5th Sunday of Lent
Pastor Sarah Stadler
I’ve never really understood this story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet from the gospel of John.
At the pastors’ weekly Bible study, we call it text study, we sat together puzzling over this story in a much less confident way than we normally study scripture. There are historical and anthropological things we can understand, of course. Mary is acting as a prophet because, since Old Testament days, prophets anointed kings with oil, and nard is a perfumed oil. We can also understand that Mary is acting as a disciple, is foreshadowing the footwashing Jesus will share with the rest of his disciples in the very next chapter. We can understand that, in the gospel of John, the whole point of the gospel is that people come to believe that Jesus is the son of God, and it appears from this story that Mary believes and understands who Jesus is in a way that the other disciples do not. We can understand that Mary’s act is shockingly intimate in a culture where women did not touch men outside their families. We can understand that the nard was expensive; three hundred denarii was the equivalent of one year’s salary for a common laborer.
What we don’t understand is why Mary does this. At text study, we got to this point where we actually said to one another: This is a mystical story that is beyond our understanding. Mary’s act does not make any sense, and it is not meant to be understood. And then, in the midst of reading and re-reading this story, I realized that I am like Judas. I had been asking myself the very same question Judas asked. Mary, why did you waste precious money and nard on Jesus’ feet?
I realized that, in my 21st century, busy, efficient, free market capitalist brain, I had commodified even Mary’s act of love for Jesus. I realized that I really do believe that pouring a year’s worth of wages of perfumed oil on Jesus’ dirty, smelly feet is a waste. I realized that I struggle to understand this story because I so rarely allow extravagant acts of love in my own life. Instead of simply being with people, I am drawn to measure, to dissect, to assess the value of time spent together. I want to keep score, to make sure each person gives and takes equally, to control how we interact. I want my relationships to make sense, to not be wasteful. I am guessing, I am hoping I am not the only one who struggles in this way. In any case, no wonder I struggle with this story…for this is a story simply of how Mary lives in relationship with Jesus. Her anointing of him is extravagant by our standards, but her anointing is not wasteful.
While writing today’s sermon, I sat at this place in my sermon-writing process and thought: okay, now I understand what this story is about. But so what? I sat at this place for a long time. I went for a short power walk and then sat back down at my computer. I went and picked up citrus trees that our youth planted at Grant Park Community Garden yesterday and then sat back down at my computer. I scrubbed my shower and then sat back down at my computer. I made calls and then sat back down at my computer. I went to a wedding rehearsal and then sat back down at my computer.
What is this struggle? Why is it hard to understand a gospel lesson that is simply a story of relationship, of love poured out in nard and touch and care? We have apparently so commodified relationship that we—or at least I am so uncomfortable with it that I don’t know what to do with Jesus simply accepting the love of Mary in this act. Jesus never says anything to Mary. He neither commends nor reprimands her. He accepts her loving act. When Judas calls her act of love into question, Jesus says to Judas: Leave her alone. And then he basically tells Judas: She has done something beautiful for me while I am here. I won’t always be here.
So perhaps the “so what” of the gospel this week is an invitation to be in relationship—with God and with others—in ways that are real and even extravagant in their love. What that looks like for you in your relationship with God or in your relationships with others, that, I can’t tell you. That will be for you to figure out, what is most meaningful or authentic to you.
But if you’re like me and still struggle with this story being simply about a loving relationship, hear my story.
When I was a teenager, I started asking the question: What’s the point of life? Every Wednesday at my church’s senior high Bible study, I would pose this question to the other pastor at my church—not my dad, the other pastor—who led the study. He quickly became exasperated with my question, and I in turn became exasperated with him because he never answered my question. I went to college and continued to say to people now and then: what’s the point of life? I don’t know if others ask this question, but I definitely noticed a trend: nobody answers this question, doesn’t matter who you ask. Probably 8 years ago, I asked this question aloud for the last time to Ben. He looked at me and without missing a beat said, “relationships, being in relationships.” He looked at me like I should have known this. It’s easy, right? But I had been struggling with this for more than a decade! I didn’t really accept Ben’s answer. The way it went in my head was: Well, yes, but…
We were created in live in loving relationships, and that’s it. Mary’s act of love was but a reflection of the relationship Jesus had with her. A giving that was entirely free, without expectation of return, without a carefully measured exchange. That is the kind of relationship God offers us. Perhaps God’s relationship with us seems too free, too generous, too gracious. Perhaps, just as Mary’s extravagantly loving act activated uncomfortability in Judas, we too are uncomfortable. Perhaps we think God is wasting that love on us. But God is not wasting anything. We are worth the extravagance—just as Jesus himself was.