My sister-in-law, Chris, lives in Stoneville - which, for anyone who doesn’t know it, is a basically just a few homes - hardly a town - clustered around a general store about five kilometres out of Mundaring. Actually, they are only about 40 minutes from our place if you go Roe Highway and then turn right at Great Eastern Highway and head up the hill - but by the time you get there you feel as though you’ve left Perth and you’re in the bush. They are also very hospitable, in fact whenever we go up there the whole family make us feel pretty special, and our dog loves their dog, so going up to Stoneville is like a three hour holiday.
Bethany seems to have been a bit like that for Jesus. It’s not actually clear how often he came up to Jerusalem - in the three narrative Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, apart from going up to Jerusalem as an eight day old and again as a naughty 12 year old, only one great and fateful trip to Jerusalem is mentioned - so we get the impression that Jesus’ formative years and most of his ministry were spent in Galilee. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, has Jesus making at least three trips up to Jerusalem during his ministry. Bethany, a little village two or three miles out of Jerusalem, maybe an hour’s walk, seems to have been where he stayed. For such a tiny village, a lot happens in Bethany - the home of Simon the leper with whom Jesus eats, the place Jesus goes back for the night after his ruckus in the Temple, the place where in Matthew’s account he finds the donkey he will ride in to Jerusalem that last time. Bethany is also the place where Jesus can just be Jesus, off-duty, at the home of his friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, the only named people in the Gospels of whom it is said that Jesus loved them. Mary and Martha feature briefly in Luke’s Gospel, where we get a glimpse of some sisterly rivalry, and in John’s Gospel, just a chapter before today’s reading, Jesus has raised his friend Lazarus from the sleep of death.
We’re not specifically told, but it seems the raising of Lazarus was only a short time earlier. This episode, in which we get another fascinating glimpse of the open and familiar relationship between Jesus and the sisters, Mary and Martha - so familiar in fact that both of the women tell him off in no uncertain terms for not getting there earlier - the raising of Lazarus causes huge excitement and consternation both among Jesus’ friends and his enemies, who begin to finalise their plans to do away with him. Jesus goes into hiding on the edge of the desert but returns, six days before the Passover, to attend a dinner in the home of his friends. It’s a tense, charged atmosphere as you might expect at any dinner party where one of the guests has only recently spent four days dead. Perhaps the odour of death is still lingering a bit, certainly, we’re stating to catch a whiff of the odour of Jesus’ approaching death.
Martha is serving dinner - the word used here for serving, diakoneo, is the same word we translate as deacon and the dinner she serves, deipnon, is the same word we are going to hear later to describe the final supper in Jerusalem. Then Mary, the one we already know is capable of extravagant love, retrieves from somewhere or other a jar of expensive, aromatic oil and anoints Jesus feet, an action that he interprets as being in anticipation of his suffering and death. You know, we still all too often hear nonsense about Jesus’ disciples all being male, nonsense about there not being any precedent in the Bible for the ministry of women. Today’s Gospel reading shows us one woman in a priestly role, another in the role of a prophet.
There are some similar stories in the other Gospels. Mark, for example, also has a story of an anointing in Bethany but in his version it happens at the home of Simon the Leper where Jesus is anointed on the head by an unnamed woman. In Luke’s Gospel the anointing is separated from its setting in Bethany near Passion Week. Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee (also called Simon) when a woman identified as a sinner comes into the home with a flask of perfume, weeps over Jesus feet and dries his feet with her hair. Perhaps all three of the Gospel writers know of the same story as part of the oral tradition, maybe each of them tells it in a slightly different way. In the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon in which he said that all three stories refer to the same woman, Mary of Magdala, so that was how Mary Magdalene got the undeserved reputation for being a prostitute. With respect to the Pope, though, I think we need to resist trying to draw these obviously related stories into a harmonious whole and focus on what the story means in the Gospel we are reading today.
