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Mary delivers the signal

John 12:1-8

March 22, 2015

Lent 5

The day before he entered Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus stopped to see his old friends Mary, Maratha and Lazarus in the suburb of Bethany. They were people dear to his heart, and they seemed to consider Jesus family. He loved them, John tells us, although he does not tell us why. They seemed to understand who he was and that he was doing good work, and yet none of them were disciples, at least not in the formal sense. They were his friends, the three people in whose presence he could visit and relax and enjoy good food and wine.

Just a short time before Jesus had worked a miracle at their house.
“Jesus, he whom you love is ill,” the sisters had sent a message to him, and he had crossed the Jordan to come to them, knowing full well it was too late. Then, after Jesus had wept in front of his friend’s tomb, he shouted him out of it and restored Lazarus to life.

Now he has returned to them with the chief priests hot on his trail. Chatting with Samaritan women is one thing and healing the blind on the Sabbath is another, but reviving corpses is something else altogether. By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus has made it to the top of the religious right’s most wanted list. His days are numbered, and he knows it. When he arrives at his friends’ house in Bethany with his disciples, they can see it on his face.

So they take Jesus in and they care for him, shutting the world out for this one night at least. They make him supper, all of them chopping up things for the stew while they talk. Martha is in charge, of course. The others do what she tells them to do. Lazarus is still clumsy from his four days in the tomb, handling the paring knife like a tree saw and staring at the potato in his hand as if he had never seen one before. Martha notices this and gives him a wooden spoon instead. His job is to stir when she says stir.

Mary meanwhile has slipped away, gone to find something in her room. Martha is used to this. Mary is the moody one, the one who disappears, sometimes even when she is sitting right there with everyone else. A certain look comes over her face as if she is listening to something no one else can hear. Martha knows there is nothing to be done about it but to work around her, being careful to reel her back when she drifts too far.

Finally, supper is on the table and they all sit down to eat, sharing their hopes and naming their fears. Lazarus sits near his friend, unaware that he himself is the cause of all this concern. A trade has occurred and he does not even know it. Jesus was more or less safe as long as he stayed across the Jordan, beyond the reach of his enemies in Jerusalem, but by returning to Bethany to save his friend, he has signed his own death warrant. Practicing what he preaches, he has traded his life for the life of his friend, unless he can find a way to escape the net that is drawing in around him.

No one notices that Mary has gone again until she comes back, holding a slender clay jar in her hands. Without a word she kneels at Jesus’ feet and breaks the neck of the jar, so that the smell of spikenard fills the room - a sharp scent somewhere between mint and ginseng. As everyone in the room watches her, she does four remarkable things in a row.

First she loosens her hair in a room full of men, which a respectful woman never does. Then she pours balm on Jesus’ feet, which also is not done. Then she touches him, a single woman caressing the feet of a rabbi - also not done, not even among friends. - and then she wipes the salve off again with her hair. It is totally inexplicable, the bizarre end to an all around bizarre act.

Most of us are so moved by the scene that we overlook these eccentricities, or else we do not care about them. The point is that she loved him, right? But we also tend to confuse this account with the other three in the Bible - one each from Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the first two, the woman who anoints is an unnamed woman at Simon the Leper’s house who pours nard on Jesus’ head, and in the third she is a so-called sinner, a woman of the night who washes his feet with her tears, and covers them with kisses before rubbing them with oil of Myrrh. Only in John’s account does the woman have a name - Mary - and a relationship with Jesus. She is not a stranger, not a sinner, but his longtime friend - which makes her act all the more peculiar. He knows she loves him. He loves her too. So why this public demonstration, this odd pantomime in front of all their friends? It is extravagant. It is excessive. She has gone overboard, as Judas is quick to note.

“Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred Denair and the money given to the poor?” This is what he wants to know. A day labourer and the family could live a year with that much money and here she has blown it all on your feet, for heavens sake. It reminds me of things we purchase and then never use because they seem too lavish to use. You hear people talking about the bottle of wine they are saving, or the purchase they have made and never use, who knows why for sure. We do, however, make purchases that are only ever admired, never used, maybe sold again, precious things to be saved and not used. Heaven forbid that anyone should uncork one and pour it out, not even for the Last Supper.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus says, brushing all objections aside. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Now that is about as odd a thing to say as anything Mary did. Here is the champion of the poor, who makes a regular practice of putting their needs ahead of his own, suddenly pulling rank. Leave her alone. Leave me alone. You will have the poor to look after till the end of time. Just this once, let her look after me, because my time is running out.

Whatever Mary thought about what she did, and whatever anyone else in the room thought about it, Jesus knew it was a message from God - not the hysteric ministrations of a woman in love but the careful act of a prophet. There may at first have been some doubt about whose death was immanent but it was Mary’s prophetic act that revealed the truth.

She was anointing Jesus for his burial, and while her behaviour may have seemed strange to those standing around, it was no stranger than the prophets who went before her, like Ezekiel, who ate the scroll of God as a sign that he carried the word of God around inside of him, or Jeremiah who smashed the clay jar to show God’s judgment on Judah and Jerusalem, or Isaiah who walked around Jerusalem naked and barefoot as an oracle against the nations. Prophets do these things. They act out. They act out the truth that no one else can see, and those who stand around watching either write them all off as crazy, or fall silent before the disturbing news they bring from God.

When Mary stood before Jesus with that bottle of pure spike nard, for a moment - just one moment - it could have gone either way. She could have anointed his head and everyone there could have proclaimed him a king. But she did not do that. When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees and poured the oil on his feet, which could mean only one thing. The only man who got his feet anointed was a dead man, and Jesus knew it.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus said to those who would have prevented her. “Leave her alone.’

So Mary proceeded to rub his feet with oil so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year, an act so lavish that it suggests another layer to her prophecy. There will be nothing prudent or economical about the death of this man, just as there as been nothing prudent or economical about his life. In him the extravagance of God’s love is made human. In him, the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest.

This bottle will not be held back to be kept or admired. This precious substance will not be saved. It will be opened, offered, and used, at a great price. It will be raised up and poured out for all human kind, emptied to the last drop. How will it happen? When will it happen? Can anything be done? No one in the room knows the answers to those questions yet.

The storm is still brewing in the distance, but Mary has given them the forecast. It will be bad, very bad, but that is no reason to lock up their hearts and run to the cellar. Whatever they need, there will be enough to go around, for there is nothing frugal about the love of God, or about the lives of those who serve.

Mary got the message and acted on it. While some of those standing by thought her mad, or smitten, or God forbid, wasteful, at least she and the one whose feet she rubbed, suspected the truth.

Where God is concerned, there is no need to fear running out of nard, or of life, either one. Where God is concerned, there is always more, more than we can either ask or imagine - there are always gifts from our lavish, lavish God.
Sharon Ferguson-Hood