The First Disciple
John 12: 1-8
Rev. Doug Van Doren
If you like your reality simple and fixed, monophonic, and monochromatic, the Gospel of John, and particularly the passage for this morning, will make you a little uncomfortable. Something wild and a bit untoward occurs. A respectable woman from a respectable family lets her hair down, big time.
I want to look at this brief passage this morning but not for a lesson per se. I want us to look at it as an invitation to let our hair down if need be. That is, to be moved perhaps to show the depth of love with the extravagance and abandon that Mary does. This is a text that we need to come at not first with our heads, but with our hearts.
Here, in the midst of Lent, that season of discipline, of self-control, resisting temptation, and keeping ourselves in check, comes this story of Mary; out of control! Mary has thrown caution to the wind. She is overcome by what she understood about who Jesus is and by her love for him. She also gives a very clear sign that she "gets it." She seizes the opportunity. She recognizes the time. She does what she can; when she can. She takes Jesus' weary feet in her hands and massages fragrant oil into them. She does this while he is alive and can appreciate it. This is also anointing him for burial. Remember the Psalm (I bet she did), "Beautiful are the feet of the One who comes in the name of the Lord." Mary lets her hair down, literally as well as figuratively, something no respectable woman did except in the privacy of intimate family.
The fact that Jesus is the Messiah is pretty clear by this point in the gospel of John. He had just resuscitated Lazarus from the dead. In fact, that prompted the High Priest to put a contract out on Jesus. This very dinner was defying orders. If anyone knew of Jesus' whereabouts they were to tell so that he could be arrested. Lazarus was also to be killed so that the evidence of Jesus' power would be gone. What the disciples did not get was that death had become part of Jesus' Messiah-ship. That was the way, it turned out, that he would fully identify with humanity and break the power of the oppressive political and religious machine. Nobody got that part. Nobody had the courage to read the writing on the wall.
Well, almost nobody. Mary did!
What a great comfort this must have been to Jesus. Somebody got it! What a relief to Jesus who must have felt like the teacher of inattentive or rather dim- witted students, the disciples. Finally, someone understands, it has not all been in vain.
I think Mary is the first true disciple. She gets it, and she has courage enough to acknowledge that this person whom she so loves will die rather than betray his love for, and liberation of, the people. She is not like others who vow that it cannot be so, who, with false bravado, say they will prevent it. She acknowledges it. She stands with Jesus facing this certain future. She does what she can. She exhibits the same kind of extravagant, overflowing love that Jesus does.
In that act of seeming overwhelming extravagance - the only thing she could do to truly comfort Jesus and let him know somebody understood - the whole house is filled with the fragrance of devotion. It is a fragrance that overcomes the common cooking odors, that overcomes the odor of human bodies and animals kept below. And forever after, when anyone who was there got a whiff of nard they were transported back to that moment of absolute love and devotion.
It haunts me that my reaction to Mary's excess is much like Judas' reaction. "What a waste, look what could have been done for the poor." It is a practical, efficient... and boring response. It is a response that misses the point. My reaction is, in some ways, as disingenuous as Judas' is, for such devotion as Mary's will never neglect the poor.
Judas was zealous for a Messiah who would overthrow Rome. That was his project. Jesus was a means to that end. Judas felt betrayed. What he did not understand was that something deeper was needed, something deeper than what Judas could do to change the world by its own means and standards. The whole system of power needed to be changed. Not just who was in power needed to change, but rather the whole system needed to be replaced by the power of love that comes from God, and in which we participate.
Judas had made a cause his God, but like all such things, if not grounded in something bigger, it had become an obsession, an idol. Whereas, for Mary; it had become personal. Hers was not "religious devotion." It was not devotion to a preconceived idea of what the Messiah should look like and do. It was not devotion to the law. It was courageous love of the person, Jesus. That is the genius and the gift of God incarnate in Christ.
We humans cannot truly bond with non-human things. Some try to bond to their job, to a particular life-style, to a particular doctrine or belief or discipline. So often when we do that we become sterile. We become shrill, devoid of humor, unloving in the pursuit of something that cannot love. Mary had made the transition to the love of Jesus, and the cause of love in all that he represented.
That is scary, like love is scary. (The night before I got married, snippets of a song from Camelot kept running through my mind, "I wonder what the King is doing tonight, what merriment is the King pursuing tonight ..." He's scared.)
It is scary, like the love of a spouse, who totally influences your life; like the love a child - a love that rules your life, from which you can never escape. Love makes you act like a fool sometimes, and sometimes you lavish devotion on the ones you love. Who has NOT spent too much on a gift for your spouse or the object of your devotion? If not, shame on you.