Fifth Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: John 12:1-8

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. (John 12:3)

Each Sunday in Lent is carrying us closer to the horror of Good Friday. Today the Gospel reading shows us Jesus having some respite, in a kindly home at Bethany, not far from the Holy City, not long before his betrayal. The awareness of his impending suffering is constantly with him. In a sense, his final passion is already upon him.

In this setting, one deeply sensitive woman massages his feet with expensive oil, and, in a wonderful outpouring of love, wipes his feet with her hair. Some have suggested that the details of this story—the expensive oil, the massage, Mary’s unbound hair—all point to something erotic. But I’m not so sure. To me, this looks like an expression of profound agape—a deluge of selfless love.

At this point, I want to note a distinction between the intuitive understanding of this woman, and the ongoing confusion in the minds of the men who followed Jesus.

Men first. It seems to me that the male disciples where in stubborn denial of the coming arrest and death of Jesus. With a mind-set which is unfortunately common among men, they did not want to think about disaster. They refused to face the probable demise of their leader. It was as if they thought that the unpleasant truth would go away if they just ignored it.

It reminds me of a man (I’ll call him Bill) who built up from the ground his own business.

Because of recession and the increasing tendering by overseas companies, his business was facing collapse. But Bill could not face this. He flayed around looking for more bank loans—and when that failed, he borrowed money from his friends.

His wife could see what was happening. She knew that what he saw as his life’s work was irrevocably crumbling. She tried to gently but firmly help Bill face the facts. But he would not. To accept defeat was, in Bill’s eyes, the attitude of a weakling. Real men did not admit to the possibility. Right to the end, Bill stayed in denial. His wife saw what was coming; he did not.

The male disciples were like that. From the moment when Peter made his bold statement that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus had tried to make the men see that his rejection by the religious leaders was inevitable. From that time he began talking about his cross. But they stayed in denial. They did not want to know.

The only trace of acceptance among the men (the only one I see in the gospel accounts, anyway) comes from the disciple we call “doubting” Thomas.

In the preceding chapter of John—just before their departure for Bethany—Thomas openly expresses his belief that the journey to Jerusalem will end in death. “Let us also go,” he says to the others, “that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

But the others were in denial—and that had a grave consequence. Because they were hiding from their own deep fears about the possible death of their Master, they could not give Jesus the emotional support he needed in those last weeks and days. They would not allow themselves to be in tune with his soul.

When he needed them most to understand and to support him in his resolve to remain true to his mission, the men were not there for him emotionally. Jesus must have been an extremely lonely person at that time.

Thank goodness for the women! We read about them also being followers of Jesus. Some of these were financially well off, and provided for Christ’s travelling mission out of their own pockets.

I wish more information had survived about these female disciples. I’m certain they played a much larger role than is suggested by the scant references to them that survive in the gospel accounts. However, I rejoice that John chose to preserve the story we read in today’s gospel lesson. I cherish the record of that evening meal at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Mary was prepared to bear the pain of admitting to herself the tragedy that lay ahead. Jesus, the loveliest person she had ever known, was going to fall into the hands of cruel men and be butchered.

This understanding must have been breaking her heart. But she faced it. No denial here! Some social commentators claim that women are genuinely the stronger sex. Mary certainly was. She was ready to demonstrate some costly love.

Because she was not in denial, Mary was able to comfort Jesus as he rested in their house at Bethany. She did not care what the other men thought. She did not care whether Martha understood or not. She simply did what she knew she had to do. She knelt at his feet, and—with the most expensive of oils—she anointed and massaged them, then unbound her hair and wiped his feet with her long dark tresses. Jesus knew himself understood and profoundly comforted by a woman who dared to be true to what her heart was telling her.

There must have been a stunned silence in that room. Silence, at least, until Judas—upset and embarrassed about it all—blurted out that pious blabber about selling the ointment and helping the poor.

Jesus would have none of that. He and Mary knew that death was for real: “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.” (vv. 7-8)

It would be ridiculous, of course, to use this story to categorize all men as not able to deal with sensitive emotional issues. Likewise, all women cannot be put into the category of sensitive nurturers. We find some of both genders in both camps. However, it is no secret that social pressures tend towards shaping men to hide their emotional side, while allowing women more room to express theirs. And this was even more true in Jesus’ day than in ours.

The point of my message today is not about pointing the finger of blame on only men. I put it to you—whatever your gender—that we cannot truly support one another unless we stop the denial game; unless we take the risk and make ourselves sensitive to the feelings of others and to our own feelings in response to theirs.

We must deal in emotions—and not just in ideas. We must learn to be better listeners, and to resist the temptation to speak in platitudes to conceal our own discomfort.

I think the first step is getting to know ourselves better. Know yourself, and you will be better able to know others and stand with them at the point of their need. It is costly love, agape love, other-centred love. It is high risk-love that allows both ecstatic joy and profound grief.

Allow Mary to be your tutor. While others were in denial, she was willing to identify with Jesus and give some of the comfort he desperately needed.

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 …


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