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Imagining Mary of Bethany ~ John 12:1-8

I don’t regret it.

I could tell that most of them didn’t approve, of course – Judas came right out and said so – but somehow their opinions of me just don’t matter any more.

Wasteful, they said – think of the good you could have done with the money that would have brought, a whole year’s wages.

Promiscuous, they were thinking – for a woman to let her hair down in public; for a woman to touch a man – and a rabbi at that – it’s just not done.

I suppose it seemed scandalous all around, a real affront to propriety and logic too. But I didn’t do it to impress onlookers, and I don’t care if it shocked them.

I did it for him.

Respectability, practicality – what are they compared to life and death? And with Jesus, life and death were always exposed, right on the surface.

Other people use respectability and practicality as a mask, to hide what’s real.

With Jesus there’s no hiding.

That’s not to say that I understood him completely – I’ve never had a closer friend, and yet there was always something more to him, always something deeper. When I say there’s no hiding, I mean that he understood me – profoundly. It’s as if he could look inside and see it all, bad and good together, and yet he chose to focus on the good, and call out the good, and appreciate the good so much that the bad was forgotten or forgiven or maybe just crowded out. With the perfume, and my hair – he knew what I meant. Gratitude too deep for words alone.

Joy – and sorrow.

Love.

When he raised Lazarus from the dead, it was as if I had been given new life too. “Lazarus, come out,” he had said, and “Untie him, and let him go.” He could just as well have said, “Mary, come out. Untie her.” No more going back into the closed-up tomb of fear and frugality for me. I’m less interested in being respectable than in being real. He gave me back my brother and he gave me the freedom to be myself and he gave me… the capacity to give…

You see, he gave himself so freely, so naturally, so instinctively, that it was obvious that giving is what living is all about. Giving is what living is all about.

I didn’t plan to do it. The perfume was sort of like a savings account or an insurance policy – for my old age, just in case. But after Lazarus, I knew that there was no insurance in perfume or in any other possession; if giving is living, then hoarding is death. I had received a gift so much greater than wealth, a peace so much deeper than the security of any insurance policy…

Funny – I poured out the perfume for him, and somehow in that moment it became mine. Mine forever, a treasure much greater for being savored, instead of saved. That moment of intimacy – could there ever be a deeper joy?

I didn’t plan to do it, but there, at dinner, there was something about him – a sadness? Perhaps just human need. I began to sense how much it had cost him to come to us.

Last winter, before Lazarus got sick, there was conflict; he was almost stoned, and it was wise to stay away. Even coming to Bethany in the first place was dangerous; but after my brother was raised, the authorities made plans to kill Jesus and Lazarus too. (How is it that they could be so afraid of life?)

Jesus was courageous and determined and more powerful than them all; but he must have known that he was soon to die… and I guess, down deep, I knew it too. I saw it in his face, though there was gladness at the meal, a celebration of my brother’s restoration to us. Jesus was risking his life for us; the perfume was all I could think of to do for him.

“Why wasn’t this sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas could be so sensitive! Thing is, at that moment Jesus was the poor, or so it seemed to me. They wanted him to be strong, Judas and the rest of them, and strong he was in the deeper sense; but they wanted him to be above it all too, maybe because that’s what they wanted for themselves. People thought he had no needs of his own, or they wanted to believe it, or they wanted to make it so. They didn’t want to think he could be hurt, not their leader; no, they had other plans. What they didn’t understand was that his strength was in his vulnerability. This man who had given me all I needed was himself in need – of tenderness and care.

He accepted it graciously – the gift unconventional, the clumsy attempt to serve and care and follow, to touch him and be a part of what he was all about. He defended me: “You will always have the poor with you.” Some thought he was callous and out of character – as if the inspirer of all hope could express futility, or the champion of the oppressed give excuses for indifference. Was I passing up an opportunity to help the needy? I rather think that they were the ones who missed the chance. We will always have the poor, there will always be a need and an opportunity for compassion and a responsibility to care for one another whatever our weakness or lack; we’re all poor somehow, and we can all of us help somehow too. But this? This was not about duty; it was about love – un-calculating, extravagant, boundary-breaking love. I guess I just seized the moment. Or maybe the moment seized me.

We do what we can. God takes that and transforms it, makes it so much more. Sometimes we’re not aware of the difference we make, see no effects of our actions right away; sometimes we never know. There are sacred stories still taking shape, and we’re all invited to be in them, risky though it may be. I wasn’t conscious of it then, but after he died I was grateful yet again – that I had touched him, sensual and embodied, while I still had the chance; that the smell of death we shared was not the stench of decay, but the fragrance of love. I know now that the best gifts are those that draw giver and receiver closer together – but I’m not sure whether I was the donor or the recipient…

They thought that I was extravagant – but he is more so, infinitely. He loves us even when we’re missing the point of him. He calls to us even when we’re not ready. He uses us even when we have no power of our own. He opens to us even when we’re shut down tight.

How do you follow one who gives everything? Not carefully, not cautiously, not respectably, not practically, not in moderation. Because nothing given to him is ever lost.

Amen.

 

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