Text: John 12:1-8
Have you ever had one of those “What was I thinking?” experiences? Like when you go to the local SPCA to just look at dogs and you come home with two? Or you are at your favorite nonprofit fundraiser which is having a live auction and you start bidding on an item thinking in your mind you will bid up to $300. Then fifteen minutes later you realize that you’ve gotten caught up in a bidding frenzy with a friend and in the end you walk out with an $800 bowl. You get to the car and your spouse, who loves you dearly, looks at you and says, “What were you thinking?” Just like when you got home with two dogs and thought to yourself, “What was I thinking?”
Well, one might ask this same question when reading the story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus. What was she thinking? The amount and cost of the perfume Mary uses—equivalent to about one year’s wages for a manual laborer—is simply staggering. It is a ridiculous amount of money to squander in one moment of devotion. So what was she thinking? Is she aware of the cost of her gift? Most likely. On some level is she aware that Jesus will not be with them much longer? Possibly. But still, surely one can understand Judas’ question, even if his motive is insincere. Just think of all the poor people who could have been served with that amount of money. It seems like a fair question. But is it? What was Mary of Bethany thinking?
The anointing of Jesus is one of the few events reported by each of the four Gospels, although the details of each account vary. All report the anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume by a woman. Each report how disturbing this is for some of the onlookers because, in their view, the perfume could have been sold for a year’s wages—which Mark values at 300 denarii—and the money given to the poor. Matthew reports in his account that the “disciples were indignant” and John states that it was Judas who was most offended. John further surmises that Judas was bothered because he, Judas, was a thief and desired the money for himself. Regardless of motive, it appears that what this Mary did raised serious questions among those who witnessed her actions.
And of this woman, who was she? John records that it was Mary of Bethany who broke open the alabaster jar and anointed Jesus’ feet and then wiped them with her tears and hair. But if you read the other gospel accounts, the identity of this woman becomes a question. For instance, Luke calls her, “one who lived a sinful life” and like John also records that she poured the perfume over Jesus’ feet and then wiped his feet with her hair. Matthew simply states that “a woman” came to Jesus with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume and poured it over Jesus’ head. Mark doesn’t identify her by name either and states also that she poured the expensive perfume over Jesus’ head. Some scholars believe the unnamed woman to be Mary Magdalene. Others believe that it is possible that there were two events of women anointing Jesus. In studying this passage this past week I began wondering…Are Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene the same or two different women? Is the sinful woman in Luke Mary Magdalene thus suggesting that the anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume did happen twice? When we read this story in all four of the gospels, are we talking about three different women, two different women, one woman, or a composite of the women who anointed Jesus?
Some would question, I’m sure, whether the identity of the woman really matters. Does it matter whether it was Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Bethany, or some other Mary? Does it really matter, you might ask, what difference it makes to the meaning of the story who this Mary was? Well, I believe it matters. Not in the sense that we HAVE to know in order for the story to have meaning. It matters because so many women in the biblical story go unnamed. And because of that, it feels deeply important that we try and understand who this woman was as best we can—even if we can’t know for certain. It matters because what she did was so profound and powerful that her story made it into our sacred scriptures. It matters because Jesus said of this woman, “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” It matters because her story, their story illustrates the kind of extravagant love that God offers to us.
But there is another reason why I am interested in this woman’s identity. To understand her story, gives insight into her motive for breaking open that expensive jar of perfume.
For a moment, let’s go with John’s account that it was Mary of Bethany who broke open the alabaster jar and anointed Jesus. She certainly had a good motive for breaking open the expensive perfume. Jesus had just raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. From that story we remember how distraught Mary was over her brother’s death. John tells us that when Jesus saw Mary weeping and how deep her grief was that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” and that Jesus himself began weeping. And seeing Mary’s grief, Jesus raised her brother back to life. With that story as the backdrop, is Mary of Bethany’s motive this sheer and abundant gratitude for Jesus bringing her dead brother back to life? Is she so moved and grateful that she gives Jesus all that she has? This Mary of Bethany causes us to ask what would prompt us to offer such a lavish and intimate gift? Have we ever gotten so caught up in the moment that we gave no thought to cost but could only give all that we had? Is this what the abundant grace and generosity of discipleship looks and smells like?
