I preached this sermon at a chapel service at my seminary two weeks ago on a day we celebrated Women’s History Month. It also seems appropriate for our current celebration of Holy Week.
Today we are celebrating women. Responding to the call to tell women’s stories during Women’s History Month, we are singing songs written by women, enacting rituals that remembering women, bringing attention to injustice against women, and, just now, we read a story that features a woman.
So let me set the scene the story. In the chapter before today’s passage, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, were witnesses to that miracle and sign of Jesus’ identity. At the end of that chapter, we read that those in power are shaken by this event and are determined to put Jesus to death. The miracle of life is a scary thing sometimes. We don’t know how to respond.
But Mary and Martha and Lazarus did. They welcomed Jesus back to their town of Bethany with a banquet. I imagine a table piled high with olives and lamb and fresh bread. Did they know Jesus’ favorite food? It’s probably there, carried in on a steaming platter. A breeze blows from the street through the open wall, where curious passers-by peer in with excitement to catch a glimpse of both the man raised from the dead and the one who did the raising. Musicians play in the corner. Everyone laughs a joke. Lazarus reclines next to Jesus, and Martha can’t stop smiling as she pours the wine.
The passage tells us that it’s six days before Passover; there’s a sense of counting down to something. We know that there is a death threat hanging over Jesus’ head and that Jesus has foretold his own death. We seem to be close to the fullness of time. The gospel writer wants his audience to know that something important is about to happen.
Enter Mary. We know so little about her. She is one of at least three siblings. She wept bitterly over her brother’s death. She knows and loves Jesus. Imagine her holding a jar, coming from the doorway to the outward end of the couches, past her brother, the sight of whom always gives her heart a start of joy. She takes the jar she’s holding and breaks it open. The thick, amber oil pours slowly onto Jesus’ feet, the scent of so much perfume starts filling up the room. Do people fall silent as they catch the scent and realize what is happening? Do the out-door watchers point and whisper? What does Jesus do?
Mary pours out the whole jar. The whispers grow louder. “She probably paid 300 dinarii for that!” “I’d have to work a whole year to pay for a jar of pure nard!” Mary’s action comes at great personal cost.
When the jar is empty, Mary removes her head covering and carefully unpins her long hair. Those who see shake their heads and purse their lips. A woman with her hair down is a woman without honor, a woman of loose morals. Mary’s action is unashamed, even reckless.
She takes her long hair and begins to wipe Jesus’ feet, spreading the perfume, sending its aroma out to fill not just the room but the entire house. The gospel writer wants us to hear a connection between the way Mary wipes Jesus’ feet and the way, five days later, Jesus will wipe his disciples’ feet as he washes them. After completing the washing, Jesus will call his disciples to serve others in this way as he has served them. His act of service will be a model for what it means to truly follow Jesus.
And here is Mary, five days before Jesus gives this command to his disciples, embodying true discipleship, following the call the participate in the self-giving actions of Jesus. As a woman, she is on the margins of society with barely any power available to her. But as a disciple, she has entered into the heart of Jesus’ call.
Mary’s womanhood in this story is both a blessing and a danger for us as post-modern readers. It is a blessing because we see the typical strictures around women torn down and the fullness of God’s invitation extended. It is a woman who models real discipleship. But we are also walking on dangerous ground. Mary is a woman performing an act of service. We might be inclined to valorize her servant-hood to the point of telling women, who are so often called by our culture into self-effacing sacrifice, that they can never give enough of themselves. Women, don’t complain. Don’t speak up. Don’t resist. Don’t demand respect. Humiliation and even shame are part of the Christian servant-hood bargain. It’s one thing to talk about self-sacrifice in situations of privilege. It’s another thing to talk about self-sacrifice when the worth of selves, in this case of women, has been consistently denied.
But to view Mary’s action this way would be to miss the point. When Judas calls her act into question, Jesus doesn’t respond by saying that Mary is right because she is acting like a servant. He tells Judas that Mary has kept this for the day of Jesus’ own burial; Jesus connects Mary’s anointing, and thus her discipleship, to the recognition of Jesus’ impending death. What does this connection say about the meaning of Mary’s anointing?
When Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, she brings her whole self to Jesus’ movement of radical love. The other disciples don’t get it. Like Judas, their hearts might be elsewhere. Like Peter, they might be afraid. Like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, they might come timidly to anoint Jesus’ body. Mary anoints boldly. Mary brings her whole heart, her whole self, to the task of loving Jesus well, knowing that it could cost her everything.
When we follow Jesus, do we put our whole selves in? Do we de-compartmentalize our lives and let go of the ways of being that distract us from God’s call? Are we willing to recognize the profound faith of the unexpected and marginalized other, are we willing pay the price of our sense of superiority and attend to the ways God shows up where we have given up?
When Mary anoints Jesus, she refuses to play by society’s rules for norms and roles. She uncovers her head and deals extravagantly. She acts like a disciple even though she is a woman. She doesn’t let the smallness of the world’s imagination restrict the largeness of her love. She looks foolish for the sake of Jesus.
When we follow Jesus, are we willing break the status quo? Do we uncover the insidious habits of thinking that objectify women and hide abuse? Do we stand up for the right of all people to love and commit their lives freely to another person, regardless of sex or gender? Do we rebel against standards of busyness and name ourselves as worthy of rest? Are we willing to look foolish for Jesus? And do we do these things not just as persons but as pastors, as future leaders of the church, as prophets within our own institutions?
When Mary anoints Jesus, she chooses to identify herself with creative resistance. Jesus’ ministry was marked by attention to the powerless and by a boundary-breaking love that calls all people together. This kind of boundary-breaking is always terrifying to those who have hedged themselves with power. This kind of boundary-breaking gets you killed. Mary casts her lot with Jesus, knowing his way of fighting oppression, believing that his love could resist the power of death and create new life out of hopelessness.
When we follow Jesus, do we commit ourselves to the love that resists the power of death? Do we stand with oppressed female factory workers not just with our voices but with our dollars? Do we create spaces of healing and acceptance for teenage girls drowning in messages of self-hate? Do we break the boundaries that keep so many women struggling to care for themselves and their children? Do we join our fate to theirs?
When Mary anoints Jesus, she models a discipleship that gives everything, that rejects the status quo, that joins in with a subversive, boundary-breaking love.
But most of all, when Mary anoints Jesus, her action is born out of gratitude for the triumph of life over death. Jesus has raised her brother from death into life. Jesus has given her and her family new life and strength. Mary is not a model disciple because she worked harder at it. Jesus spoke life into Mary’s existence, and she responded with everything she had. Jesus doesn’t leave us alone in the hard call to follow him. Jesus equips us for unexpected and courageous discipleship. We respond with everything we have because Jesus speaks life into our existence.
I have this image of me, standing at the edge of the banquet room, unwilling to break open my jar and engage the risky work of loving a God condemned to die. I imagine I am not the only one standing there. We ring the room, unsure, not wanting to cause a scene, not certain we have the courage to begin the messy work of justice and mercy. Afraid to say “no” to death because saying “yes” to the life of Christ is sometimes just so terrifying.
Thank God for the courageous and unexpected role models we have in women who embraced the costly, counter-cultural, and transformative nature of discipleship. We have Mary of Bethany, who boldly anointed Jesus. We can learn from Catherine of Siena, who defied the gender roles of the 14th century and worked to bring peace to Italy. We remember Sojourner Truth, who took to task those who tried to deny her humanness and womanhood. We look to Sister Helen Prejean, who dares to build friendships with those society has discarded on death row and fights against the injustice of the death penalty. These women are disciples of an untamable God. They have responded to Jesus’ gift of life with a whole-hearted “yes.”
So, my friends. Serve Jesus with bold acts of love. God has breathed life into our bones and will give us the strength to answer the call of discipleship. Like Mary, may we give our whole selves to the subversive and transformative love of Jesus.