Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound[a] of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii[b] and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it[c] for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
To get ready for this message, mentally fill in the blank at the end of this sentence: “I experienced the most terrible sense of powerlessness when…..”
Now, fill in the blank for this phrase: “That time when I experienced the most powerlessness, I also felt…..”
What words would describe the feelings you had in your worst experience of powerlessness? Those let’s name.
Those same ugly feelings would likely have been in the hearts and heads of everyone in that room when Mary of Bethany got down on her knees to anoint the feet of Jesus. Those downer, depressive, fearful feelings would have been all the worse for coming on the heels of a recent emotional high. One of the people in that room was Lazarus, whom Jesus had just brought back alive from the grave.
Raising Lazarus from the dead was not only an unspeakably, indescribably high, exhilarating experience, it should have led to the leaders of Israel falling on their knees at the feet of Jesus to proclaim him king and Messiah. Because of the power that Jesus had just demonstrated over death, they should have recognized that here and now is the glorious Son of Man whom the Prophet Daniel foresaw in his vision in Chapter 7, the One to whom is given judgment over all nations and people, over the living and the dead. There should have been a ticker tape parade for Jesus, in a limousine convertible all the way from Bethany to the Temple in Jerusalem. There the high priest would stand eye-to-eye with Jesus and anoint his head with oil, to install him as king, as the high priests did with each new king in the line of David.
That’s what the word “Christ,” means in Greek: “The Anointed one.” The Hebrew word for “Christ,” or “The Anointed” is….anyone? Yes, the Messiah. The high priest would anoint the head of the new king while choristers sang the words like those of Psalm 2: “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”… The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” And the Romans would be slinking out the other side of Jerusalem to take the next boat home for Rome, if they didn’t want to end up as vulture bait. The anticipation of all that, as a result of raising Lazarus, must have had everyone there tingling with delight and anticipation.
But it was no surprise to Jesus when the high priests and other religious leaders reacted to the miracle of Lazarus and his return to life, by issuing effectively a death sentence against Jesus. Evidently, the punishment for the crime of undoing death is death. That makes Jesus an outlaw in hiding, as was his ancestor David, when he was designated as Israel’s rightful king.
There would soon be a death sentence for Lazarus, too. Who knew that the punishment for the crime of not staying dead is death?
In just a few days, Jesus would indeed stand before the high priest. But not to be anointed king. He will slap Jesus around as an alleged disturber of the peace and a deceiver of the people. And then hand him over to the Romans for crucifixion. Imagine the emotional whiplash of such a sharp and painful turn-around. As the shadows of approaching evil darken and lengthen over the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, the anticipation of sweet victory and vindication give way to a sense of impending doom.
So, what do we do when life makes no sense, and we fall so far, so fast, and get whipsawed so fast and so hard from delight to despair? From hopefulness to helplessness?
Grieve, cry and sorrow we must. But they don’t have to have the last words. Mary shows us what to do, even as our tears do their cleansing, liberating work: 1) Mary proclaimed and asserted her faith in Christ’s kingship; 2) she ministered to Christ’s body; and 3) she used her precious gifts to do so. Those three actions we also can do, whatever the situation. They are ever and always available to us, whatever the danger, the challenge, the loss or the opposition we face: proclaim our trust in Jesus’ kingship, minister to his body, and with whatever gifts we have at hand.
This is the same Mary whom we meet in Luke’s Gospel, sitting “at the feet of Jesus,” listening to him, while her aggrieved and aggravated sister, Martha, was busy serving dinner to Jesus and his followers, by herself. The words, “sitting at Jesus’ feet,” are another way of saying, “disciple,” or “student,” or “follower,” of Jesus. Not the same as “apostle,” which also means, “cross-cultural missionary.” There were twelve of those. But there were many more disciples of Jesus, who “sat at the feet of Jesus,” women as well as men. Having female followers was something new and distinctive for Jesus, as a rabbi.
This Mary of Bethany is not to be confused with all the other Mary’s in the Gospels, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. She was the first to see the Risen Jesus and then testify about his resurrection. In that sense, you could call that Mary an apostle, too.
Mary of Bethany, however, gives a different kind of anointing than what the high priest would give. She anoints the feet of Jesus, as if to say, like John the Baptist did, “I am not worthy to untie his sandals.” Still, even that anointing is a bold and daring action, some might even say, a rash, foolish and dangerous action. Some might even add, “subversive and treasonous.” Think of how the high priest and his crowd would take that, should they hear about it.
But I prefer to see Mary’s anointing of Jesus as an act of faith, of bravery and of love. Hers is even a prophetic act, for she acts out the coming moment when every knee shall bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” But then and there, when every action for God and goodness seemed pointless and powerless, Mary did not let despair stop her nor silence her, as they did the twelve, who fled when Jesus was arrested. She did for Jesus, and for us, what the high priest and the religious leaders should have done and refused to do.
As for the first thing Mary does, proclaiming Christ as king and Lord, by anointing him, that could still be seen as rash, foolish and pointless now, in China, as the government cracks down on churches and pastors who don’t toe the Communist party line and put the party chairman’s portrait right up front in the sanctuary. Fifty-odd years ago, when some political and religious prisoners in the prisons of Castro’s Cuba were led out of their cells, their hands bound, their eyes blindfolded, to be hanged or to stand before firing squads, they did not let their physical powerlessness keep them from doing like Mary did. “Viva Cristo Rey!” were the last words of many such martyrs. In English: “Long live Christ, the King!”