If, indeed, Mary of Bethany’s motive was one of profound gratitude, what might have been the motive of the “woman who lived a sinful life?” Luke doesn’t get specific about this woman’s sin but it is commonplace for commentators to assume that she is a prostitute, as if the only sin a Jewish woman of the first century could commit would be sexual sin. Whatever her sin, we know from the story that she was known as the “town sinner.” We can only imagine how ostracized she was by all the townspeople. To be certain, she was not on the regular invitee list to the local town parties—not at least those the Pharisees threw. To be a woman already meant a lower status in her society and culture. To be a woman sinner must have put her at the lowest of lowest societal rungs. She would have had no place at any table. That is why it is so astounding that she crashes this dinner party and in an extravagant act anoints Jesus before all the religious people. Why? What motived her and gave her such courage to show such extravagant love to Jesus? I don’t know but I am guessing it had something to do with grace. We have to assume that this woman had either heard of or witnessed this man named Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners and offering them a place at the table. Surely, she had heard him speak and preach of a kind of mercy and grace that welcomed all to his table. Perhaps she even knew someone who had experienced his healing touch and his extravagant grace. And having heard of his message and witnessed his ministry of mercy and grace to all—sinners alike—she crashed the party, broke open and poured out every drop of that expensive perfume on the one who welcomed her to the table of God’s unconditional love and grace. The experience of such grace is certainly motive for such an extravagant act.
And so, if gratitude was the motive for Mary of Bethany and grace the motive for the “woman who was a sinner,” what then might have been Mary Magdalene’s motive to breaking open that alabaster jar? I will be brief here. It is my biblical imagination that leads me to the conclusion that if it was Mary Magdalene who lavishly anointed Jesus it was out of pure love and devotion. Rumi, I think, best describes Mary Magdalene’s motive: “Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy, absentminded. Someone sober will worry about the things going badly. Let the lover be.” Simply put, Mary Magdalene loved Jesus.
It would be cowardly to conclude this sermon without addressing Jesus’ response to those who questioned the judgment and passion of these women. To the question of why this expensive perfume was not sold and the money given to help the poor Jesus said, “Leave this woman alone. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” “Certain Christians love to quote this verse—Christians who claim to have read and understood their Bibles. But they get it wrong. Backwards wrong. Perversely, cruelly, anti-biblically, sinfully, hellishly wrong. Most of the time when you hear someone citing this passage, they do so in a shrugging acceptance that poverty is just the way it is and that there’s nothing we can do about it. And that’s not what Jesus was saying at all.” (Fred Clark, Patheos)
Jesus was actually quoting from the Torah, specifically Deuteronomy 15:11 which reads:
Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
The passage Jesus was quoting is not a complacent description, but an if-then statement. “Since … therefore …” Deuteronomy 15:11 says. Jesus only quotes the “since” part because he didn’t need to quote the “therefore” — he knew that his disciples knew the rest of that verse: “I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” That is what “The poor will always be with you” means in the Bible. In Deuteronomy and in Matthew, Mark and John. It means, therefore, we are commanded to open our hands to the poor and needy.
If we go back and read all of Deuteronomy 15 then we will understand what Jesus is saying in John 12. We will understand that:
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.”
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “do not be hardhearted or tightfisted.”
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “be careful not to harbor this wicked thought.”
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “do not show ill will toward the needy.”
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “give generously and do so without a grudging heart.”
Whenever you say “the poor will always be with you,” you are also saying “be openhanded toward the poor and needy.” (Fred Clark, Patheos)
With that said, I come back to three Marys, three motives. Rather than measuring out a small amount of oil, these women of passion break the jar and pour it all out. Gratitude, grace and love – none of these lend themselves to meagerly, miserly measurement. Rather, by definition, these are given and received in abundance. The quantity of oil represents the fullness of their hearts, and the freedom with which they offer them. So what are you thinking? What would prompt you/us to offer such a lavish and intimate gift? Have you/we ever gotten so caught up in the moment that we gave no thought to cost but could only give all that we had? And is this what the abundant grace and generosity of discipleship looks and smells like?
The prophet Isaiah proclaims that God is doing a new thing. I’m wondering will we have the passion and courage of the three Marys to participate in this new thing—a life of extravagant gratitude, extravagant grace and extravagant love. I sure hope so. I sure hope so!