not only is it good for anointing, but it might even help you sleep! The important point being that it’s imported oil, probably from India. It’s expensive. This type of oil was considered a healing and palliative ointment. And it smelled reeeeeeeel good. Which would have been important, considering that there is some previously-dead due named Lazarus in the room, reading something and not opening his mouth, apparently. Spooky, isn’t it? Just earlier in the story, Lazarus was completely stinking of death. Then he emerged from the tomb, alive. And now, Jesus is in Lazarus’ house and everything smells fantastic. Gotta love the details.
Anyway, lovely-smelling, expensive oil aside, Mary does something scandalous next. She uses her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet with the oil. Uh…..
Yeah, THAT wasn’t good. Consider this—women covered their heads in this time and culture. Jewish women wore [and some still wear] a tzniut that looks remarkably similar to the Muslim hijab. Hair was intimate. So if a woman like Mary uncovered her head and then touched a man’s feet [also intimate], well, you might as well make this an R-rated feature. Cue Judas Iscariot’s entrance.
We all know Judas, the oft-misunderstood, so-called “bad guy” of the Bible. Here he gets to be the Debbie Downer in the room. Everything smelled so nice, Lazarus wasn’t dead anymore, Martha was doing her OCD stuff around the house, and Mary was anointing Jesus’ feet with oil. What could be bad about that? Well, Judas found something.
Why didn’t Mary sell the oil for money and then give it to the poor? What wastefulness!
You wonder if Martha was in the background shaking her head yes in agreement. After all, Mary was a rambunctious character who tended to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen when there was work to be done.
But John’s authors tell us that Judas didn’t really care about the poor. He kept the bag which was actually a box which eventually was called a coffer or money box [Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary]. It seems to me that here John’s Gospel wants to make sure we don’t side with Judas. After all, he does seem to make a good point here. But the Gospel quickly tells us that Judas is still the bad guy. I can sort of understand, because Judas Iscariot was really close to Jesus. He was in the inner circle of disciples and was trusted with the money, too. Regardless, Jesus stands with Mary and not with Judas, telling Judas to release her, which in the original Greek really means let her go or forgive her. It’s the same thing that the gardener said to the landowner about the fruitless fig tree. Forgive it.
Why forgive it? Because Mary did something not only scandalous, but extravagant. She could have anointed Jesus on his head like normal people did for kings and prophets. But no, she chose his feet and her hair. This was no king. This was no religious elite. Not according to Mary.
This was someone she truly loved.
Her act sets in motion something that will happen in the future. Eventually, when Jesus’ life is in real danger, and he’s in Jerusalem with his friends, they wash each other’s feet. So Mary, not considered by many to be a “disciple” of Jesus, not in the inner circle, preempts the foot washing before it was a command.
But the story isn’t over. Jesus ends it by saying: “You always have the poor with you.”
Jesus, was just happened?
Okay, before we jump to the conclusions of prosperity gospel people, Jesus was not giving people an excuse to ignore poor people. It’s quite the contrary. The so-called poor people who were often destitute beggars, were an assumed part of the Jesus community. They weren’t outsiders, they weren’t those poor people. They were part of Jesus’ circle. And I think that this wonderfully frames the message of Mary’s loving and extravagant act. Mary acted out of love and not charity. So should Jesus’ disciples act. They should care for all people [including those who were poor], but not out of charity—out love.
I wonder sometimes how much we do things to or for others, simply out of some obligation or perceived duty to be charitable.
And don’t just mean when you give a couple dollars to someone on the street or sponsor a child in Africa, though that happens, of course. I mean how often do we act out of love in our relationships, and not out of charity? Think about that for a moment.
How much of our relationships are built on obligation, duty, and charity?
And how much of our relationships are built on love?
It’s scandalous and extravagant to think about.
Because if we act out of love and not out of charity, we won’t be afraid to let our hair down, crack open the expensive jar of oil, and touch someone’ s bare feet. We won’t worry about what other people will think or how we’ll look or if we broke somebody’s rules. We will just act. Out of love.
Whenever I think back to those few moments in my life when someone truly acted out of love and showed me that love, I am overwhelmed with a peacefulness and gratitude. Those acts of love changed my life, healed me, and shaped me.
So what would it mean for you be a person who acts out of love?
What would that look like?
How would it change your relationships? Your workplace environment? Your school?