She was a particular woman, with a particular history, and a particular relationship to Jesus. Let’s start there when we think about Mary of Bethany. It might be good to begin learning about who she was by first clarifying who she was not.
She was not, for example, Mary Magdalene, the woman named in every gospel as the pre-eminent witness to the resurrection. There is no biblical record of Mary Magdalene ever anointing Jesus, though that is portrayed time and again in film and popular imagination. But this is not that Mary.
Neither was she a sinner. Let me re-state that. As good Presbyterians, we confess that we all are sinners, that all have fallen short of the glory of God. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say “She was not known as a sinner,” or “She was not a notorious sinner.” There is a story of Jesus being anointed by a woman who is identified as a sinner. But this is not that woman.
And, of course, she is not the mother of Jesus. This is not that Mary, nor is she Mary the wife of Cleopas, as far as we can tell. So many Mary’s—in the Hebrew “Miriam”—many, probably, given that name because Herod the Great counted not one but two Mary’s among his wives. So, just as many little Diana’s were Christened in the early 1980’s, so were many young Jewish girls, in the era in which Jesus lived, called Mary.
She was Mary of Bethany, and Bethany was a village located on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives, just about a mile and a half from Jerusalem. She was the sister of Martha and of Lazarus, and the three of them lived together in a family unit that was comprised not of a patriarch and his offspring, or of couples and children: rather, they were a family of single siblings, a family who became very important in the life and ministry of Jesus. So important that the gospel testifies: Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Two gospels bear witness to the fact that Jesus was able to find himself at home in this home.
It is impossible to speak of Mary of Bethany and her particular relationship with Jesus without speaking of what happened in the days leading up to this episode. Our text mentions it casually, as one might refer to any old piece of identifying information. But it still shocks us with its power: “Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead” (12:1). At the beginning of Chapter 11 Jesus had received a note from Mary and Martha, in which they said, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (11:3). Jesus had delayed, intentionally, going to the side of his ailing friend, “even though he loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus,” John tells us. He only started out towards Bethany after having been assured that Lazarus was, in fact, dead.
It bears saying something, before we go any further, about the particular portrayal of Jesus that we find in the gospel of John. As many of you have heard me say before, John’s gospel is very different from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. When we are told that Jesus delays going to Lazarus until he is dead, to most of us that sounds like a shocking, nearly indefensible decision on Jesus’ part. The grieving sisters certainly question it, even condemn it. But we need to understand the ways of John’s gospel in order to appreciate why Jesus would do such a thing. The first eleven chapters of John are woven around signs Jesus performs, miracles designed to reveal the truth about Jesus’ identity. Once we understand that, we know that this decision will aid Jesus in performing his greatest sign, his most astonishing miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead. This delay, which causes such pain to those he loves, is part of a larger plan.
Well, we know what happens in the rest of Chapter 11. Jesus weeps at the tomb in the presence of this family he loves, showing that he recognizes and even feels the human cost of his inaction. And then he unleashes the very power of God from within himself, and he restores Lazarus to life.
And so the stage is set for today’s passage. A meal, a celebration, and Jesus once again finds himself at home in this home. We can imagine the merriment tinged with awe, the sense of reprieve and relief, the sheer giddiness of the festivities. I envision a room made intimate as evening falls by the glow of firelight and candlelight, by the savory smells of the meal, and by the bonds of affection that are shared around the table.
But into the room comes Mary, bearing a pound of the rarest of perfumes, oil of nard. It is made from the crushed stems of the spikenard plant, which grows only in the Himalayas, in China, India and Nepal. When distilled it becomes a thick amber-colored oil with an intense, aromatic scent. A pound of it might well make you dizzy. It might well put you to sleep; oil of nard can be used as a sedative.
Mary lavishes this costly, fragrant oil on Jesus’ feet. As you may know, it was a custom in the Ancient Near East to provide a basin of water for washing the feet to any guest who might enter a home. People walked dusty roads wearing sandals or even barefoot; it was a basic measure of comfort and hygiene. In general, though, people did not wash the feet of their guests. If you had servants, slaves, you might direct them to wash your friend’s feet. Otherwise, it was a ritual people performed, mostly, on themselves.
So here is Mary, performing an action that would only normally have been undertaken by a slave. And here is Mary, making a startling, sensuous gesture, even to the extreme of wiping Jesus’ feet with her own hair. And here is Mary, filling the room with the exquisite, even overwhelming fragrance of her action.
