There is a narrative of Jesus being anointed by a woman in all four gospels. Leon Morris says that the relationship between them is rather complicated. John and Mark , and Matthew are similar in the words spoken and even the setting, although Mark and Matthew have this happening after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Luke is very different in timing and in the insistence that the woman was a sinner, and therefore in the teaching that goes along with it. John is the only one who puts a name to the woman; he identifies her with Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus and places this wonderful act of Worship and devotion into the context of a response to the raising of Lazarus. This may seem like a real sort of academic bible scholar not very exciting way of starting off this morning. But as we had this passage read out to us today and as I’ve been looking at it in preparation for this message I couldn’t help but find myself standing in Mark Matthew’s narrative, in fact I couldn’t help but think that we all today stand in this story, with people from everywhere down through the last two thousand years as Jesus says (click for quote) “Truly I tell you wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
And we are working our way towards Easter by working our way through peoples encounter with Jesus is John’s gospel and now. Today we look at two very different responses to Jesus one that is a memorable selfless act of devotion and the other a miserable self-centred act of denouncement: One responses with worship and the other with what’s in it for me. Both lead to Jesus death and both invite us to examine our hearts in relation to who Jesus is and what he has done for us.
Jesus comes to the village of Bethany six day before Passover. He is on his way up to Jerusalem so there is a sense here that he is on his way to die. Mary’s act of devotion is a preparation for his burial, and the seeds of Judas’ betrayal are clearly seen here. This is on the road to the cross.
We know that Martha was her normal hostess with the mostest and served. Once again it fits in with what we know of her character that she would show her devotion to Jesus by doing the practical things for the feast. Maybe again it was social expected of her as the oldest in her family. However there is a lot of scholarship round the idea of Martha waiting tables. Because waiting tables is the Greek word from which we get deacon, and the English word minister comes from the idea also of waiting tables. Feminist theologians quite rightly, I think, point out that Martha is always the one going about this servant leadership role in the gospel narratives. AS we saw last week she is someone who declares her faith in Jesus as the son of God and I don’t think it stretches things too far to see her running of the feast here as her act of leadership and devotion to Jesus. If we are talking of encountering Jesus in this passage in worship or in is it worth it…. She shows that serving is also part of our worship. She carries out this role selflessly in contrast with Judas’ who saw his role as the keeper of the purse as a chance for self-enrichment. This is always a challenge for people who serve and who express leadership… is it about worship and honouring Jesus or is it about status and self-actualisation or advancement. Worship or what’s in it for me.
Mary anoints Jesus feet with a very expensive jar of perfume. With nard which is an extract from a plant called spikenard… it is still used in perfumery and is still very expensive. In Mark and Mathew’s account she anoints his head, and it serves as his being anointed king as well as preparation for burial. It’s an acknowledgement of Jesus. In this instance just maybe John sees her wiping the feet as the ointment comes all the way down. In Luke’s account he points to the fact that he had been mistreated by the host who had not bothered to wash Jesus feet, and that the woman had not stopped washing his feet with her tears.
It’s a costly act, we are told that the nard cost about the equivalence of a year’s wages. But it was also costly as Mary puts aside her status, and as Jesus will with his disciples takes on a servant role. Jewish women did not uncover their hair in public but here she had loosened it to wipe his feet.
My friend Malcolm Gordon mentions this passage when he talks about worship. He says Worship is a conversation, in chapter 11 we see the awesome and beautiful thing that Jesus had done for Mary in raising Lazarus from the dead, now in response Mary does a beautiful thing for Jesus. Christ initiates and moves towards us with grace and love and healing and wholeness and we move towards Christ in response. One of the words in the Old Testament for worship is to lean forward to Kiss, here that is demonstrated graphically by Mary.
But the conversation of worship does not end there. Worship is two words and means to give something or someone worth. Mary acknowledges Jesus worthiness of all praise and Jesus in return gives Mary worth, he acknowledges the beauty of this expression and its significance in pointing to his death, he defends her actions, her devotion. In Luke there is the affirmation of great love being shown when much is forgiven, In Mark and Matthew he tell us that she will be remembered. Worship is God’s reaching out and initiating relationship with us and our responding. That opens the door to more of God’s grace as this conversation does not stop here but continues and is linked to Jesus death and God’s grace shown to us all.
