FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT (28th March) 2004
Psalm 126Philippians 3.3-14
As the Jesus stories circulated in and beyond the early Christian community, one of the widest known and seemingly oft repeated was that of an anointing. The details differ: Mark and Matthew tell of an anointing of Jesus’ head by a nameless woman that takes place at the house of Simon the leper at
during the action-filled final week in Bethany . Luke has the feet of Jesus anointed by an unnamed woman, but clearly one clearly known as loose in her sexual practice. In that account the event occurs in Jerusalem Galilee. John, like Mark, has the anointing at but in his account it takes place before he enters into Bethany . John, like Luke, tells of an anointing of Jesus’ feet, but provides a name for the woman, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, while the house is now that of Simon the Pharisee. Perhaps we are dealing here with two or three different occasions, though to me it seems more likely that each of the gospel writers is drawing on an oral tradition and flexing its muscles in different ways to address the need of their differing faith communities. Jerusalem
The presence of Jesus back at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus is a powerful signifier, a signpost from John as to how we should hear – hear – this event. This place and these people has been a place and a people in which life has been miraculously breathed into death, where the dead man Lazarus was emphatically not merely resuscitated but raised from the death and the tomb into which he had passed. Martha serves at table, as we would expect from the account of her in Luke’s gospel story. Lazarus, the subject of the earlier miracle, eats with Jesus, just as the resurrected Jesus is later to eat on a beach with his disciples. These same disciples also join the feast, the good, the bad, and most emphatically the ugly, Judas Iscariot, who constantly joins in the table fellowship of Jesus.
We know from the earlier account, in the preceding chapter, that Mary has a deep devotion to Jesus, so deep that she is able effectively to reprimand him for his delay in coming to see her brother: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Despite her pain she continues to trust her Lord – in some ways with a greater and more dignified passion than does her sister, who produces only a formulaic response to the possibilities of God: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus clearly loves both women, and their brother, and John is at pains to let us know here the depths of feeling in the heart of the Messiah.
But not in his heart alone – for the response of Mary here defies all logic. This is the response of passion. This is the response of the one who does the inordinately stupid in the name of devotion to the Lord. Judas Iscariot here provides the response of caution; as the ointment, worth in today’s terms, some $30,000, a year’s wages, flows over the calloused feet of the carpenter, Judas appeals to the pragmatism of compassion for the poor. John is at pains to make sure we know that even this apparent compassion was a front, but the point is nevertheless made: there is a time for manic, mad devotion as well as a time for pragmatic action in the service of the Christ.
As if to reemphasize this, Mary continues with the utterly impractical but erotically devotional action of wiping his feet with her hair. We should not be afraid of the erotic undertones of such a passage. John wants us precisely to feel the depth-charges of longing that charge the room and so offend Judas and, no doubt, the others. For John, we may recall, is associated with the beloved disciple, the unnamed one who constantly leans close to the heart of Jesus. This is meant not to depict any homo-eroticism in the fourth gospel, but simply a depth of closeness and of devotion that goes far beyond the merely practical, far beyond even the merely religious, but into the realms of the absolute and illogical,. These are the same realms that drive the crazy Paul, as he gasps some years later “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
John does not want to leave us here with an either/or. The words of Jesus, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always haverivers in the desert,
” left out because too puzzling by some early manuscript copyists, are not designed to suggest that the followers of Christ should have a nonchalant disregard for the broken of the earth. Indeed the whole story of the challenges Jesus put to the religious elite of his day makes it clear that no such thing was in his heart. Nevertheless he makes clear that there can be no excuse for skimping in the service of devotion, no place for a hardened Marxism that may feed the broken but fails to breathe light into the hearts of rich or poor alike. Jesus stands firmly in the tradition of Isaiah, whose obedience is to the God who pours me,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
but who does so not merely and pragmatically to fill their bellies, butso that they might declare my praise.
It is in the lavish and ridiculous acts of praise and of worship that the rumour of resurrection, of justice, and of judgement begin. We are called to be a practical people, caring with our energies and our monies for the broken, but we are called also to be a lavish people, surrendering our logic in heartfelt devotion to the God we cannot see, but who is God of sorrow and of joy, of Good Friday and of Easter, and above all of utter, over-the-top, and unnecessary love.