Her gesture is misinterpreted, of course. It is judged, naturally. (W. H. Auden said, “As a rule it was the pleasure-haters who were unjust.”) It is judged as being wasteful and even selfish—Judas mentions the poor with a bite in his tone. It is unfortunate that Jesus’ response—you will always have the poor with you—is so often used to excuse our not responding to the needs of the needy. And I don’t need to point fingers on this one, because I have pulled it out myself often enough, when I have felt that I didn’t have the wherewithal to respond kindly to one more request for assistance, for a donation, for a handout. But Jesus is not offering me any excuses here. Even the most casual reader of the gospels knows, Glenn Beck’s opinions notwithstanding, that Jesus’ stand alongside the poor is absolute, and irrevocable, and our call to do likewise is a mandate to everyone who calls himself a Christian.
But there is a time for extravagant, even wasteful gestures, says Jesus, who in just about a chapter’s time will himself kneel at the feet of his friends making himself their slave. There is a time for the extravagant fragrance of love poured out, insists Jesus, who will, himself, pour out his own life and love for humanity on the cross.
Just for fun, because I was curious, I looked up the word “fragrance” in an online bible search engine, just to see how many times it occurred in the bible. It occurs just eleven times. Six of those are found in the Song of Songs, arguably the Bible’s go-to-text for lovers of sensuous gestures. Two references are from the prophet Hosea, describing the fragrance of God’s people Israel in repentance and faithfulness. Two references are from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, describing the fragrance of life in Christ. And here, in this scene, we have the other occurrence.
The gift of Mary of Bethany is given in love. Anything given in love is endued with a particular fragrance; the rabbis said, such a gesture would fill up the world with its sweetness. I realize there’s always a risk of misunderstanding, when that much-misused word—“love”—is pulled out and thrown around. I am not, of course, talking about romantic love, though I don’t have any particular insights into the heart of Mary of Bethany. I am also not talking about “love” as a feeling, though I can of course imagine Mary’s deep sense of devotion and commitment. I am talking about love as a decision. Love as an action. Love as a verb.
When Jesus tells us, as he so often does in the gospels, to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, I don’t think he is talking about conjuring up feelings inside ourselves, though we may have some of those feelings. And when he talks about loving our neighbor as ourselves, I don’t think he means that we are commanded to warmth and fuzziness about the person next door or across the ocean. When we are commanded to love, we are commanded to take action.
I hope you have all had this kind of experience: being on the receiving end of a gesture made in love. You are in a terrible state over something real—your health, your work, your relationship, your finances—and someone says something to you that is so kindly encouraging you nearly weep. Or, you don’t know how you’ll manage the busy week you have, and someone takes a major responsibility and simply lifts it from your shoulders. Or, you are sick, and someone cares for you. You are hungry and someone feeds you. You are thirsty and someone offers you a cool drink of water. There are, or may be, feelings attached to each and every one of these situations on the part of the giver. But, in the end, the feelings are almost irrelevant. What matters is the action that is taken. Because that is what love is. Love is an action. Love is a decision. Love is a verb.
Now imagine you are a child living in a tent in Haiti, because your home collapsed on January 12 when the earthquake devastated your country. And your mother and father are dead, and maybe one sister remains alive. And there is no school for you to go to, no relatives to take you in, and even if there were, all the buildings are heaps of rubble. And now the rainy season has begun. And your just barely tolerable living situation becomes, again, unimaginably dreadful. And then, help arrives. Because somewhere, some Presbyterians held a coffeehouse on a beautiful March evening and bought more than they really needed and laughed themselves silly because they understand that love is an action. Love is a decision. Love is a verb.
She was a particular individual, with a particular history, and a particular relationship with God. Mary of Bethany’s relationship with Jesus may have begun in any number of ways—she was his student; he was her rabbi; she was his friend; perhaps he was her confidant. But the power of God in Jesus blew open and apart the categories of relationship for Mary and left her only one option: he was her master; she was his servant. She was a mourner; he restored her dead to life. She was a supplicant; he was the answer to prayer. And, in the end, he was love, and in her response, she was love.
Each of us is a particular individual, with a particular history, and our own particular relationship with God. Perhaps it begins because we are in Sunday School, and Jesus is the lesson. Or we are being taught to say our prayers, and Jesus is the one we pray to. But in the end, Jesus longs to find himself at home in our homes, in our hearts. In the end, we are called to recognize the shocking reality of the breadth and length and height and depth of his love for us, to recognize that he is love. And we are invited, in turn, to be that love, in response, so that every action, every gesture, may reveal this deep and wide love to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.