April 7, 2019
Once Touched, She Touched
How would you have responded to Jesus if you had a real life opportunity to know him? Like most Pharisees, I might have been scandalized and criticized his radical ways. Like many women and poor folks, I might have been deeply moved and grateful. Like his disciples, I might have become a rather clueless groupie. If Jesus had fed bread and fish to listeners in the US today, their response might have been: Has this fish been tested for mercury? Is the bread gluten-free? Or Mr. Trump may have shouted, I want Lay’s potato chips and French fries! Mary of Bethany and the anonymous woman who anointed Jesus’ feet responded to Jesus with compassion. How many of us would have thought to be compassionate…even to Jesus?
The Gospels were written for those who did not have an opportunity to know the living Jesus so that we could know what kind of devotion Jesus inspired in those who knew him. As we explore this story of Mary of Bethany, can we empathize with her gratitude and devotion to Jesus? In what ways can each of us follow her perceptive and bold example in our particular social setting today?
Before Jesus re-entered Jerusalem for the last time, he hung out in Bethany in order to evade would-be captors. Jesus visited Mary, Martha and Lazarus, close friends who knew he was a wanted man; yet they welcomed him. Raising Lazarus from the dead made Jerusalem’s powerful elite decide that Jesus was definitely a "serious threat" to their social order. Lazarus probably does not fully realize that Jesus’ death was being expedited because Jesus had saved him. Strange yet awesome: Lazarus will outlive his savior, Jesus.
Jesus recognizes his grim prospects and watches Martha prepare dinner, while Mary, deep in thought, contemplates Jesus. They eat together, finding comfort in each other’s company. Then Mary excuses herself and brings out an elegant jar. She kneels at Jesus' feet and breaks the neck of the vessel. The aroma of spikenard perfumes the room with a sharp scent like mint and ginseng. This costly embalming oil may likely have been carefully reserved for their own family’s death rituals.
Everyone watches in stunned silence. Mary loosens her hair, an inconceivable gesture for an honorable woman. Then she pours the fragrant oil on Jesus' feet. Such extravagance poured out on his FEET! Such waste seemed unimaginable. Then she touches his feet--his feet, no less! Such touch was unacceptable in their culture, even among closest friends. Mary then bends to brush perfume onto his feet with her own hair. What bizarre, yet awesome caring!
What inspires Mary to such audacious extravagance? Deep friendship, respect, gratitude… Mary gave the beautiful gift of sensitivity and compassion. She perceived and responded to what Jesus needed as he faced inevitable capture. Thomas John Carlisle describes her devotion in his poem, Justification:
So strange, so sweet, so shocking, so absurd.
The rhyme and reason of her reckless gift have no excuse but love.
Under the influence of Jesus, she caught the melody of sensitivity –
a faith feeling for another’s needs. She ran the raw risk of ridicule or being misunderstood.
The Judas-word of waste and derision hung in the air. Yet once touched, she touched.
[from Under the Influence]
Matthew and Luke record a similar incident of an unnamed woman who anointed Jesus. Only the Gospel of John recounts Mary’s act of devotion. Mary is his long-time friend, not an outcast. Judas is quick to criticize: "Why wasn't this costly perfume sold to help the poor?" Aware of his motives, Jesus retorts: "Leave her alone,." Then Jesus speaks the foreboding truth: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." Mary expresses her overwhelming gratitude and acknowledges the price Jesus will pay for his prodigal love. Mary rubbed his feet with perfume precious enough to feed a poor family for a year. This lavish act suggests another layer to her prophecy: There will be nothing economical about Jesus’ death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life. In him, God's extravagant love and mercy flow through him.
Mary can teach us at least one more significant lesson: Too much of our discipleship love and even our family love is expressed in empty words. If others cannot feel it, can’t smell it, taste it or see it, well, then it's not discipleship love. Mary shows us that we need to learn and practice such tangible discipleship today. But be ready. When we act out this kind of abundant love, a tangible love without words, but love that is felt and observed by others--expect resistance. Expect suspicion. Expect rejection. Because most people do not know what to do with this kind of serving or authentically compassionate love. Jesus’ own disciple, Judas proves that theory right. [Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis Biblical Preaching Professor at Luther Seminary, adapted]
Mary models yet other valuable insights – even about prophecy and about acknowledging death.
Anointing Jesus for burial must have seemed bizarre to those gathered for dinner. Mary’s prophetic act had a feminine touch. Yet it was no stranger than behavior of earlier prophets. The son of a temple priest, John the Baptist made a mockery of society by his anti-establishment by living as a hermit. Ezekiel ate a scroll of the Lord as a sign that he carried the word of God around inside of him (Ezekiel 2). Jeremiah smashed a precious clay jar to show God's judgment against Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 19). Isaiah walked around naked and barefoot in protest against the nations (Isaiah 20). Prophets boldly speak and often act out truth that others are unwilling to acknowledge. God’s prophets sometimes act in bizarre ways, mostly because they can’t shake people awake otherwise. Usually, those who observe the strange behavior of false or true prophets either write them off as nuts; or fall silent in awe, often because they bring challenging messages from God.
The gathering in Bethany was already overshadowed with death.
The flask of funeral oil is a potent reminder of Lazarus' recent funeral. Jesus’ disciples are in denial about his demise. Mary's act is prophetic because it acknowledges Jesus’ immanent death. Mary may even have seen that there would be no opportunity to embalm Jesus when he died. Mary could have anointed Jesus’ head; and then, they could have triumphantly proclaimed him as a king. Instead, Mary perfumed his feet, which could only mean one thing. Only corpses have their feet anointed. "Leave her alone," Jesus said, “Let her finish.” Jesus accepts her act of compassion as a care-filled act of a prophet.
Jesus will gather his friends together, yet one last time. At that last supper, with most of the same people, Jesus will strip down, tie a towel around his waist like a servant, and wash his disciples' feet. Then he will give them a new command: Love one another, as I have loved you.
At least one disciple will argue with him about such eccentric behavior, while others will wonder if Jesus had lost his mind. As Jesus cleanses their feet, some will remember Mary bending over his feet. The prophet Mary had responded to Jesus even without being commanded to love as Jesus loved her.
Once touched—she touched. Jesus was always giving. Who was nurturing him? Mary attended to his need. I wonder about churches sometimes—Who supports and nurtures church leaders and generous, quiet behind-the-scenes workers? Most church members tend to take church leaders and workers for granted. Remembering Mary’s example may help disciples today to listen to Jesus’ message: Love one another, as I have loved you. And, may we follow Mary’s inspiring example with friends, leaders and even strangers. Once touched, she touched.