Number Your Days…Six Days Before
Our Gospel passage today is kind of a strange one (again)–all about a spontaneous anointing. I don’t know about you, but even with the kind of work I do, there’s not much call for anointing in my day to day life. This story from the Gospel of John is hard to relate to our modern lives, isn’t it? Still, as I was thinking about the story of Mary anointing Jesus this week, I remembered an experience I had about seven years ago.
Late one night I received a telephone call that a long time member of our church had been rushed to the hospital. That night the hospital ER was downright abysmal. Patients lined the hallways, many of them in clearly serious medical crises, even to my untrained eye. Moans and cries, retching and weeping were the soundtrack of the experience, along with a few beeping IV machines and approaching sirens. Not the most serene environment.
The nurse said I’d have to locate our church member somewhere in the hallways of the ER, so I spent a good 15 minutes peering around curtains, looking under sheets and surveying gurneys. When I finally found her, she was propped up on a gurney under a bright light in the hallway, dozing. It looked to me like she’d had a rough day, lips chapped until they were cracked, blanket bunched around her feet, eyes heavy with exhaustion, obviously still in quite a lot of pain.
As I approached her bed I wondered, as I often do in these situations, what I might possibly have to offer that might give some consolation, ease some pain, bring some resolution. It sure seemed at that moment like a pat on the arm and offer to pray was insignificant, if not laughable.
But I stood there for awhile and held her hand; I listened to her recounting of her harrowing day, I hugged her and rubbed her back and prayed with her, and after I did all of these things I suddenly felt the most powerful urge to lay my hands gently on her head and say something like, “May the Lord bless you and keep you, may God’s face shine upon you . . .” because, in the middle of all that pain, it was clear to me that some kind of anointing was in order…but I wasn’t quite sure how one would do something like that.
But then I got an idea. I realized that, just that very morning I had opened a brand new 4-stick pack of Trader Joe’s mint lip balm and distributed one each to all three of my children with strict instructions to place their tubes in their backpacks because, “You never know when you’re going to need some.” To demonstrate, I had tucked the fourth tube away in the outside pocket of my own bag before we all filed out the door to the bus stop that morning.
So, I rummaged around best I could in the crowded hallway and found that tube right there in that outside pocket . . . . Then I cracked the top open, turned the dial on the bottom of the tube and carefully reached over toward my friend. Over and over I spread it on her lips, smoothing the rough skin. I put it all over until her mouth was soft and shiny. It seemed a little strange to me, but it didn’t seem strange to her; she closed her eyes and lay her head back as I put it on. Then she smiled and rubbed her lips together, “Mmmmmmm, mint,” she sighed with delight, and drifted off to sleep.
There wasn’t much I could do to ease the situation, and I certainly was not trained to impose any holy rite. But in that moment of fear and uncertainty, it seemed to me that the holy rite of…chapstick?…might help, to remind her she was loved by God, to remind her she was not alone, and…to help me do something—anything—that might help even though I couldn’t solve the situation.
Our Gospel passage today is also about an anointing, and it comes to us this fifth Sunday of Lent, the last Sunday before we follow Jesus into Jerusalem and into the last week of his life. Our Lenten focus has been the practice of “numbering our days,” of trying to live with purpose and intention during these days of Lent, aware that our lives are short and we need to make them count. Each week our Gospel passage has some reference to time, and today’s phrase is “six days before.”
John uses this phrase as a literary strategy to clue us in that things are getting intense. This story he’s telling about Jesus, his time on earth, and the message he came to teach us, is quickly approaching its climax. The tension is mounting as we wait to see exactly how this story is going to end, whether this Jesus who we’ve come to love and whose words have challenged us and changed us, will be okay when this is all over.
As we come to today’s story, which takes place in the home of Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, we remember that just a few days before Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead—he just called him out of the tomb and there he came, to everyone’s shock and amazement. And, while this was great for Lazarus, the event immediately catapulted Jesus from his status among the leaders of the temple as annoying nuisance to plain out and out threat.
Going around preaching a radical message is one thing, but raising people from the dead is a whole other thing altogether. To the temple authorities it was now GAME ON, and Jesus himself knew that the week ahead of him, Passover in Jerusalem, would be a dangerous and trouble-filled political game.
