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Listening, Not Fixing: the Example Mary of Bethany

Today is the fifth and Last Sunday in Lent, and I don’t think I can remember a Lent quite as beautiful as this one’s been. I think this bodes well for the kind of Easter we’re going to have this year! But we’re not there yet. Next time we gather together on Sunday it will be the beginning of Holy Week with the Palm Procession followed by the reading of the Passion story. And already in our reading for today, we have intimations of what’s ahead. Lent 5 always serves as a pivot to Holy Week, foreshadowing it in some way. This year that foreshadowing happens with the story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus.

There are many depictions of this story in art, where Mary is typically portrayed with her long wanton red hair. You get the sense both from her appearance and the look on the disciples’ faces that she’s doing something inappropriate. Those paintings are based partly on the version we get over in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, and partly on tradition. The other Gospel writers don’t give this woman a name or identity. She seems to just barge in off the street while Jesus and the disciples are having supper. There’s a reckless sensuousness in their telling of it. She breaks the neck of the bottle and pours the oil all over his body – his head, his arms, his legs and feet. Even though she’s not given a name, tradition identified her with Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ friend, whom the later church fathers labelled a prostitute. Another legend identifies this woman, whoever she was, with Jesus’ wife.

But we don’t have to concern ourselves with any of that today because, in John’s handling of it, we have a very different story. This is Mary of Bethany–not Mary Magdalene or Mary the Mother, but Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. We meet the three of them a few times in the Gospels. First, when Jesus and his disciples come to their home for a meal. Martha the oldest sister gets busy working in the kitchen while Mary the younger sits idly at Jesus’ feet along with the men. Martha, the dutiful one, scolds Mary for her indolence. But Jesus defends her: Mary, he says, has chosen the better part in sitting here with me and listening. Women with sisters will be familiar with this dynamic, the diligent sister and the dreamer. I have a Martha for a sister and I love this story as much as she hates it.

Another visit to their home that the Scriptures tell us of Is when Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus gets sick and dies. Jesus arrives to their home late, only after Lazarus has died, and Mary comes running toward him crying and upset that he didn’t arrive in time to heal her brother. We know the story from there: he enters Lazarus’ tomb and brings him back to life.

Today’s story takes place soon after that. Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus and all twelve of the disciples are gathered in Bethany six days before the Passover–Saturday before Holy Week, and the day before Palm Sunday. That’s why we read it here in the church: this is the last event to take place before Jesus enters Jerusalem (next week’s reading). Once again, Martha puts on a meal for Jesus and his disciples at her home. Once again, Mary avoids the kitchen. At some point in the evening, Mary brings out an expensive jar of perfume and begins pouring it on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. The other disciples are shocked at her lavishness, especially Judas. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

It’s hard not to sympathize a little with Judas here.  After all, Jesus has spent his whole ministry preaching about the need to be generous to the poor, only to now defend this act that seems so wasteful.  One sermon I read compared this to going out to the wine store and buying a $40,000 bottle of wine to drink with your dying friend. That’s not a section I’m familiar with at Zachy’s (and you better not be, either!).

It’s lavish, but John, alone of the Gospel writers, frames this as an important ritual act, an anointing for burial.This is at a point in the Gospel where Jesus has tried over and over to tell the twelve disciples he is going to die. And how do they respond? With denial, scolding, outright refusal to hear him. Peter’s rebuke when Jesus tells him on the road to Jerusalem that he must suffer, and die, and on the third day be raised. The disciples falling asleep when Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah about his death on the Mt of the Transfiguration. James and John’s oblivious squabble over which of them is the greatest even as Jesus explains to them his need to die. No one is willing to hear him talk about his death, much less help him prepare for it. Until Mary. Mary, who opens that bottle of expensive ointment, probably bought with his burial in mind, pours it over his feet, and with this gesture, says “I am listening.”

On the one hand, this was an extraordinary event that happened between people we would never presume to be–this is about Jesus’ death and burial. But it’s also a completely familiar interaction. Just like the disciples, we sometimes deny someone their grief, their pain and fears, because we’re afraid to lose them or we don’t want to be burdened with their weaknesses. We let our own needs or fears get in the way of what they need. I’ve seen over the years (and you probably have too) this struggle at the deathbed of loved ones. I’ve said to those close to death when no one else will, even when I haven’t wanted to, You can let go, it’ll be OK. And you can just see the relief pour into their faces. I’ve witnessed people struggle to just listen to someone without trying to fix their problems. I’ve struggled with that myself. Many times.

As we move into Holy Week next Sunday, Mary of Bethany is our example. She and the Church call us to walk with Jesus through his suffering and death. To remain at his side and not look away. And just as we do that with Jesus liturgically, through the rites and rituals of the church, we’re to do that with one another. We re-enact these events from the past so that we can make a difference in the present.

These final weeks leading to Easter are full of practical lessons of the compassionate Christian life. May God give us grace to hear them, and to follow him, through his suffering and death to his resurrection. Amen.