Sermon for Monday in Holy Week, April 2, 2007, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Irrational, Pointless, and Necessary
Some of you may recognize tonight’s Gospel reading as the one we heard little more than a week ago, when the lectionary assigned most of this passage for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Rob Hirschfeld preached a wonderful sermon that morning, and being handed the same text on which to comment 8 days later leads tonight’s preacher to quote from Rob’s sermon: it “stinketh.”
I don’t know what the lectionary planners had in mind when they placed the passages so close together, but maybe they wanted to be sure that Christians had a chance to ponder deeply – and often – the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet. Luckily it is a story so rich in meaning that we can return to it again and again and discover something new.
All four Gospels include a scene of a woman anointing Jesus, but the details vary quite a bit, such as when and where the event took place, which woman did the anointing, and whether it was Jesus’ head or feet that she anointed. Scholars attribute the differences partly to the particular meanings that each Gospel writer wanted to convey, for each Gospel has its own distinctive emphasis, its own way of making meaning of Jesus’ life. But I have to say that John’s version of the story is to me the most irrational, even muddled, of them all – and, I would argue, maybe for that reason the most beautiful.
I’ll tell you why. As we just heard, John places the scene six days before Passover at the home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from death. While Martha, one of Lazarus’ sisters, serves the meal, his sister Mary takes a great quantity of costly perfume, bathes Jesus’ feet with it, and then dries his feet with her hair.
Now, really, what sense does that gesture make? Anointing someone’s head with oil would have made sense. Anointing the head of a dinner guest was a familiar gesture of hospitality in that ancient culture, so if Mary had anointed Jesus’ head with oil, her act would have been quite normal, a gracious and familiar expression of welcoming a guest. What’s more, anointing his head would have recalled how in Old Testament times a prophet anointed the head of the Jewish king [2 Kings 9:1-13, 1 Samuel 10:1]. Anointing Jesus’ head would have meant that she recognized him as the Messiah – literally, the anointed one.
But here Mary is anointing Jesus’ feet with oil – a gesture as unusual in that culture as it would be in ours today. Not only that, she then wipes away the oil with her hair – an even more extraordinary gesture, to say the least. Why apply perfumed oil to Jesus’ feet, only to wipe it off right away? And why wipe it off with her hair? No respectable Jewish woman would have appeared in public with her hair unbound – so this was a scandalous gesture, one that was unbecoming to be a respectable woman.
Mary’s gesture was lavish, irrational, and apparently pointless. No wonder the reaction comes swiftly – what a waste! How much more sensible it would have been to have sold that expensive perfume – worth nearly a year’s wages for a laborer – and to have used the money for something useful, like giving it the poor! Mary, what were you thinking?
Some scholars look at this apparently muddled gesture and explain that John’s Gospel was conflating two separate historical incidents. (1) In one event, an unnamed, penitent sinner knelt before Jesus, and when her tears fell on his feet, she hastily wiped them away with her hair. Loosening her hair in public would have fit with the woman’s dubious reputation and character. In a second event, a woman expressed her love for Jesus by anointing his head with expensive perfume.
Maybe we should try to explain the strangeness of John’s version of the story by saying that he brought together and confused two separate incidents, so that the details of one story passed over to the other, giving us a scene of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair.
Or maybe we can defend the woman, as Jesus did, by saying that her gesture made sense because, whether she knew it or not, she was in effect preparing his body for burial. After all, the world around Jesus that night was full of foreboding. The tension around Jesus was rising to a breaking point. The civil and religious authorities were plotting to take his life and looking for a way to arrest him. By telling us that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, maybe this Gospel intends to show that she intuited or anticipated Jesus’ approaching crucifixion, and anointed his feet as a mourner would anoint a dead body.
But I see more than that in this story. To me it is the very pointlessness of this act of love that most moves me, for in a sense every act of love is pointless. What is the point of love? What is the point of beauty? What is the point of existence itself? Mary’s act of overflowing, extravagant love has no point, just has love itself has no point. And yet how beautiful it is, how necessary! It is an act that feeds the soul, and an act in which we give ourselves to God.
Of course we do need to care for the poor – after all, Jesus himself came to embrace the lost and lonely and marginalized, and to set the captive free. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus even tells us that that he so identifies with the poor, that when we feed and clothe the poor, it is Jesus himself whom we feed and clothe [Matthew 25:31-45].
Yet in this story Jesus lifts up another truth, as well: there comes a time when we must set aside being efficient, useful, and sensible. Tonight’s Gospel passage reminds us that every genuine act of love, however muddled – every gesture of kindness, however incoherent – every act of creativity, however wild and extravagant it may be – can be our offering to God, our way of giving thanks and of sharing in God’s love.
There is a quote by the novelist Gunter Grass that says this more succinctly than I have. “Art,” he writes – and, I would add, kindness, beauty, and love itself – “is so wonderfully irrational, exuberantly pointless, but necessary all the same. Pointless and yet necessary, that’s hard for a puritan to understand.”
Tonight we lift up the beauty of pointless acts of love. And maybe Mary’s extravagance is not excessive, after all, for she is responding to the extravagant love that Jesus would reveal soon enough on Good Friday.
(1) See The Anchor Bible, The Gospel according to John (i-xii), Introduction, translation, and notes, by Raymond E. Brown, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966, pp. 445-454.