Isaiah 43:16-21 - Psalm 126 - Philippians 3:4b-14 - John 12:1-8
Homily for Morning Prayer, April 7, 2019 (Suzanne Bowles, Ph.D.)
Today’s Gospel lesson (John 12:1-8) may have triggered some jumbled thought in your mind of some woman anointing Jesus’ feet with spice, washing them with her hair, etc. You may have heard that someone called Mary Magdalene was involved and maybe she was a prostitute, We’re going to try to sort all this out today and stick closely to what the Bible itself says and dismiss other things as urban legend. There are, in fact, two separate anointing episodes, today’s in John and one in Luke 7:36-50.
We’ll look at them both, but, first, let’s get Mary Magdalene out of the way because she is not involved in either of them. She was called Mary Magdalene because she was from a town called Magdala and this was used to distinguish her from all the other Marys including today’s who was Mary of Bethany. Mary Magdalene is mentioned in all four gospels as being a witness to the Crucifixion. She was also at the empty tomb on Easter morning. Luke tells us she was one of a group of women who travelled with Jesus and supported his ministry out of their resources. So, in other words, she was well off. We also know from Luke and Mark that she was healed of seven demons by Jesus. That’s all we know. She was involved in either anointing episode and she was not a prostitute. That story got started in the Middle Ages by the Roman Catholic church which for reasons unclear decided to identify her with the woman in the Luke story who was described as a “sinful woman.”
Let’s look at that story briefly. It’s in Luke 7:36-50. It’s often conflated or confused with today’s lesson, but they are two separate episodes. In this one Jesus is invited to dinner by a Pharisee named Simon. A woman, identified only as a “sinful woman” comes uninvited and washes Jesus’ feet with fragrant oil, and her tears and wipes them with her hair. Simon wants Jesus to tell the woman to go away but he refuses to do that and instead praises her and says she will always be remembered. The key controversy in this episode is not the expense of the spice and what it could have been used for, but rather the fact that Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven. This shocks the Pharisees because Jesus is declaring himself to be God who alone has the power to forgive sins.
Today’s lesson also appears in Mark 14:3-9 and Matthew 26:6-12. Matthew’s is copied from Mark’s. Mark has a couple of minor details that John does not, but in the interest of time we’re not going to discuss them,
Today’s lesson from John involves the three siblings from Bethany, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, whom we’ve met before and who are close friends with Jesus. In Luke 10:38-42 we have the story of Martha and Mary where Martha complains that Mary is not helping her and Jesus says to leave her alone; she has chosen the better part (i.e. listening at Jesus’ feet). In John 11:1-44 we read of the death of Lazarus and how, Jesus restores him to life. This has happened only a short time before today’s episode. I find it interesting in that in two of these stories Mary is criticized, first by Martha and then by Judas, and both times Jesus defends her and praises her for doing the right thing! The key controversy in this story is the expense, the extravagance, of Mary’s gift to Jesus and how Judas criticizes her for it. Jesus not only praises her, but says specifically that the spice is to prepare his body for burial thus indicating that he is to die soon.
Our lesson ends at this point, but John has a very interesting episode immediately following this. He tells us that many people then come to the house, not to see Jesus, but to see Lazarus, the dead guy who was brought back to life. His story has understandably generated a lot of interest. News has spread and many people want to see for themselves. John tells us that many visitors leave, believing in Jesus (who is still at their house). But some do not believe and are so threatened that they want to kill Jesus and Lazarus as well! Then John goes immediately into the triumphal entry into Jerusalem which is where we will pick up next week on Palm Sunday.
So what do we take away from this lesson today. Mary loved Jesus extravagantly and he accepts her offering and praises her for it. We don’t have the earthly Jesus with us anymore, but we can still give the gift of ourselves. Let us be like Mary of Bethany and choose to love Jesus. Amen.