The ointment Mary of Bethany applies to Jesus feet is spikenard, here called by its Indian name of nard. It comes from a flowering plant of the valerian family which only grows above 7,000 feet in the Himalayan regions of China, India and Nepal. Judas tells us that a pound of nard would have cost 300 denarii, which is about a year’s wages for a day labourer, and you can see why, if it had to be imported from the end of the known world. The Gospel tells us it is ‘pure’ nard using the term ‘pistokos’ , which elsewhere is translated as ‘faithful’. What Mary would have been doing with such a treasure, how she came by it is anybody’s guess, but Jesus’ interpretation is that she has been saving it for his burial.
Mary’s action in this story is not just extravagant, but shockingly intimate. Women, who were expected to fade into the background public settings, were not supposed even to touch unrelated men, let alone to do so in a way that is so clearly over the top. Where anointing is normally associated in the Bible with kingship and is done by a proper, official prophet pouring oil on the head, here the action is more tender, more sensual, more personal. Where the head represents the public self, the feet are private and vulnerable, representing where a person goes and what they do. And Mary uses her hair to wipe away the perfume - her long, loose hair which as a respectable Jewish woman should never even be unbound in public, let alone used to wipe the feet of a man to whom she is not married, and then left hanging, damp and heavy with scented oil. Here is a scene of great impropriety, an embarrassing scene over which we wish the veil of privacy could have been drawn.
You can imagine the shocked, awkward silence, people wishing they were somewhere else, indeed, anywhere else. And Judas puts his foot in it. To be fair, he probably wasn’t the only one who was shocked, not the only one who totally missed the point of what Mary had just done. It’s just not right. Think of the poor who could have been fed for what that perfume cost! Think of the orphans in Haiti we could have helped with that money! I’ve got to admit I thought exactly the same thing when I read the other day about a special 70 year old cask of Scotch that the makers have finally released. Each bottle is going to cost tens of thousands of dollars. Drink the cheap plonk. Give the rest to charity. It’s a reasonable objection. We always have to balance what we spend on our worship space, what we spend on sacrament and spirituality, against the demands of the compassion for others that Jesus models.
The Gospel writer, of course, gives us a cue for why we shouldn’t agree with Judas’s otherwise fairly reasonable objection. Because he’s insincere, because he is a thief himself, because he is going to betray Jesus in the very next chapter. It’s up to Jesus to tell us what Mary’s action means - in anointing Jesus’ body as though for the grave, Mary not only recognises the suffering and death that lies ahead of him, partly because of his restoration to life of her own brother, but she also recognises and fulfils the role of a true disciple. The rebuke to Judas sounds gentle: ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ But it carries a note of sharpness and certainly of sadness.
I think the whole point of the story is that, to use the language of movie-makers, it’s a prequel. It’s a story that happens before the main story that fleshes it out and tells us what it means. You read it through the lens of what you already know is going to happen next. The main story is the story that happens next week - in the time frame of the Gospel which has now slowed down to become the same as the time frame of our own lives - next week’s story of the last meal in Jerusalem at which Jesus, not Martha, will will be the diakonos, serving the food and pouring out the wine, at which Jesus, not Mary, will pour himself out in service and will wash and dry the feet of his disciples.
In the house at Bethany, the poverty of the human Jesus becomes visible. Mary’s extravagant gift of anointing is given to the one for whom there was no room at the inn at his birth, precious little hospitality during his lifetime, and in the end, a borrowed tomb. Mary’s generosity challenges our own attitudes toward giving, especially the ways in which we offer ourselves to God.
The world is full of earthquakes and disasters. Week in and week out our Church agencies as well as governments and NGOs are bombarded with the real needs of hurting, starving, wounded people in famine and war, flood and hurricane. The poor we have always with us, always with legitimate claims on our compassion and generosity.
The challenge is how well we make time or use our imaginations for risky, generous offerings, like Mary who poured out her extravagance of perfume on Jesus' feet. Mary’s gift and ours show how well the generosity of God is reflected in our own lives. Alone of all Jesus disciples, who in today’s story remain silent, Mary gets it. How well do we?