I want to begin by taking a step back and putting our Gospel story for today, Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with nard, into larger context. In the Gospel of John, we have seen Jesus call his disciples, begin his ministry by turning water into wine, clear the temple of the money changers, and talk and eat with Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes and others considered to be sinners. He has healed many, fed thousands with a few loaves and fish, and walked on water. He has preached and taught a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins for those who have become too comfortable with the ways of the world and no longer see those on the margins.
Jesus has also been making claims about himself that many in his community have found disturbing, particularly those in religious leadership. “I am the light of the world.” “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me.”
Jesus has become a major nuisance to many, particularly those responsible for upholding the systems and structures of their society, those for whom the systems and structures work best. Because we know the whole story, we like to think that we would have been in the group faithfully following Jesus, but would we? Or would we have been just as uncomfortable with this man who was saying things that seemed unhinged, who was challenging the status quo, and about whom people were reporting miraculous things? Might we actually have been part of the group seeking to have him arrested and killed?
And then Jesus pushes these respectable folk over the edge. He goes and raises Lazarus from the dead. He moves from being a nuisance to being a real threat. Those who witnessed the miracle put their faith in Jesus and they began to spread the word to others. The leadership, who possess the power they have only because the Romans gave it to them, are afraid. They say, “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” They can see no other way of existing. They lack the imagination to embrace God’s dream for the world as seen in Jesus, a world in which no one has too much and everyone has enough, a world in which everyone matters, and so they see no other option but his death.
Jesus knows what is in the air, and so he can no longer move about publicly among the people. He withdraws from Jerusalem with his followers. His good friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live in a suburb of Jerusalem, Bethany. They invite him, along with others, for a meal. What a strange meal that must have been. Everyone is afraid, for it was common knowledge that the religious leadership were seeking to arrest Jesus. Lazarus, the formerly dead man, is sitting at the table. I can just imagine a group of people anxiously making small talk trying to pretend that nothing is weird or wrong.
In the midst of all this tension, Mary comes into the room and does an incredibly strange and outrageous thing. We would find it very strange if a woman came into a room today and poured costly perfume on the feet of a friend and rubbed it into his feet with her hair. But in Jesus’ day it wasn’t just strange, it was unheard of. Women didn’t touch men who weren’t their husbands. Women did not let down their hair. Women were present to serve and that was it. What she did wasn’t just weird it was scandalous. Even though I have been conditioned to dislike Judas, I have some sympathy for his reaction. I think I would have been uncomfortable and judgmental too had I been present in that room. Prophetic people who make prophetic actions are always uncomfortable. Those of us who are more comfortable fitting in and going with the mainstream will always feel irritated by those who don’t care about such things and who use their actions to bring to light a great truth that we all need to see.
And I think that is what Mary is doing. In the midst of a group of people who are struggling to see the truth of what is going on, Mary is the only one who sees the truth clearly and brings the truth to the surface. She could have spoken the truth, but would anyone have stopped to listen? Sometimes people can only be woken up to the truth through decisive action. Her bizarre and outrageous act certainly got everyone’s attention.
And what did her actions say? Well, in Mary’s day and place, you anointed a person for a couple of reasons. A king’s head was anointed when he was made king, and a dead person’s feet were anointed when they were buried. In anointing Jesus’ feet, she is saying to the whole room, “Wake up. Stop pretending. Jesus is going to die. Face the facts. Stop making small talk. Nothing else matters.” And she doesn’t just touch his feet with her hands, she undoes her hair and uses it to rub the perfume in. This is an excessive, extravagant, and intimate act of love. Kind of like the excessive and extravagant love and mercy of God that we see manifest in Jesus’ life and death. She is saying to everyone in the room, “Nothing is more important to me right now than Jesus. I am not going to wait for him to die to acknowledge the gift he is to me and to you. Look. Soak it in. You are looking at God’s love sitting at your table. Follow him. Learn from him. Act like him.” Sometimes it takes an extreme act for a prophet to make their point.
Now I will be quite honest with you, I admire prophets, but personally would much prefer to fit in, keep quiet and not disturb the status quo. And I haven’t always admired prophets. There are many times in my life when I was much more similar to Judas than Mary. Not in the betray Jesus to the authorities kind of way, but in the being irritated when someone does something to wake me and others up, to disrupt the status quo, to bring a truth to the attention of everyone in the room. Dramatic, extravagant, and in your face actions make me feel very uncomfortable too. And as I have matured in my life, my journey in following Jesus, and in my understanding of the complexities of this world that we live in, I have come to understand that sometimes the only way to get people to see the truths that they need to see is through dramatic, extravagant, and in your face actions.
And who are our modern-day Marys, our modern-day prophets? Well, for me, they are the Black Lives Matters protestors. Their protests illicit an initial discomfort in me, but they keep the truth of the inequality of living as a black person in this country at the front of all our minds. Or the actions of Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist, who regularly insists through her words and actions that we remember the dire straights we are in environmentally.
There are many difficult truths we need to face in our day and time, truths which we may not want to acknowledge or see. Truths about how we treat this earth. Truths about racial, gender, and economic inequality. Truths about the ways in which we are killing our LGBTQ+ youth as we refuse to acknowledge their existence or insist that talking about their realities is harmful to our children. Some of us will be called to be like Mary, the prophetic one who acts and speaks about the truths we need to face in ways that can be uncomfortable and shocking. Most of us will be like the others in the room that day, witnessing the prophetic acts of the prophets in our midst. And we will be faced with the same choice that Judas and the others in the room faced, will we have eyes to see and ears to hear? Or will we fight to stay asleep and unaware of the many ways that God is calling us to wake up?
It is clear from this story, that Jesus sides with the Marys of this world. Jesus knows that following him will be uncomfortable and unsettling. Jesus knows that walking in his footsteps will mean recognizing truths we may not want to recognize and standing up to the powers that be in ways that may be at best uncomfortable and at worst life-threatening. He knows this because he has lived this himself because he is the manifestation of God’s extravagant and outrageous love for each and every one of us. How will we choose? Will we join in with this love or not? The choice is ours. Amen.