In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ ministry begins with an overflow of an expensive wine. In today’s Gospel lesson, just days before his death, his ministry is confirmed with the outpouring of a costly perfume.
Now many of you are familiar with Jesus’s first miracle. Jesus and his mother Mary are at a wedding feast. A party designed to last a week. Only the wine runs out far too soon. While this may not be the biggest deal for us today (something we might at most roll our eyes at), in this honor-and-shame culture this is a great disgrace.
Jesus, seeing this, decides to act. And he makes a way where there is no way. And when he’s finished what was about to be shame is replaced with honor. For not only is there wine enough to spare, but the best wine has been saved for last.
Now John does not call this act a miracle. He calls it a sign. And he calls it a sign to get us to look beyond the event itself to what it points to. To the overflowing love and grace of God for people so prone to shaming themselves. People like me and you.
We saw this same theme last week in the Parable of the Prodigal Son when the father removes the shame of his wayward son by doing what no Middle Eastern patriarch would do; lift his tunic, expose his ankles, and run like a child. And in so doing remove his son’s shame by taking it upon himself. And not only is shame removed, but in giving the son his robe, slaughtering the fatted calf, and throwing him a party, shame is replace with honor. Here is yet another instance of the abundant, costly, and some would say reckless love of God for sons and daughters like me and you.
We see this same theme today in the story of Mary of Bethany. Now we’ve met Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus before. She’s probably most famous today for the fight between her and her sister Martha. In that story we think of hard-at-work Martha complaining to Jesus that she is doing everything while her sister’s doing nothing. We think of Jesus saying “Chill out, Martha. Sometimes you’ve gotta live in the moment and not be distracted by all the work that needs to be done.” But this is only partially what that story is about. For, in fact, Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus to hear him teach, is engaging in no small silent revolutionary act. For in putting herself at his feet like this she is putting herself in the place of a disciple--something that women just couldn’t be. So in speaking up Martha is probably more a mouth-piece in the story for the disciples as a whole. She’s essentially saying, “Jesus tell Mary to know her role and come help me with the ‘women’s work.’” Martha is essentially trying to shame Mary so that she might know her place. But Jesus, in his response, rejects this intended shame, and in commending Mary for choosing the better path, replaces it with honor. Once again--in that time--an outpouring of reckless love.
In today’s reading we find taboo-prone Mary at it again. A meal is being thrown in her brother’s honor when once again she steals the limelight where, seemingly out of a clear blue sky, she falls at Jesus’ feet, anoints them with costly perfume, and washes them with her hair. This is a scandal not just because she’s “wasteful,” but because she does what Jewish women of the time simply don’t do. She let’s her hair down in public. This public act would have been seen as very intimate, almost erotic.
Why does she do this? We aren’t told. Maybe it’s because he’s recently raised her brother Lazarus? Maybe it’s just out of her sheer devotion to Jesus? Whatever the case much like her sitting at the feet of Jesus, this episode also makes the disciples uncomfortable. So Judas, on behalf of all the disciples, speaks up in the midst of the awkwardness of a woman with her hair down. He says, “Why didn’t this woman instead sell this costly perfume and give the proceeds to the poor?” A point that we’d think might normally resonate with Jesus given his emphasis on caring for the impoverished. But in case we were to think that Judas was on to something, the author of John interjects here. He feels the need to interrupt his story to call a spade a spade. He makes it clear that Judas is here co-opting the language of solidarity with the poor for his own purposes. (Not so unlike many of our politicians today.) What John is saying is that Judas’ using the poor as a means to his own ends. In essence, Judas’ real purpose is much like Martha’s in the earlier episode: he’s trying to shame Mary.
But Jesus, in his response doesn't let this fly. Once again, where shame was intended he removes it and replaces it with honor. Jesus, being unafraid of a woman who lets her hair down, receives this outpouring of love and devotion for what it is. And he honors it by using her deed to point to the ultimate outpouring of grace and love--he connects her anointing to his cross where he’d pour out everything for people like you and me. Removing our shame and replacing it with honor.
Now getting too close to a love like this may rightly stir up fear in us. Fear that it might seize us to respond like wild Mary; overflowing in grace and love toward Christ and those around us. It’s legitimate concern for when the gospel takes hold there’s no telling what’ll can happen.
Only do not be afraid, and do not shy away, because this is the love that you’ve always longed for. The love that we’ve searched so hard for in all the wrong places. The love that fills to the brim and overflows is right here. So I invite you, as we approach the end of Lent, to come, and let your hair down, and surrender to this love.