Are you devoted?
Are you devoted?
April 7, 2019
I was reading a book not long ago that was talking about Mahatma Gandhi’s love of Christianity. He didn’t love a heady sermon or a deep theological discussion. He especially disliked the Christians who came to India determined to save the heathens. As a Hindu, what he loved was the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teachings on how to live: love your enemies; forgive, do not return evil for evil. Gandhi wanted Christians to spend more time living that faith and less time professing it. So Gandhi very particularly used the analogy of a rose. He says: “A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon.” But the gospel that Jesus preached is more subtle and fragrant than the gospel of the rose. If the rose needs no agent, much less does the gospel of Christ need any agent. Thus, the aroma of Christianity is subtler even than that of the rose and should, therefore, be imparted in an even quieter and more imperceptible manner, if possible. The aroma of lived faith should lead a bystander to think, “I’m in the presence of something amazing!”
There is a quote that I’ve loved for a long time: “Your changed life might be the only Gospel someone will ever read.” If I had no idea whether you were a religious person at all, much less a Christian, if I met you, would there be that moment for me when I would ask myself, “Something is going on with this person!” If I knew you a long time ago and we met again, would I think to myself, “Wow…something has changed about her!” Again, the most powerful thing any of us will do as a result of our faith is that we will live differently. We will walk through this world in a different way.
The first differences that might come to mind might be acts of charity. We might expect to see that faithful person who is especially generous with their time and money and talents on behalf of those in need. We might readily point to them and say, “That is person living the life of faith!” And, we might very well be right. Yet, as our text from John points out to us, things aren’t always what they seem. Judas, it turns out was in charge of the common funds for Jesus and the disciples. It turns out he was embezzling those funds. (That’s a problem!) Jesus says that the poor will always be with Judas. Which always makes me think about whether the efforts we make to help those in need are about placating those poor people or transforming their lives so that they will no longer be poor. If I’m hungry, please help me find food. However, if you really want to help me, can you help me figure out how to change my life? When it comes to helping others, I don’t think our faith will be revealed by whether there are any poor people left. Rather, I think our faith will be revealed by our willingness to respect the overlooked and the ignored as equals, our willingness to deal with immediate needs and our willingness to go the extra mile. Jesus never seemed to be big on token efforts.
However, there is a whole different way of living our faith that is in front of us in our text for this morning. If you are willing to look at it with me, things are going to get uncomfortable fast. Let me point out a few things that are worth noticing. First, some variation of this story appears in all four Gospels. The event happens in Bethany each time and each time it is a woman who pours oil on Jesus. However, things vary from there.
John loves to layer meaning in his Gospel. So, when we find out that it is six days before Passover, we should wonder if John is inviting us to see that the world is about to be recreated and made new in six days just as it was made in six days in the Genesis account. John’s story takes place in Lazarus’ home. We should be thinking to ourselves, “Okay…Lazarus is the man whom Jesus raised from the dead.” In fact, Jesus has just done this in the chapter before our text. That act and the fame that Lazarus gained as the formerly dead man may well have been final straw for the authorities in deciding to arrest Jesus.
Lazarus’ sisters are Martha and Mary. You’ll remember (maybe!) that Martha was the one who kept working in the kitchen when Jesus came on an earlier visit, who was annoyed with her sister for just sitting there and listening to Jesus instead of helping out with the work. Jesus lifts up Mary as the example of a faithful person. Later, when Lazarus has died, it is Martha who goes out to meet Jesus and has the faith to tell Jesus that he can do something for her brother. She tells him that she believes, which is a nice, redemptive moment for Martha. It is Mary who comes to Jesus next and simply weeps and says, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This is the moment when Jesus weeps with her. Jesus does do something. He calls for Lazarus to come out of the tomb. It is Martha who tells him that the stench is going to be terrible if they roll away the stone. The stone is rolled away and out comes Lazarus, wrapped in burial cloths. Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go!” In the very next set of verses, John tells us that the plot to kill Jesus goes into effect…
Now, let me invite you to notice one more thing. Both the name “Mary” and the name “Martha,” in their root meanings, have to do with bitterness. “Martha” literally means, “One who becomes bitter.” “Mary” literally means, “Bitter,” as in a bitterly wanted child—a bitter longing, if you will. During the Passover meal, one of the rituals is the eating of bitter herbs as a reminder of the people’s bondage in Egypt. It fits that these faithful women are “bitter.”