On a real practical level Mary’s devotion is also wholehearted and involves all of her, body, mind and spirit. I wonder if in her heart and mind she has finally understood what Jesus going to Jerusalem will mean. She gets it and this is her response, she does not get to care for Jesus body when he dies that is left to Joseph of Arimathea and interestingly Nicodemus. It involves her emotions and her body. It’s funny but one of the nick names for us Presbyterian’s is God’s frozen chosen: Referring to the reformed understanding of predestination and also our embracing of a very formal and cerebral worship. Can I be cheeky and say it’s Ok to get excited about Jesus, the amazing truth that in him the word became flesh, the creator came and lived as one of his creation, that in the face of our brokenness and darkness that there is life, and freedom and forgiveness and hope and joy and peace, and fellowship and brothers and sister s to walk the road with us and eternal life and the spirit presence to led and guide us to face down the evil and sorrow of this world. I know it’s easy to sing too many of those Jesus as girlfriend songs, homoerotic worship as some have called it, its easy to get caught up in what we like rather than focusing on the one who loves us. I have friends who are always worried that worship can get too emotional, I worry that we don’t get caught up enough in the wonder of who it is we are loved by and who we have the privilege to worship. Mary is our model for worship.
However… It is easy to find ourselves standing with Judas. On the surface Judas is right isn’t he. Imagine what the equivalent of one year’s wages could do to elevate the suffering of few of the people who we met by the pool at the sheep gate, or along the side of the road. Part of true worship and Jewish piety was a willingness to give to the poor. It showed that your heart was attuned to the heart of God, the kingdom mentality that we are blessed to be a blessing to others. And Jesus does not dismiss that, he does not fault Judas on his care and concern for the poor, rather he says that there is room for both. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest command he replied it was to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and to love your neighbour as yourself. The two go together . It’s interesting that in Luke’s gospel the two stories that follow on from that are ‘ the parable of the good Samaritan, in response to the question who is my neighbour and then we have the story of Jesus at Martha and Mary’s house where Jesus commends Mary for sitting at his feet. I wonder here if we don’t have what it means to worship and give worth to Jesus, to sit at his feet, as we find ourselves today, with Mary again, and the go and do likewise of the Good Samaritan.
But with Judas we are told that there is an ulterior motive to what he has to say. We are let into what is really going on in his mind and heart. He’s in it not for worship but for what’s in it for him? He’s been dipping his hand into the money bag, lining his own pockets. I wonder iof Judas does not also understand from what is going on where this will lead. He was happy to follow Jesus when he thought that it would result in Jesus being installed in the palace, you have to remember that the disciples in the other gospels had arguments over who would be the key leaders when Jesus came into his earthly kingdom. But now that it is leading to the cross it is a different matter. What’s in it for me, does not present such an attractive alternative. When it was going to be victory and public recognition and glory, Ok… But Judas begins to see where It is going that it will lead to the feet of Jesus in humility, the feet of Jesus nailed to a cross, without the understanding that it will also lead to Jesus feet stepping from an empty tomb, then worship and following just don’t seem worth it, and Judas looks for another source of what’s in it for me.
Ok well how do we tie this all together in a way that will connect with us today?
Well Paul Meztger says this encounter with Jesus comes right in the midst of a conspiracy theory. At the end of Chapter 11 where the religious authorities plot to have Jesus killed and the end of this story where we hear they want to have Lazarus killed as well. In fact he says this narrative is part of that conspiracy as it directly tells us why and how Jesus dies. However, “The real conspiracy” he says “isn’t taking place on the pages or on the surface but in the hearts of respondents-including the readers, as we react to Mary’s act of supreme devotion to Jesus and Jesus himself.” And he brings it home in a very challenging way by continuing “We the readers tend to praise Mary for her extravagant demonstration of love for Jesus but we tend to behave like Judas, both in our carefully controlled piety and in our dismissal of tactile costly worship when we encounter it in whatever form.” The narrative finishes with people in two camps; those who came to see Jesus and believe and those who continued to plot his down fall… It finishes with with worship or what’s in it for me?