Delivered 17 March 2013, the 5th Sunday in Lent (Year C) by the Rev. Mary Slenski.
Certain numbers repeat themselves over and over in the Bible. Have you noticed that? Take the number twelve. There were twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples (even two different lists, but twelve seems to be the right number), and twelve baskets of broken pieces and fish left over from the feeding of the multitude. The numbers might mean something more than a quantity. Might twelve baskets of leftovers be a sign that there was enough food left over for all the tribes of Israel—an extravagant abundance? The ancient storytellers used numbers as a symbolic way to connect one experience or story with another.
The first Creation story is ordered by the number of the day—first day, second day, and so forth. On the first day was light. On the sixth day, animals and humankind were created. So God spent six days creating and then rested on day seven. Over twenty times in Scripture, almost every time the phrase appears, a period of six days refers to a time of doing, creating. So, since the gospel of John is full of signs and symbols, the first phrase of our gospel reading, “Six days before the Passover,” is probably on purpose. Six days before takes us back to the first day. On that first, first day, God said, “Let there be light.” What will be brought to light on this day in our gospel?
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany to the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha—beloved friends. He had an invitation to a dinner in his honor. Lazarus, who’d been sick and then dead for four days, had been raised. Their family was restored, and what better way to celebrate than to have a dinner. Imagine the depth of their gratitude. It extends far beyond what Jesus did for Lazarus. These two sisters, seemingly, had no husbands nor a father. If their father had been alive, they’d have been living with him rather than with their brother. That makes their brother, Lazarus their protector and provider in a society where women had no place in the social order on their own. For Mary and Martha, their own lives were restored as well when Lazarus walked out from the tomb. Their family was also raised from the dead.
This raising was a mixed blessing, though, because, the chief priests and the Pharisees were looking for Jesus. The business with raising Lazarus only made everyone more anxious. There were orders that anyone who knew Jesus’ whereabouts should let the authorities know so that he could be arrested…to be put to death. They’d put a death warrant out on Lazarus too. These hostesses were harboring two men wanted by the authorities.
So, outside the door of the dinner party, death threats and plots are closing in. Imagine, inside, a dinner table as generous as the household could provide: olives, bread, figs, goat cheese and wine, a small fire in the fireplace. Martha was serving. She knew that when Jesus was around, Mary was useless to her, so she hadn’t even noticed when Mary left the room.
Martha did notice that when Mary came back her hair was loose. Her scarf must have gotten caught on something, and Mary was so intent on finding what she was looking for that she didn’t even notice. Father and mother would be aghast, Martha thought and just shook her head at her sister. At least she was in the house, and these were friends and family. “I’ll have to speak with her tomorrow,” Martha muttered under her breath. “Tomorrow.”
And then she smelled something, something new in the air. Something different was mixed in with the food, fire, and people. It was a scent somewhere between mint and ginseng. Nard, was it? The other guests were noticing, too, and the room was growing quiet and still. There might as well have been a spotlight on Mary and Jesus.
Mary was there at his feet as usual, but she was rubbing perfume on them, and the way her hair was hanging down, it looked like she was wiping them with her hair! Was she out of her mind? He’s alive, for God’s sake, that’s what we do to dead bodies! There’s enough death all around us! And Martha stood silently, riveted in her place, tray in her hand, as she watched her sister anoint their beloved friend with nard as if he were dead. This was a dinner celebrating life!
It was a bizarre act of wasteful, loving, contradicting, extravagance. Jesus’ response to his disciple, Judas, was just as bizarre. Judas became the champion of the poor! What made Mary do this, Jesus didn’t know; but in her act, he knew that his death was soon and that such costly abundance could only be a reminder of his Father’s love for him. Her bizarre act carried that message.
“Leave her alone,” he said. He knew that somehow this chaos all around them would be brought to a new order. It had to. Despite the reality of the death warrant on Jesus, the breath of God that was breathing through that chaos was brought to light. Jesus’ message of God’s abundant and unrestrained love for them would cost his life. Tomorrow, they would enter Jerusalem for the last time and continue the work. This was evening, and there would be morning…the first day.
The first Creation was ex nihilo, out of nothing. St. John is saying that God is present and works not just out of nothing, but out of death. This is seriously real Lenten reflection. Was Mary just acting out of unrestrained devotion in response to the events in her own life over that last week? Or…was she a prophet bearing God’s message to Jesus and his friends?
Something happened at a dinner with Jesus. A woman brought expensive perfume and anointed Jesus. Judas questioned the woman’s use of the money. Jesus responded in a way that didn’t embarrass the woman for her act of public intimacy. And all of our gospel writers remembered it.
They differ in the details. In Matthew and Mark the woman is unnamed. In Luke she’s a sinner. Locations vary. The story is told at different times in the chronology of Jesus’ ministry. Is any one of the versions more true than the others? No. They vary because each of us sees things a bit differently, we remember differently, we shape meaning from the events in our lives differently. We speak to different people. To John, it was important that the woman be named and that her relationship to Jesus be a familiar one.
If Mary was a prophet, a bearer of the message of God’s truth, the test would be in Jesus’ response. Jesus would carry on God’s work and pass on a message at another dinner that would be a continuation of the creative work of that last week. He would strip, wrap a towel around his waist, take a basin, and wash his disciple’s feet.
God is ever the Creator seeking us to be co-creators, bringing into the light what is not yet all it can be, inviting us into creative works of mission and ministry. Those creative works include the one of the sixth day, ourselves. In this last week of Lent, may we reflect on what God’s message is to us, however bizarre the message bearer. Where are we to change, so that we might be transformed into something closer to what God has ever intended for us? As the prophet Isaiah said, “I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator….Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa 43:15, 18-19a) Amen.