by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Jesus comes to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. While at table, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with nard, a costly perfume, and wipes his feet with her hair.
Grumbling ensues because Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, believes Mary has wasted money on an extravagance while the small fortune—a year’s worth of wages—could have gone to provide necessary nourishment for the multitudes living in poverty. The gospel writer John gives us an insider’s view when he reports that Judas concerns himself less about “the poor” and more about ensuring wealth enough to steal from the common purse—for which Judas is responsible.
Many a preacher and many a commentator have claimed this story is about wealth and poverty, about the appropriate use of resources. Theologians and preachers alike have made these arguments while recognizing that Judas grumbles not because he cares about people living in poverty but because he stole from the common purse. Judas is still deceiving us and distracting us! While I would love to chime in with some—what I think are—good points about the Greek on that last line: You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me, I fear that I would, like others, lead us astray of the main point. And that is that Mary loves Jesus. What does it look like to love someone?
A woman touches a man outside her family.
Mary anoints his feet, surely caked with mud and smelling of sweat and perhaps of fish, an unsavory act.
Mary anoints Jesus, an act commonly reserved for the coronation of a king and after death.
Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with a costly perfume. Where did she get the money for such a gift?
Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with a costly perfume and then dries those feet caked with mud with her hair, an intimate and not very pleasant action.
Mary risks retribution from her community for violating her culture’s boundaries between men and women. For indirectly suggesting that Jesus is a king, challenging the Roman Empire. For recognizing the truth the disciples want to deny: that Jesus will die. In addition to risking retribution, she does not let the unsavory or unpleasant nature of this act of love deter her. Mary loves Jesus, and she is willing to risk retribution and unpleasantness for the sake of that love. What does it look like to love someone?
We are each children of a parent or two, whether that parent is a biological parent, a foster parent, an adoptive parent, or a chosen parent. Our parents love us. Now, all parents make mistakes, are limited by their own family systems, and find themselves in spots of desperation from time to time. Parents are not perfect, and some are deliberately harmful to their children which is a deep sadness. But, by and large, when we were infants, our parents changed our diapers, got up from a sound sleep to feed us three times a night, and tended to our every need. When we were children, our parents brought us to school and all our activities, fed us, read us stories, and made sure we brushed our teeth. When we were teenagers, our parents gave us rules and limits so we might grow into loving, ethical human beings, gave us freedom to discover our interests, and gave us their attention so we knew we were loved…even if we could never admit that we cared. When we were young adults, our parents gave us advice about how to deal with new, adult situations, encouraged us to pursue our dreams, and maybe even helped us pay for college. In order to parent us, our parents faced their own demons, learned patience and forgiveness, completed unsavory yet necessary tasks, and sometimes put their dreams on hold for us, working hard so that we could have life. That’s what it looks like to love someone.
There may be moments of heart-swelling, eye-filling splendor. From time to time, we might burst with pride over our loved ones. But by and large, love is an action. Not a feeling.
The different gospel accounts report different details, but when Jesus is crucified, the only ones who accompany him to the cross are the women. Peter and the rest of the disciples flee. On Easter morning, the women travel to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, and once there, discover he is raised from the dead. Peter and the other disciples only come later. The women, though, they risk being called into question by the authorities. They risk tending to the body of a convicted criminal. They risk their reputations, their honor. Because they love Jesus. Because this is the kind of love Jesus inspires.
The kind of love Jesus inspires in you—what does that look like?
As I pondered the words that might convey the message of Mary’s anointing of Jesus, I considered, instead of talking, just doing. Maybe washing someone’s feet. Maybe sharing a prayer shawl with someone. Maybe helping someone navigate the steps as we did this past Wednesday after mid-week Lenten worship when the lift suddenly stopped working. Maybe picking someone up so that they can participate in this community. Or maybe making a phone call to a congress person or making ecologically conscious decisions, educating ourselves about the things that impact real people in real ways like sexual assault or suicide or how our tax money is used, picking up trash in our neighborhood or volunteering with a non-profit that does good work in the world.
Lester, our caretaker, told us once at staff meeting that his mother would say to him: I can’t hear you speaking because your actions are talking too loud. It is our actions that reveal our love. The kind of love Jesus inspires in you—what does that look like?
Once upon a time, as a 20 year old, I wanted to save the world with my love, and occasionally, I revive that spirit and lead campaigns. Now, though, I offer to do your laundry when you’re grieving. People usually laugh and think I’m kidding. But most people hate doing laundry. I kind of like it, and I love you. And helping create a less chaotic space will likely help you feel less crazy at times when there is just too much going on, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise. And though people have never let me do their laundry, just showing up at the hospital, at hospice, in people’s living rooms, sitting down on the concrete next to someone hurting while waiting for the paramedics, that’s enough. That’s love.
There are boundaries and taking care of yourself first, of course. There is wisdom in knowing your limits, granted. But the kind of love Jesus inspires in you—what does that look like?
The only way Mary knew how to love was because she saw the way Jesus loved her. And so it is for us.