The gospel lesson today is full of parallels, contrasts, and foreshadowing, as well as lavish devotion and discipleship.
You might have picked up on the recently revivified Lazarus at the table with Jesus. We know that Jesus loved Lazarus, and wept at his passing before recalling Lazarus from his tomb. Imagine how Lazarus must have felt toward Jesus. We can guess that he listened to Jesus’ every word as he sat in adoration of his Lord and friend.
Did you wonder if the stench of death lingered on Lazarus after 4 days in a tomb? That unpleasant odor in contrast with the sweet smell of Nard that permeated the house following Mary’s anointing of Jesus? Certainly, the foreshadowing of Jesus’ burial is clear, as Jesus himself names it.
Mary loved her brother, Lazarus, and had chastised Jesus for not arriving sooner to prevent his death. We can guess that Mary had prepared Lazarus for burial, however probably not with the extravagant perfume.
Nard, or Spikenard, was produced from the roots of the plant which grew in the high areas of the Himalayas and was said to grow at the gates of the Garden of Eden. When used for anointing, the costly Nard was reserved for people of the highest esteem – Kings, for example. Mary’s use of Nard to anoint Jesus signifies Jesus is King.
And Martha, true to her vocational calling, was actively serving. No complaints this time. Did she learn from Jesus that each of us has a role to play in the Kingdom of God? And that none is more important than another, because everyone is necessary to the community’s functioning and well-being?
Martha was modeling true discipleship – that of diakonia, or unconditional service. She used her aptitude to make sure everyone had what they needed. A perfect hostess, providing her best for all of her guests.
Now contrast Martha with Judas Iscariot, whose thievery and false concern for the poor was the example of FAUX discipleship – he played the part outwardly, but in his heart, love and compassion were lacking. Judas was not trustworthy. And Jesus, God made flesh, was fully cognizant of Judas’s fabricated consideration for others, yet included him in his inner circle. An example of loving one’s enemy?
Jesus was aware of the events to come, Mary’s anointing of him taking place less than one week from his regal entry into Jerusalem, followed by Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ arrest, torture, and finally, crucifixion. Being fully human, how must he have felt, knowing what he was about to face?
We read the external Jesus, and it appears he was holding himself together, remarkably, considering. But we aren’t given a glimpse into his mind-set or emotions. We don’t often think of Jesus in terms of needing anything. He was healing people, and feeding thousands. What could Jesus need from mere humans?
And then there’s Mary. Like Martha, Mary modeled true discipleship through her actions toward Jesus. Simply washing his feet was common courtesy, the expected hospitality offered to visitors, usually by slaves or women. Travelers, especially, whose feet would be coated in dust and grime, were topped off with oil that served as protection from further dirt, as well as soothing relief for sun baked feet.
But that’s where Mary’s behavior diverged from the norm. Mary’s was an act of abundant love and devotion. It was impractical, extravagant, and demonstrated the depth of her relationship with Jesus, as well as unity and belief in his mission.
Perhaps offensive, but definitely surprising, a woman’s hair was considered her glory, so by using her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet, Mary exalted Jesus, and we can assume his worn feet were calmed by the silky touch of her hair. Imagine how those observing felt as they witnessed Mary’s outpouring of love.
In purchasing the Nard, Mary spent the equivalent of one year’s wages. Perhaps every penny she had. But this was Mary’s final encounter with Jesus, who she recognized as the Messiah. Did she perhaps also comprehend the human need of Jesus?
On the road ahead, he would face condemnation, ridicule, excruciating pain, and abandonment. Imagine the tension and weariness building in Jesus as his hour approached. Mary, though, poured out on him not only the expensive Nard, but also its soothing properties, which is known to reduce feelings of stress, to allow muscles to relax, and help a person to feel settled.
Jesus needed the relief Mary provided him. He needed to receive her agape love, the highest form of love between God and human beings. Mary reciprocated Jesus’ love for all humanity, and her love for Jesus, given without restraint, provided peace and strength as his hour drew near.
Reciprocation in relationships is necessary for vibrancy – for energy and vitality and growth. Mary is a model for us. How might we emulate her?
Be grounded in the Word – Dwelling in Scripture is a reciprocal process, so when you read scripture, or hear God’s word preached, expect to encounter God. Anticipate God’s word just for you. It may be a word of affirmation, or guidance, or comfort. It will always be a word of love.
Prayer is reciprocal as well. It is time spent in conversation with God. But Humans have a tendency to focus on human needs. We can get stuck in the “help me” rut. So prayer doesn’t have to be about “asking.” We can sit with God in silence, emptying our minds of our everyday clutter, and just tune in to God’s will for us. Bask in God’s love and let your love for God go forth from your being. Let’s try it for one minute…...
Receive the sacraments as often as you’re able. Baptism is once and forever, But in receiving Holy Communion, God comes to us with abundant love and forgiveness. When you approach the altar, imagine God running out to wrap you in God’s arms – think of the Prodigal son’s father rushing to meet his returning son with complete abandon. Not chastising, but with unconditional love.
And from receiving God’s un-bounding love and forgiveness, we’re sent back into the world to love our neighbors as ourselves. CS Lewis wrote, “Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” Keep those words in mind as you encounter strangers where you work, or live, or play. You will Share God’s love, and receive it as well. Amen.
April 7, 2019
Deacon Kirsten Kessel