Mary’s balm for her master’s spiritual wholeness?

The blind, the deaf, the poor and poor in spirit—”We have everything
in the Christ who gives his life for us. Through our deafness, he hears for us. Through our blindness, he sees for us. Through our trembling hands, he will take the bread and cup for us. Poor? Oh, to be so poor.”
–Adapted from a poem by Robert W. Guffey, Jr., in Imaging the Word, United Church Press,1994.

Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 25, 2007. Scripture and Communion with Bob Cramer,
First Congregational United Church of Christ, Open and Affirming, Santa Rosa, California.

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. But Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples – the one who was about to betray Jesus – said, “Why was this perfume not sold for thousands of dollars and the money given to the poor?” …

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” –John 12:3-5, 7-8, from the Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent.

I have come to think of this story as a big public event rather than the homey little visit I always thought it was. Many saw and heard the deeds and words.

Martha, Mary and Lazarus “gave a dinner for him,” John’s gospel says. Along with his normal traveling retinue, Jesus would have been presented to a lot of the citizens of Bethany, which is where John places the story. So now it’s not just his disciples who are in on a secret – Jesus is going to be gone, and soon.

Jacopo Bassano’s medieval painting has Martha on her knees stirring a pot over an open fire. Mary welcomes Jesus at the door, with others. Lazarus slices salame. There are birds in preparation, and a whole basket of big handsome fish. It’s gonna be a P A R T Y ! Memorable event. Memorable words.

In this setting – surely no peasant hovel, but just as surely no ostentatious palace – Judas skewers Mary’s loving piety by exaggerating the money value of her offering. It’s a technique much like Jesus’ frequent hyperbolic words.

And Jesus says two memorable things – more memorable than understandable. The lotion would signal his death and burial, he says. John, writing 20 years after the other evangelists, says Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did the final anointing as they laid Jesus in his borrowed grave. This first anointing is an unexpected one. John’s gospel is full of “signs.” This is a very artistic sign.

Jesus’ other words in this story are about the poor. What in the world could he have meant by quoting Deuteronomy 15:11? There, Moses is said to have been urging his people to share materially with those in need. There will always be people like that. They’re God’s children. So are you. So share your goods.

But Matthew says Jesus called “the poor in spirit” blessed; heaven will be theirs. Already they can live content as citizens of God’s Realm if they can learn to. Was Jesus, at Bethany, opening up our concept of poverty and fulfillment?

Sydney Carter wrote about this in a hymn, which I’ve adapted just a bit:

Said Judas to Mary, “Now what will you do with your ointment so rich and so rare?” “I’ll pour it all over the feet of the Christ, and I’ll wipe it away with my hair.”

“Oh Mary, oh Mary, oh think of the poor. This ointment, it could have been sold; and think of the blankets and think of the bread you could buy with the silver and gold.”

“Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll think of the poor; tomorrow,” she said, “not today; for dearer than all of the poor in the world is my love who is going away.”

Said Jesus to Mary, “Your love is so deep, today you may do as you will. Tomorrow, you say, I am going away, but my body I leave with you still.”

“The poor of the world are my body,” he said, “to the end of the world they shall be. The bread and the blankets you give to the poor you will know you have given to me.”

“My body will hang on the cross of the world tomorrow,” he said, “not today. And Martha and Mary will find me again and wash all my sorrow away.”