"She Did What She Could"
Mary Anoints Jesus at Bethany

For Sunday March 17, 2013
Fifth Sunday in Lent

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Isaiah 43:16–21

Psalm 126 or 119:9–16

Philippians 3:4b–14

John 12:1–8

           There's a wine store near us that's known for its vast inventory and helpful staff. Most of their wine is priced for average consumers like me. But some of it's meant for connoisseurs and collectors, and is outrageously expensive. As I write, their web site features a bottle of 1985 DRC Domaine de la Romanée Conti Romanée Conti Grand Cru. The price? ,250.

           I wonder how my wife would feel if I bought that bottle of wine, brought it home, then drank it with a sick friend who had only a week to live.

Jesus anointed at Bethany, by Donald Krause
Jesus anointed at Bethany, by Donald Krause.

           My wife's a good and gracious person, but she'd respond like any normal human being. Are you kidding me? You did what?!

           John's gospel begins with a story of divine extravagance for human enjoyment — the equivalent of 600 bottles of the best wine at the wedding in Cana. This was the "first sign" that Jesus did, said John.

           This week he book ends his gospel with another story of extravagance — Mary anoints Jesus with perfume that's worth a year's wages. The anointing of Jesus at Bethany is the last event in John's gospel before Jesus's "triumphal entry" and the ensuing passion narrative. From start to finish, then, life as a child of God is marked by excess and extravagance, both given and received.

           The story is reminiscent of another woman of prolific generosity in the gospel, the poor widow who "gave all she had to live on." That wasn't much by human standards, of course, but Jesus said it was more than all that the rich gave combined.

           Extravagance moves both ways. It's reciprocal, both given and received, by both God and his people. Sometimes God is the giver; at other times we are. At the wedding party in Cana, God provided a surplus of wine. At the dinner party in Bethany, Mary gave a gift of expensive perfume. Whether divine or human, given or received, these acts of reckless abundance are signs of what life is like with the living God.   

           At Cana, the divine excess was for a wedding celebration. At Bethany, Mary's extravagance foretold of an imminent death.

           If the suspiciously similar-but-different story in Luke 7:36–50 describes the same event, the anointing of Jesus by a woman is one of the rare stories that's told in all four gospels. It was a powerful memory for the earliest believers. Jesus says her act was so singular that from that time forth, "wherever this gospel is preached, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."

           And how's this for unintended irony — Matthew and Mark never name this person; they simply call her "a woman." Luke describes her as "a sinful woman." There's a long history of identifying the woman as Mary Magdalene, although the gospels never say this. John alone tells us that it was Mary, the sibling of Martha and Lazarus.

Jesus anointed at Bethany, by James Woodward.
Jesus anointed at Bethany, by James Woodward.

           What is the Spirit of God saying in this story of wild excess during the Lenten season of self-denial?

           During the last week of his life, Jesus stayed in Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem. At a dinner to honor Jesus, Mary poured a pint of pure nard imported from India on his feet. Then she wiped his feet with her hair. The aroma filled the house.

           Almost every detail of this story breaks the social boundaries of the day. A dinner to honor Jesus ends with acrimony and arguments. A woman lies down beside Jesus. She lets down her hair, then caresses his feet with outrageously expensive oil. What was Mary doing?        

           The disciples were indignant: "Why this waste? We could have sold this perfume and given the money to the poor." Yes, after three years with Jesus, the disciples had learned this lesson well, that care for the poor characterizes the people of God. But believe it or not, and although there's never an excuse to ignore them, there's something more important than care for the poor.

           "They rebuked her harshly," writes Mark.

           "Leave her alone," said Jesus, "she's done a beautiful thing."

           In fact, Mary did more than she knew. Anointing Jesus was a gesture of personal devotion; but it was also a prophetic act: "When she poured this perfume on my body, she prepared me for my burial." Jesus wasn't just a wandering sage or renegade rabbi; he's the Anointed One. Anointed by Mary, yes, but especially by God. In Hebrew, he's "the Messiah."

           "She did what she could," said Jesus.

           And that's what we do in our Lenten disciplines. We do what we can. Mary's anointing didn't save Jesus from his tragic fate. Nor will our Lenten practices solve our every problem. But with Mary we do what we can.

           We give our old selves to God without restraint, all that we have and all that we are. In return, we trust God for a new self shaped by his unlimited love. In the words of this week's psalmist, we sow in tears, with the hope to reap in joy.

           In the reading from Isaiah, God invites us to "forget the former things. Do not dwell on the past. See, I'm doing a new thing. I'm making a way in the desert, streams in the wasteland."

Jesus anointed at Bethany.
Jesus anointed at Bethany.

           In the epistle for this week, Paul says that nothing compares to the reciprocal giving and receiving of God's overflowing goodness: "Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead."

           No, we haven't attained this, Paul admits. And to his radical aspirations he ads a realistic "somehow."

           But Mary shows us the way. "She did what she could." In response to God's infinite goodness, we offer our unbounded gratitude.

           "I will take what you give," Mother Teresa once prayed, "and I will give what you take."

Image credits: (1) Donald Krause; (2) James Woodward; and (3) Blogspot.com.