A few days ago, I had one of those uncomfortable encounters I have from time to time in Madison. I had stopped into Barrique’s for a cup of coffee, and sat down at a table to read through the latest Isthmus edition. There were two well-dressed men at the next table having a conversation. One of them saw me and began to ask me about the shelter. What followed was a fifteen minute rant about the evils of homelessness and the need to construct a shelter somewhere else than downtown. Their brilliant idea was to put it down by the Alliant Center, far away from their places of business and residence downtown, far enough away that they wouldn’t be bothered by homeless people, or presumably by panhandlers because they could not get downtown anymore.
Poverty has many faces in America. There’s the relative invisibility of rural poverty, or that on native American reservations. There’s the invisibility of poverty in neighborhoods that are physically or economically segregated from more affluent areas. And there’s the poverty we see on Capitol Square, in the lines that form at our food pantry and in the evenings in our courtyard when intake at the men’s shelter begins. There’s the poverty we see in the people who sit around downtown, yes, some of them asking for spare change. Many of us probably wish that we wouldn’t or couldn’t see that sort of poverty.
Today’s gospel reading, which takes us for a Sunday away from the Gospel of Luke and to the gospel of John, is a story that operates on numerous levels and is famous both for the anointing that Mary performs and for the disciples,’ specifically Judas’ response. No doubt my two friends would be equally puzzled by Mary’s actions, Judas’ critique, and Jesus’ response. Why would you waste all that money on someone else when you could spend it on yourself? And the poor are there only because of the bad choices they’ve made in life—they deserve it.
It’s a story that is told in different ways in all four gospels, with different characters, different actors, and different meanings attached to it by the gospel writers. John follows at least roughly Mark’s chronology and geography, by placing it at Bethany (just outside Jerusalem) in the week before Jesus’ crucifixion. Mark is less precise, or perhaps John identifies the actors in the story. In Mark, it is an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus at the house of Simon the Leper, and the story ends with Jesus commending her with the words, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ In addition, Mark says that it was all the disciples who complained about the woman’s action, criticizing her extravagance.
Our gospel reading brings us to the very edge of Holy Week—John tells us that Passover is six days away. It also occurs just after another momentous event—Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. It’s likely that John wants us to see this dinner as a celebration of that miracle. Family and friends have gathered to rejoice at this wholly unexpected turn of events. What a whiplash of emotions from the grief and sadness of mourning to unimaginable joy.
The story itself is quite simple, a version of similar stories in the other gospels. She acts with abandon and with no eye to what is respectable. To spend that much—a daily laborer’s annual wages—on perfume for Jesus was an outrageous act. Those in attendance at the dinner had to have been shocked. Even more shocking was what she did next: wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. She offended propriety and good manners. She transgressed all sorts of boundaries. Anointing was something men did to men. And for a woman publicly to touch and wipe a man’s feet. It was an erotically charged act.
For John’s gospel though, there are other meanings in what she does. It comes at the very end of Jesus’ public ministry—from now on, Jesus will teach only his disciples. So it’s a transitional moment in that way. And as such it looks back to the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. His first sign, when he turned water into wine at Cana was an act very much like Mary’s. To produce 120-180 gallons of wine during a party when all of the wine had already been consumed was an extravagant and profligate act. So too is Mary’s action here in spending a year’s salary on perfume, anointing Jesus with it, and wiping his feet with her hair.
It looks back in another subtle way. John makes note that the smell of the perfume filled the house. In chapter 11, when Jesus instructs them to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, Mary’s sister Martha reminds him that Lazarus has been dead four days and the stench will be overwhelming.
Mary’s actions also look ahead to what is to come. That’s obvious in one way, because Jesus explains what she does as preparing his body for burial. Less obviously, her wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair foreshadows Jesus’ own actions in the next chapter. In John’s telling, at the Last Supper, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, wiping them with the towel tied around his waist. In each case, the same Greek word for “wiped” is used. Jesus will use that act as a symbol for the service to which he calls his disciples—an example of the commandment he gave them:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Mary’s actions are the actions of someone who loved Jesus, the actions of a disciple. They stand in sharp contrast to the words of the other disciple who is given voice. In the story as told in the other gospels, the disciples raised their voices in protest. Here only Judas speaks up. John paints him in especially negative light. His stated concern for the poor is not sincere. He was in charge of the common purse and stole from it. John calls him a thief.
Jesus’ response, a favorite proof text for those who resist structural change in our society to address the deep inequalities, and the misery of so many of our fellow citizens, is relatively straightforward. It’s a biting rebuke of Judas: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus is not offering guidance for the church’s witness in the world or advocacy. Jesus is pointing out the contrast between the continued presence of the poor, and the temporary presence of Jesus. As the gospel of John repeatedly emphasizes, Jesus has come from the Father and is returning to the Father—he was present on earth for only a time and his departure is imminent. Jesus is saying in effect that there will continue to be opportunities to serve the poor, but there won’t be opportunities to tend to his needs after he is crucified and raised from the dead. He’s telling Judas and us that Mary’s actions are an appropriate way of showing her love for him. They are the actions of a true disciple.
She is a disciple responding extravagantly, lovingly to the one who raised her brother from the dead, to the one who offers abundant life, the one who promised to lay down his life for his friends.
Her actions challenge us to think about how we respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, to be his disciple. In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks a great deal about abundant life—life lived extravagantly, bountifully in response to God’s love of us, as it flows out of our transformed lives in Christ. Jesus offers us glimpses of that abundant life when he turned water into wine, when he knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples. He showed it most dramatically when he laid down his life for his friends and for us: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” There’s no action more extravagant, superfluous in its love than that.
As followers of Jesus, as members of Grace Church, we are called to such extravagance. We are called to pour out ourselves in love as we respond to the love of Jesus. We do that in worship. We also do that when we open our doors to the homeless and when we feed the hungry through our food pantry. We do that when we give of ourselves to others. As we approach Holy Week, as we draw nearer to the cross where Jesus, in love is drawing all humanity to him, may we be filled with his love, so that in turn, we are able to pour it out in the world.