Even when our challenges or disappointments are not such drastic life-or-death matters, every trial we face forces on us the same choice before Mary of Bethany. Will we turn from Christ, in fear, despair and denial, as most of the twelve apostles would do in just a matter of days? Or will we turn toward Christ, in trust and submission, and confess his kingship, as did Mary?
As for the second thing that Mary did, ministering to the body of Christ: let’s compare her to Judas. “The value of that fine perfume could have been given to the poor!” he complained, bitterly. Let’s consider, for the sake of argument, that Judas really did care about the poor. Or about poverty, at least. Money would buy food, for sure. But it could also substitute for actually engaging with any poor person, to actually touch them, do something personal, special and out of the ordinary for them, and minister to their need for dignity, recognition and care, as unique persons, and not just as empty bellies on legs. Judas reminds me of Linus, in the Peanuts cartoon, when he said, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”
Overlooking his habit of theft and embezzlement, we can give Judas credit for this, at least: he talks a good talk about causes, issues, systems and structural injustices, like poverty. He even has a program to address poverty: sell other people’s perfumed oils to raise money for the hungry. That’s certainly better than all the systems and programs which effectively take food out of the mouths of poor and vulnerable people.
Mary, by contrast, does something personal, up close and present to a person in need, and not just for a problem of need. Judas talks the talk about human need, but Mary walks the walk with a human in need. Where Judas wants to use someone else’s money to fix a problem, Mary uses her own hands and resources to bless and honor a person.
This was the genius of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India, and her sisterhood, the Sisters of the Poor. She took a lot of guff for giving what people often dismissed as “mere charity care” to poor, homeless, often very sick and dying people brought in from the streets. She should instead have worked against the systemic injustices that left people hungry, sick and dying in the streets of Calcutta, her critics often said. But that assumes that love and justice are just a zero-sum game, in which either there are political action and policies to fix poverty, or there is personal action on behalf of each poor person. But there cannot be both, supposedly. There’s not enough love nor justice to go around for both approaches, I hear.
Mother Teresa also wanted to see society change so that no one was left to die, sick, hungry and alone, in the streets. She would have loved to be put out of business by social justice. But when someone is sick and starving right then and there in front of you, it doesn’t stop the grumbling of their bellies to say, “Cheer up! We’re campaigning for the perfect candidates, policies and platforms that should eliminate poverty like yours in about five years.”
May it happen. But Mother Teresa knew she was called to address the most immediate and pressing kinds of poverty at her door, and not just the physical kind, in the stomach. She famously said, “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
In the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, who was more unwanted, unloved and uncared for than their guest, Jesus? That’s the kind of poverty that Mary of Bethany addressed personally, up close, by anointing the Man of Sorrows, the One acquainted with our grief, despised and rejected of men,” as the forces of darkness gathered round him. This same option, of ministering to Christ’s body, also lies ever before us, readily at hand, whatever the situation. Because Christ and his body are still here, with us, among us, as us.
Thirty-some years ago, when the agricultural economy in the Midwest did one of its cyclical nosedives, and towns, schools, churches and businesses suffered with the farmers, the Iowa diocese of the United Methodist Church determined that they would not demand dues from the local congregations of hard-hit small towns. Instead, wealthier urban congregations and districts would subsidize the budgets, help pay the salaries of rural pastors, and the dues of their struggling rural partner churches. And they did. That’s just one example of how the body of Christ ministered to the body of Christ in a time of darkness and difficulty.
Thirdly, we minister to the body of Christ with whatever God-given gift we have at hand. Mary did so with a jar of perfumed oil. That it was very expensive perfume shows how great was her love for Jesus. But what really determines the value of her gift are the love, the faith, and the courage with which she gave them.
Likewise, God has given to each one of us gifts with which to minister to Christ’s body, and to proclaim Christ’s kingship. They may be spiritual gifts, like prophecy, administration, teaching, discernment of spirits or mercy. They may be talents, training and experience in hospitality, finances, administration, construction or education. Our gifts might include time, time to visit the sick or the homebound, time to tutor a child after school, a car to get around, or to take local friends to an appointment with their lawyer or a doctor, a spare bedroom, a trailer pad, a trailer, like the one we just commissioned for Mennonite Disaster Service, tools and the know-how to use them. And, of course, financial gifts: money.
We might ask, “Why work with Mennonite Disaster Service to rebuild burnt-out or flooded homes when climate change only assures that there will be more catastrophic floods and fires?” If so, then Mary should have looked at her jar of perfumed oil and asked, “What good is this little thing against a cross and an approaching execution squad? Why should I even bother? It won’t make any difference.”
Whenever I’m tempted to think that way, I hope I remember the plaque I once saw on the desk of a fellow pastor. It said, “I will not let the big things I cannot do keep me from doing the little things that I can.” Because only God knows the true size, the scope, the fruits and the results of our loving, faithful, courageous actions, using whatever gifts we have at hand to proclaim Christ’s kingship and minister to his body. Anointing the Man of Sorrows, who would soon be beaten, whipped, mocked and crucified, must have seemed as pointless and inconsequential as spitting into a rainstorm or trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. But thanks to Mary billions of believers can call Jesus, “the Christ,” or “The Anointed One,” literally. Mary’s action assures us that no act nor prayer nor word of love, faith and courage done to proclaim Christ’s kingship, to minister to Christ’s body, in the church and in the poor, with whatever gift we have, however great or small in the world’s eyes, are lost or wasted in the eternal resurrection economy of God. Whatever the situation, however dark or dire, God gets the last word. God’s last word is always the same as his first word: Jesus.