So, if you think about it, here is a meal that is loaded with meanings. It takes place in a home that is fresh off the heels of deep grief and the mystery of resurrection, a place where Jesus has shed tears in the face of death. Doubt and resentment and faith have all mixed in this place. At a time when the people are about to remember their bitter bondage in Egypt, two women whose very names are bitter do something sweet. “Martha served.” Isn’t that an incredible parallel to the simple verse, “Jesus wept!” Martha did what she does best. Mary does what she does best, too. She acts out of devotion.
This should be the uncomfortable part for us. It certainly would have been in Jesus’ day. In some of the other Gospels, it is a woman who is a prostitute who does what Mary does in John’s version. That is not the case here. Mary is not a woman of ill-repute. She is an intimate friend. And what she does is act with the kind of intimacy and devotion that no woman would have dared do except with a husband. She anoints Jesus’s feet with a very expensive oil and perfume. (Again, remember the stench that was referred to regarding Lazarus’ grave. Now, the most lovely scent imaginable fills the whole home.) She takes those feet in her hands and massages them with great care. Then, she lets down her hair (which a woman would have only done in the most intimate of relationships) and she wipes his feet clean with her hair.
Now, what follows next is Judas’ reaction. The traditional reading is that Judas is mad, ostensibly, because the money for the perfume could have been used for the poor. The meanest reading would be that had that money been in the community fund, he could have stolen some of it! However, I invite you to consider Judas with empathy. What is he seeing when he watches Mary’s actions? He is seeing an intimate, devoted faith. He is seeing someone who loves Jesus with her whole heart. Judas, we know, loves Jesus but conditionally—on the chance that Jesus will lead the revolution and overthrow Rome. When Jesus doesn’t meet that condition, Judas betrays him out of bitter disappointment. Mary’s deep love of Jesus is unfathomable to Judas. Maybe what we are seeing in his anger is a flash of longing that he might have loved that way, too…
Let’s not let ourselves off the hook here. Have you ever been out to lunch with someone and they pause to pray before they eat? It’s not that they make some big show out of it. It’s also clear that this is not something they invented just for you. What do you feel? Uncomfortable…because you might not be sure you could do that or at the very least, it hadn’t occurred to you to try. What if instead of praying silently by themselves, that person looked you in the eye and said, “Can we have a prayer?” They hold out their hand so that you can hold theirs while you pray and you squirm! What if they ask you to say the prayer?
Or, how about if the person behind you in church sings boldly or says the Lord’s Prayer with a little extra vim and vigor? Do you think to yourself, “Hey…read the room, here. Sure, we sing…kind of. Sure we pray…in a mumbly sort of way.” They aren’t doing anything all that different than you are but it is just clear that it means something different to them and the voice in the back of your head suspects that it may just mean a little too much when it makes you feel uncomfortable.
Or, how about the person who sits in an ICU at a hospital and anoints their loved one? The person in the bed is unconscious but soothing oils are spread on their hands and their temples. Soothing words of love are spoken but the words are just a backdrop for the living, breathing, embodied love in that room. It is clear that the rest of the world has ceased to exist and what is left is love. And you wonder, “If this is love, can I love that way?” You are humbled in the face of someone else’s devotion…
Jesus gets it. We should get it, too. Mary breaks all the rules to live her love for him. And what is she doing? She is preparing him for burial. A body was considered unclean so such work was delegated to women by a culture that considered women to be unclean. Mary assumes that role with great dignity. She starts where that work always starts—with the feet and then the hands. She works that oil in with an extra massage and then wipes those sacred feet with her hair in the hopes that Jesus’ presence will always be with her in that scent. The smell of death is gone. What is left is the pure aroma of lived faith and loving connection to Jesus.