The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on John 12:1-8.
“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
Let me tell you everything we know about Mary of Bethany.
Mary is mentioned three times in the Gospels: once in Luke, and twice in John.
She, and her sister Martha, and their brother Lazarus, appear to have been close friends of Jesus. They are never mentioned in the lists of Jesus’ disciples who traveled with him, but they received Jesus into their home on more than one occasion, and the Gospel text itself tells us how much Jesus loved them.
We meet Mary first in Luke, in Chapter 10, when Jesus is “on his way” and is invited to the home of Martha and Mary for a meal. Martha is distracted by her many tasks, but Mary sits at the Lord’s feet and listens to what he is saying. Martha eventually complains that her lazy sister is leaving her to do all the work, but Jesus says that “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
One of the things I like best about this story is the interpretation of Mary. I read a commentary once that pointed out that the phrase “to sit at someone’s feet” was a technical term in that culture for becoming a disciple of a rabbi. When a young Jewish man wanted to become a rabbi, he would apprentice himself to an older, more experienced rabbi and “sit at his feet and listen” in order to learn as a disciple. Women, of course, in that culture, were not allowed to study with rabbis. But here is Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he is saying, demonstrating that she is a disciple, that she wants to learn from Jesus his way of reading scripture, his way of teaching God’s meaning, his Way of living in God. It doesn’t matter if that’s not the normal thing for someone like her to do. She just wants to be with Jesus.
So one thing we know about Mary of Bethany is that she is a disciple. She might not be mentioned in any of the lists, but she intentionally puts herself in the posture of learning from Jesus, and Jesus says that is the better part and it will not be taken from her.
The second time we see Mary is when her brother Lazarus dies. That’s in Chapter 11 of John’s Gospel. Lazarus has fallen ill, and Mary and Martha send word to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But Jesus doesn’t come right away; in fact, he only shows up four days after Lazarus has died, four days after it’s too late to do anything.
When the sisters hear that Jesus is approaching, Martha gets up and goes to the edge of town to meet him. Once again, Martha is the busy, proactive sister. She gets in Jesus’ face and challenges him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But she still holds out the hope there’s some further action that can be taken: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Martha the doer wants Jesus to do something.
It’s different when Mary comes to Jesus. She kneels at his feet, the same place from which she learned, and simply says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and weeps. No other words, no further action, no something-to-do. Just sorrow, and wanting to be in Jesus’ presence. And it’s then, in response to Mary, that Jesus himself begins to weep, it’s then that Jesus himself feels sorrow for the sorrows of the ones he loves, and it’s then that Jesus calls Lazarus back into life.
So another thing we know about Mary of Bethany is that she was willing to be completely honest with Jesus. No accusations, no challenges, no plans for action, no bargains. She is grieving, she doesn’t know anything else she can do, she has run out of hope; but even with nothing to offer, she is willing to kneel and be in the presence of Jesus. And it is into her emptiness that the fullness of Jesus’ life-giving love can flow.
The third time we see Mary is in this story from our Gospel reading today. It is six days before the Passover. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to confront the powers-that-be, and we already know, we’ve known for chapters, that the powers-that-be want to kill him. At this crucial moment, Lazarus and Martha and Mary welcome Jesus and his disciples to their home for a meal. Lazarus is at the table, alive in the presence of Jesus. Martha is serving; but this time there is no hint of distraction, no anxiety of hustle-and-bustle; it’s as if all her tasks fall into place as long as she’s focused on Jesus. And then in comes Mary, with her pound of very expensive perfume, and she sits at Jesus’ feet, yet once more, and anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair as she prepares him symbolically for burial.
Now she’s not just an apprentice. Now she’s not just a supplicant. Now she shows to Jesus the willing service, the tender compassion, the soothing of sorrow, that Jesus before had shown to her. It’s almost as if Mary and Jesus have now switched places, and she offers him the ministry he needs, just as he has always ministered to her.
And that’s the third thing we know about Mary: that she has learned the Way of Jesus’ ministry so thoroughly that she can reach out and minister to Jesus himself, in just exactly the way that Jesus needs.
So that’s everything we know about Mary of Bethany: she chose to be a disciple of Jesus, and she chose the better part; she was willing to be completely honest before Jesus and not to expect any action in return; she learned the Way of Jesus’ ministry so thoroughly that she could minister like Jesus, herself.
And what does Mary of Bethany help us know about ourselves?
Is there some part of your life where you are called to be like Mary, to demonstrate that your are a disciple of Jesus, to take a posture of learning before Jesus, even if that is not the socially expected or accepted thing for a person like you to do? Perhaps you’ve always thought that interpreting scripture, or thinking theologically, or sharing your faith story, is something meant for clergy and mystics and religious professionals – not for people with real lives in the real world, like you. Perhaps you think you can’t be a disciple because you’re too young, or too old – too poor, or too rich – too strange, or too normal – too silly, or too serious – perhaps you think you’re too something to be a “real” disciple of Jesus. It doesn’t matter. Jesus has a place in his wisdom for you. All you have to do is sit at his feet and listen. That’s a way we can be like Mary.
Or is there somewhere in your life where you need to come before Jesus in complete honesty, with nothing but your love and your need? Perhaps there is some area of life where you’ve always felt in control, always felt secure and connected. But now something’s changed, now you’re grieving, now you don’t know what to do. And all you want is to come to Jesus, with no plans, no bargains, no actions – just to kneel before Jesus and be in his presence. That’s another way we can be like Mary.
Or is there a way for you to be like Mary in ministry? Can you reach out and soothe the suffering of another person for Jesus’ sake? In our Baptismal Covenant we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Mother Teresa said she saw the face of Jesus in the face of every beggar she took in from the street, every dying person she comforted to the end. Is there someone you can comfort and care for, someone you can minister to because you see Jesus in them, just as Mary ministered to Jesus at Bethany? That is another we we can be like Mary.
“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” May the fragrance of our discipleship and love and ministry, like Mary’s, fill this house, and all the houses Jesus leads us to go. Amen.