It is an uncomfortable feeling to hear a story and realize that you identify with the villain. It’s even worse if the story is in the Gospel (John 12:1-8). Like Judas, my first reaction to the story of anointing Jesus’ feet is to say that perfume should have been sold and given to the poor. Unlike, Judas, I’m not trying to steal the money; but I do think perfume is a wasteful use of money that could have been used to purchase bread for the poor. The good news about being uncomfortable, is that it’s a sure sign you’re about to learn something important.
Sometimes we hear Biblical stories and they sound a little odd to us, but we figure that’s just how people behaved back then. To be clear, this is not one of those times. Mary’s crazy. Anointing someone’s head with oil was normal behavior, and that’s how this story goes in the other Gospels. Anointing someone’s feet is weird, and washing those feet with your hair, is well, kinda loony.
Mary is not the only one whose actions seem out of character. Jesus, the champion of the poor, is now saying that the poor will always be with us, and that Mary is to be left alone as she anoints him with expensive oil before his crucifixion.
I had found this passage challenging well before Steven asked me if I could preach this Sunday. In struggling with it, I came across a passage from Barbara Brown Taylor that shifted my view of it. It went from being one of my least favorite passages, because it seemed to dismiss the needs of the poor, to being one of my favorites.
Taylor first points out that it is Mary alone out of all the disciples who understands that Jesus is headed for death. Taylor writes:
“So Mary rubbed his feet with perfume 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 economical about this man’s death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life. In him, the extravagance of God’s love is made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest.
This bottle will not be held back to be kept and admired. This precious substance will not be saved. It will be opened, offered and used, at great price. It will be raised up and poured out for the life of the world, emptied to the last drop.”
In this uncalculating act of love, Mary reminds me of my mother-in-law, Paula. The first time I met her was about a month after Melissa and I had started dating. She had us over for dinner, and she’d already eaten, so after serving us a delicious meal of spaghetti and garlic bread, she went outside and washed Melissa’s car. About a year later, before Melissa and I were engaged, Paula’s family was doing family pictures. These were the kind of pictures one does maybe once every ten years, with her brother and his family flying in from Oregon and a professional photographer. I was with Melissa visiting from D.C., and had planned to just hang out in the park. Without a second thought, Paula insisted I be in the picture, that I be a part of the family. And all of this is before I even get to tell you about Christmas. I have never seen someone happier than she is when she is giving presents to her children. Today’s Gospel reminds us that God’s love is like Paula’s, holding nothing in reserve, but pouring everything out in a never-ceasing stream of presents….much like Christmas with Paula.
And that brings me to a second reason I really like today’s Gospel. All too often we picture God as a strict and somewhat distant father-figure. Three Sunday’s ago we got the image of God as a mother hen protecting her brood. This Sunday we get Mary, modeling God’s overflowing love, the love of a mother for her children. We need these female images of God to remind us that God transcends human imagination and categorization.
It is also worth noting that as we approach Easter, it’s usually the women that know what’s going on. It is Mary who anoints Jesus in today’s Gospel, and it is another Mary who will be with him until his death (while Peter is busy denying him). The women will also prepare the body for burial, and be the first witnesses of the resurrection. The Bible is full of stories about men, and yet when it comes to the central story of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is the women who understand what is happening.
It is the women who have the key insight into today’s Gospel, perhaps best summed up in Friedrich Nietzsche’s memorable aphorism, “Actions of Love always take place beyond good and evil.” Giving the money to the poor certainly would have been good. And stealing it from the common purse would have been evil. But Mary anointing Jesus is not about the more practical considerations of good and evil; it is about overwhelming love.
In Jesus’s death there is to be no cost-benefit analysis. No randomized control trials. No multivariate regression models analyzing the impact of Christ’s death on our response to God’s love, on average, while controlling for a host of other variables….. You see, Christ’s death is not the act of an objective or economic God. It is the act of a God who is entirely partial and on the side of humanity; even though we don’t deserve it. A God who refuses to live within the human norms of scarcity but instead pours out all of God’s abundance right down to the last drop.
Jesus is preparing for death. And death puts a stop on all of our practical and economic thinking. Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry writes, “Love must confront death, and accept it, and learn from it. Only in confronting death can earthly love learn its true extent, its immortality. Any definition of health that is not silly must include death. The world of love includes death, suffers it, and triumphs over it. The world of efficiency is defeated by death; as death, all its instruments and procedures stop. The world of love continues, and of this, grief is the proof.”
It is the women who are grieving outside of the tomb, and it is therefore the women who are the first to notice the resurrection. The women love Jesus without any sense of practicality. After his death the disciples scatter, stunned that he is not the messiah. The Jesus movement has failed and its leader has been crucified. We know the end of the story, but before Easter the disciples are convinced that Jesus has failed. They return to their hometowns (like those on the road to Emmaus) or they hide out together in a small room, or they go back to their lives as fishers. The women remain behind, bound by their love of Jesus…not Jesus the Messiah who is to deliver them from Roman oppression….not even Jesus the Son of God….simply Jesus, the man they love.
I risk getting ahead of the story here, but I give you this preview of the coming weeks to point out the nature of Mary’s actions. Mary is preparing Jesus for his death, and because she loves him she holds nothing back.
Death puts a stop to the world of efficiency in which we constantly struggle against poverty and scarcity. That the poor will always be with us is not a counsel of despair, but a reminder of the constant need to struggle against poverty. It is also a reminder that God’s solution to scarcity is not found in economic models; it is found instead in the abundant love expressed by Mary, and in the abundant love of a God, who seeing us lost and broken, became incarnate, lived among us, and died at our hands simply in order to be with us. In Jesus, God’s mercy is not held back; it is poured out for the life of the world, down to the very last drop. Amen.