And so the passage tells us that Jesus came in, took a deep breath, and began to relax. His friends cooked dinner for him, and they were all gathered around the table—even Lazarus—catching up. There was a lot to get caught up on. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ heads were still spinning from the events of the previous week. After all, it’s not so common an occurrence to be planning a funeral one day and then welcoming your formerly dead brother back to the family after he’s been raised from the dead.
But surely they discussed the mounting tension, too. They knew that outside their doors, toward Jerusalem, in the big week ahead, no one could really predict what exactly was going to happen. Maybe Jesus shared with his close friends how he felt, that he was scared and unsure. Certainly, as they sat there together, friends around a table, they could see that Jesus needed them in some way to ease the weight of the burden he carried.
You know they must have heard the exhaustion and fear in his voice because after dinner, John tells us that Mary took a pound of costly perfume—really costly—and set about anointing Jesus’ feet, washing them and smoothing the ointment over the rough and broken skin of his feet. She pulled down her hair—unheard of for a woman of the time—and wiped his feet with her hair.
While it seems like Mary knew what she was doing, some didn’t understand. In fact, Judas, the notorious disciple who would betray Jesus, spoke up in outrage. Inappropriate! What kind of esteemed rabbi, teacher, let’s a woman make a public display like this? And further, do you know how much that perfume cost? Seems like we could have put that money to better use serving the poor.
This whole scene leaves us scratching our heads because, remember, most of us are not used to occasions of spontaneous anointing. They feel awkward at best. And, it’s likely that most of us would probably have sided with Judas on this one. This display of tables turned, of Jesus’ friends comforting him, makes us scared and unsure. Isn’t the Jesus we know, the fiery, bold preacher going to reprimand Mary for her wastefulness? Isn’t he going to say something about giving our bread to the hungry or sharing with those who are in need? We prefer to understand the rules, to put God in a little box that we can understand.
But it seems, strangely, that Jesus took a little detour here. He’s tired and he’s scared; Jesus is dealing in these moments with the macro realities of his human life. With the temple leaders closing in on one side and Pilate on the other, Jesus is looking death full in the face and trying to summon the strength he needs to go on. He’s not interested in the accounting details of the organization; he’s interested in making sure his friends and disciples got the message, the message of God’s radical and lavish love for them all, for us all.
Different Gospel writers have told the story in many variations, and there always seems to be an air of suspicion about Mary’s actions. Was Mary secretly in love with Jesus and this whole event part of some wild seduction plan? Was Mary out of her mind with grief and too tired to have any good judgment after all her family had been through in the past few days? Did she look at her friend Jesus and see the pain and exhaustion in his eyes and just instinctively responded? We’ll never know, but we do know that Jesus was pleased with Mary. He affirmed Mary’s care and anointing of him: “Leave her alone, let her be, I need someone to care right now.”
Why do we have such trouble with this passage? There’s Mary, giving everything she had to minister to Jesus in a moment when he most needed it. But her extravagance offends us. Perhaps the situation serves to remind us that we are often mean and grasping, trying our best to acquire things and power and position, to codify our faith and make it black and white, easily understandable. But, the kind of discipleship God is calling us to live is kind of messy… it’s loving and expansive and lavish, like the great love of God, for us.
And this is always the response that we are called to give, too, as we struggle and strain to discover again what it means to be sold out disciples to this Jesus we serve, the one who came to live for us God’s lavish and extravagant love. Mary’s strange action, her care for Jesus in his moments of need, is a call to us, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if we don’t know exactly how to be disciples, if we crack open the super expensive perfume when someone thinks it’s inappropriate. We’re called to live lives in which we demonstrate Mary’s kind of radical discipleship, where we reach out our hands to touch and heal and bring hope to one another…because we ourselves have been touched and healed and loved, by God.
This is what a disciple does.
This is how a disciple lives.
We who are called to be disciples struggle to know exactly what that means. Jesus reminds us today that our task is to go out into this hurting world and bravely anoint it with God’s love.
Remember, all of this happened only six days before, before it all fell apart and Jesus faced the end of his life, killed because of his radical message of love for the whole world.
And when that happened, when his body was placed in the tomb, Mary was there, again, anointing his broken body in gratitude.
Where was Judas, the one who was so worried about doing everything the right way?
He was gone.