Helen Keller once said, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived…”
When the Gospel writers spoke of the earliest followers of Jesus, they referred to two separate groups. There were, of course, the better known twelve male disciples. A symbolic reflection of the twelve tribes of Ancient Israel, these men were handpicked by Jesus. An assortment that included fishermen and a tax collector, those twelve, ordinary men became Jesus’ closest companions.
In a much larger second group were a number of women who followed Jesus. Disciples in their own right, these women welcomed Jesus into their homes, they helped to finance his ministry, they learned from Jesus and they passed along their knowledge to the twelve male disciples.
These women disciples appear periodically throughout the Gospel narrative, but their stories are highlighted at the end of each Gospel. Specifically in the stories known as the Passion Narrative where Jesus shared his last supper, faced arrest and trial and crucifixion and neared the resurrection. Finally, at the crucial point where Jesus hung on the cross and took his last breath, the women were the ones who stuck around at the foot of the cross when everyone else had long since abandoned Jesus in fear and disappointment.
On this first Sunday in the season of Lent, we take a closer look at one of the women who followed Jesus. Mere days before his betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus and his male disciples were eating a meal at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. While they sat at the table, a woman John’s Gospel identifies as Mary of Bethany approached Jesus with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. So expensive, in fact, that the perfume was worth the equivalent of one year’s wages to an average worker in ancient society.
Without any fanfare, Mary broke the jar and proceeded to pour the entire contents on Jesus’ head. Immediately, the house was filled with the pungent fragrance of the perfume. And the disciples watched aghast as the perfume dripped down across Jesus’ face and torso all the way to his feet.
Everything about this incident was offensive. A meal interrupted. An excessive gift. A woman daring to touch a man…with her hair no less. At the same time, everything about this incident was symbolic. In the time of Jesus, the act of anointing meant that someone was being selected for a special role or a special task. Kings, for example, were often anointed with oil by religious leaders at the time of their coronation ceremonies.
So around that dinner table long ago, Mary of Bethany inserted herself into the unlikely role of prophet and priest by anointing Jesus. She had no authorization and she sought no permission. She simply did it. A scenario like that only made sense in the context of the kind of upside down kingdom Jesus preached and proclaimed.
Beyond the role she assumed, consider how Mary went a few steps further. Anointing someone on their head was one thing. Anointing someone’s feet? Yes it mirrored the way in which Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. According to Jesus, foot washing was the ultimate symbol of service and discipleship. But to have a woman do such a thing to a man in public was taboo, especially given its sensual nature. Can you picture Mary gently caressing Jesus’ feet in her hands and gradually spreading oil around his ankles and down the instep of his foot to his toes with the ends of her hair…?
We’ll never know the back story of the perfume Mary used. Was Mary planning to save the oil for her own burial or for the burial of one of her loved ones? And what made her spontaneously decide to empty the contents of the jar without considering the future?
What we do know, however, was how Jesus reacted. In the midst of all the disruption and all the symbolism and all the foreshadowing, Jesus saw beneath the surface. Through the eyes of the disciples, Mary’s action represented reckless, wasteful extravagance. Through the eyes of Jesus, Mary’s action represented a generous, singularly unparalleled act of love and devotion. An act which was nothing short of preparing his body for the death and burial Jesus knew was imminent…
By this late juncture in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus had been speaking about his own impending death for a while. Yet the disciples were hearing and having none of it. Back when Jesus informed Peter that “the Messiah must be rejected, suffer, and die; then he will be raised,” Peter reacted so vehemently that Jesus rebuked him with the words, “get behind me, Satan.”
In another instance, Jesus spoke to his disciples about his death in ominous and foreboding terms. And the disciples responded to Jesus by debating who among them would be the greatest in God’s coming kingdom. Still another time, James and John listened to Jesus predict his own demise and they decided to argue about which of them would sit at his right hand and which at his left. Time and again, the disciples failed to grasp the fate Jesus could not possibly have been any clearer about.
In the end, I suspect the disciples simply could not conceive of a Godly kingdom that would come about not with the death of their enemies, but with the death of their dear friend at the hands of their enemies. As a result, they complained bitterly about the money Mary wasted with her perfume. If Mary had sold the perfume instead, she could have donated the proceeds to the poor and then everyone could feel good about her intentions and her actions.
The disciples figured they had years of ministry awaiting them with Jesus. They assumed Jesus had plenty of miracles still to perform. Plenty of parables left to share. Plenty of sermons ready to deliver. Plenty of authority figures left to rub the wrong way. Yet how quickly the facial expressions of the disciples changed that night. From utter shock and horror as they watched Mary anoint Jesus in such an intimate way to total disdain and anger as they calculated the cost of the overflowing perfume to profound disappointment and sadness as Jesus reminded them yet one more time that he would not be alive much longer.
On the other hand Mary followed her instincts on that long ago night. While the disciples were caught up in their own indignation, Mary understood what the disciples did not. She saw Jesus dining at a sick man’s house. She made note of the fact that Jesus allowed her to touch him with her hair. She knew from word of mouth about the occasions when Jesus rebuked the religious authorities and befriended prostitutes.
For Mary, all these things she’d heard about and witnessed with her own eyes added up to an inescapable conclusion. Jesus could not and would not survive for long pushing the envelope the way he did. The powers that be had long since put Jesus on notice. There was less and less tolerance for the way Jesus was acting. Jesus was threatening the status quo. And someone needed to put a stop to his behavior…and a stop to Jesus, period…
Throughout the final events of his life, all the way through his death and burial, the women stayed by Jesus’ side. The male disciples betrayed Jesus. They denied him. And they ultimately fled from him in fear. But the women who followed Jesus remained steadfast. They saw Jesus through to the end because that’s what friends do…friends love each other through pain and suffering and even through death.
It comes as no surprise then that when we reach the end of the Gospel the women are rewarded for their faithful friendship by being the first ones to witness the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the first ones emboldened to preach the good news to all whom they would meet…
But the most incredible thing of all is the declaration Jesus offered at the end of this morning’s story in the fourteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. For pouring out her flask of perfumed oil upon Jesus, Jesus declared her gift an act of worship. And then Jesus bestowed upon Mary of Bethany an honor so glorious it had no precedent and no equivalent.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus promised Mary and the male disciples around Simon the Leper’s dinner table, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Can you imagine? At every single communion service, at every Easter service, in every cathedral at the center of a major city and at every tent revival in a small town park. From Israel to Africa to Europe to China to Latin America to the United States to South Windsor, Connecticut. Whenever we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, Mary’s name and her story should be on our lips right along with Jesus Christ’s.
We don’t often do that in the church, you and me. We don’t remember Mary’s name or her story as well as we should. But maybe we should try a little harder. Like this morning when we break bread and drink from the cup. The Decorating Committee and the Deacons and the Trustees might not appreciate it, but wouldn’t it be something to pour out an entire flask of perfume on the sanctuary floor this morning…enough to fill this whole space with its fragrance?
Knowing that smell is a potent wizard powerful enough to transport us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived, I suspect the aroma would refresh our collective memory. And Mary of Bethany would assume her rightful place as one of the most faithful disciples of all. Amen.
NOTE: This morning’s sermon draws inspiration from Rachel Held Evans, specifically her insights on Mary of Bethany, in her book entitled, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. (Thomas Nelson: 2015).