+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever thought, “Maybe Jesus sometimes got it wrong?” I wonder, “How on earth can he be defending Mary here?” Mary, sister of Martha, the sister who let Martha do all the work, strikes me as a bit of an impulsive air-head. Be honest: would you want to be stuck on a desert isle with her? I know that I’m not the only one skeptical about her. Think about what she did.
Mary had about a pint of spikenard, an enormous amount of perfume.[i] Wealthy Romans would use a little bit of it to anoint their heads. They’d use just a little bit because spikenard was very expensive. It came all the way from the mountains of northern India where the nard plant grows. Spikenard was the fragrant, rich rose red oil derived from root and the flower stalk of the nard plant.
Mary’s jar of perfume had the value of a year’s wages for a laborer – a year’s wages in that jar. Some scholars speculate that Mary’s jar may have been a family heirloom, passed down to her. Here she frittered it away on impulse.
In John’s gospel, Judas objected to Mary’s extravagance, pouring all that oil – much, much more than needed – onto Jesus’ feet. It’s a waste, an enormous waste. In Matthew’s gospel, it’s the disciples who object to the waste. In Mark’s gospel, it’s the people standing around watching who object. It’s like flushing money down the toilet. It’s a misuse of precious resources for a momentary devotion. You couldn’t run a family budget that way and still eat. If our staff or governing board acted that way, it’d be time to make significant personnel changes or to shut the place down.
Not only did Mary squander the perfume, the way she did the anointing was highly inappropriate. First, it was improper to anoint feet during a meal – disgusting hygiene: filthy feet mingling with eating. Even Jesus’ feet got dirty. Second, wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair was bizarre and scandalous. Jewish women did not unbind their hair in public. It indicated loose morals. If a married woman let her hair down in public, her husband could divorce her.[ii]
We might reasonably consider Mary’s behavior as foolish, a bit creepy, perhaps even kinky. She did not appear to be adult, or responsible, but impetuous and emotional and exaggerated. I get that Mary was extremely grateful to Jesus. In the chapter just before this scene, Jesus had raised Mary’s brother, Lazarus, from the dead. Possibly Mary would have been destitute without Lazarus. Her prodigal ways with the family wealth suggest that she would have difficulty with a budget.
Mary may also have had some sense that she was about to be separated from Jesus, that he had nearly reached the climax of his ministry. In a week, he would be dead. She anointed his feet the day before Palm Sunday, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he’d be hailed King of Israel, the one who comes in the Name of the Lord. Her anointing shows that Jesus is king. It was a prophetic act. It also prepared Jesus for burial.
Still, Mary’s spectacle of love and service seems excessive and distasteful, and I don’t immediately understand why Jesus defended ridiculous Mary and rebuked sensible Judas. It may be that Jesus was speaking to me, and perhaps to you, when he said, “Leave her alone.”;
It may be that what John has highlighted for us in this scene are two different ways to be a disciple, to be a follower of Jesus. There are two different attitudes about discipleship, and most of us have both of them in us. For Judas, discipleship was a duty, an obligation. The censorious, shaming moral voice scolding, “Think of the poor,” but he was not really interested in caring for the poor. He was calculating.
On the other hand, for Mary, discipleship was about passion, the thing that energized her. She’s animated by generosity, tenderness, and enthusiasm… so in the moment, so vulnerable, and Judas was getting on her case about it. Maybe she has something to show us about how to follow Jesus.
In the next chapter of John, chapter 13, five days later, it was the night of the Last Supper, Maundy Thursday, and Jesus instituted the Eucharist. He wanted to show his disciples true discipleship, and Mary’s overwrought foot washing inspired him.
Jesus he got up during the meal, striped off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around himself, girded himself like a servant, and washed the feet of his disciples… exactly what we’ll do here on Maundy Thursday. After he did this, he told his disciples, “If I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do… I give you a new command: love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples – when they see the love you have for each other.” (13:14, 34-35)
Jesus wants us to follow him, like Mary did, out of passion, out of desire – not out of duty or obligation. If we find discipleship a burden, a yoke, we’re missing it; our motivation is confused. Love motivates true discipleship. That’s what Mary showed us. God wants passion, not duty; love, not obligation; desire, not burden.
The point is: if you want to engage in caring for the poor or any other kind of Christian ministry, don’t do it out of obligation. God doesn’t want you to follow him out of guilt or fear or compulsion. The challenge for every Christian: engage in ministry and follow Jesus out of passion, out of love, out of thanks.
Motivation matters… a lot. The way of duty is: I’ll follow and obey God so that he’ll accept me. The way of passion is: God loves me, accepts me, delights in me, and in response I follow and obey. The human inclination is the way of duty. The gospel is the way of passion.
We see Mary’s lavish generosity, and we may wonder how we might ever be like that. We won’t become truly generous by an act of will, or by a feeling of guilt, or by sense of duty. Rather, the first step is becoming aware of why wealth is important to us, how we tie our sense of respect, or value, or security, or importance, or approval to wealth.
The way to true generosity is connecting with the gospel and internalizing the gospel and identifying with the gospel. The good news is that God deeply loves and cares for us. The quality of our relationship with God is what gives us value and security and importance. Acting out of duty, following moral rules, earning our place with God, doesn’t lead to a true change of heart.
Mary showed us a discipleship motivated by passion and gratitude. It’s discipleship as a response to God’s acceptance and love of us. That’s repentance. That’s a change of heart. Mary showed us the disciple’s heart, a heart changed. God longs for our love, for passion, not duty.
Imagine your life without guilt, fear, duty. Imagine the church not being associated with guilt and duty. Imagine not feeling guilt and duty about your family or work or God. That’s the gospel ideal. True discipleship comes not from duty, but from love. Thank you, Mary.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] Andreas J. Kostenberger, John, Baker Academic (2004), pp. 360-61.
[ii] Kostenberger, p. 362.
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