So this is what I'm taking into the pulpit tomorrow... the backbone of what I'll say (but with the possibility of elaborating or even imaginatively diverting as the Spirit leads.
As we travel with Jesus through Lent, we reach this story from John’s gospel, in the build up to Palm Sunday – which we mark next week – and the beginning of Holy Week.
It is a story which we read knowing that Jesus life is drawing towards its end and it’s a story which teaches us a lot about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
There are a variety of stories about Jesus having his head or his feet anointed – but in this story in John, it is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus who brings expensive ointment and anoints Jesus’ feet. When he sees what is happening, Judas asks ‘why could this ointment not have been sold, and the money given to the poor?’ and John adds ‘he said this because he held the common purse and used to steal from it’.
John wants us to know that Judas is in the wrong – and I think that one of the reasons John does this is that Judas asks a perfectly reasonable question. Judas has heard Jesus’ teaching over the last 3 years. Judas presumably heard Jesus telling the rich young ruler ‘go and see everything you have and give the money to the poor’. Judas has seen how Jesus has time for the lowest and the least – reaching out to heal those whom other people would cast aside. Judas knows that following Jesus is about serving the poor, giving your all, doing the right thing.
In the folk song ‘said Judas to Mary’ the writer obviously sympathises with Judas, because he has Jesus say ‘the poor of the world are my body, he said, to the end of the world they shall be. The bread and the blankets you give to the poor you’ll find you have given to me, he said: you’ll find you have given to me’.
Here is an echo of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats ‘in as much as you have done it for one of these little ones of mine, you have done it for me’. But actually Jesus says nothing of the sort in this story: he say to Judas ‘leave her alone’! Judas is not absolutely wrong, and I’m not sure that we have any other evidence that Judas was a thief – it is just that right now, Judas is missing the point.
Mary is showing what it means to follow Jesus. It is first of all to be with Jesus, to listen to Jesus, to worship Jesus. There are similarities here with the earlier story with Mary & her sister Martha. Remember how Martha is busy trying to serve Jesus a meal & berates her sister, Mary, for sitting still and listening to Jesus. Then Jesus doesn’t say it is wrong to serve, but he firmly says that Mary has chosen the better part. Before we serve Jesus, we must listen to Jesus. Mary teaches Martha how to be a follower of Jesus: listening and learning from Jesus as well as serving him. Mary teaches that to follow Jesus we must listen to Jesus before we rush off to serve Jesus.
I'm struck in today’s story by what Mary teaches Judas of what it means to be a follower – not only to listen and act, but also to love Jesus. In this almost erotic act of annointing Jesus’ feet, Mary shows the importance of focusing on Jesus. Before she can serve Jesus in the world, and feed the poor, Mary has first to recognize who Jesus is and what he is doing for the world by his forthcoming death.
In an activist world the idea of adoration and worship and spending time being with Jesus is an important one. And it means that the service of the poor offered in Jesus’ name is an outpouring of gratitude for what God in Jesus has first done for us.
This is why it is right that as Easter approaches we spend time thinking about the events of Holy Week, and worshipping God for what has been done for us in Jesus. When we spend our time and our effort in worshipping Jesus we are getting it right as followers of Jesus. Of course we cannot love God an ignore the world: but neither are we true followers of Jesus if we spend all our time and all our money in serving the world and have nothing left to give to God.
We know that Jesus told the rich young man ‘sell everything you have & follow me’ but Jesus did not say that to everyone he met. Perhaps it is that Jesus recognizes that it is his wealth that is the stumbling block for this would-be follower – the gospel tells us the man went away very sad – it seems Jesus hit the nail on the head. Whatever we would place above Jesus is that very thing which we must put aside to follow Jesus properly.
Jesus accepts this adoration from Mary of Bethany, but did not seek it at other times and places. Mary shows us what it is to put Jesus first.
And Jesus teaches Judas that if feeding the poor is what Judas would put first, Judas needs to be prepared to set even this good thing to one side in order to put Jesus in the right place in his life.
As Easter approaches, what is Mary teaching us? What might we need to set aside to worship Jesus as we should? How can we each put Jesus first?
We can only search our own hearts for the answer to the question ‘what are you putting before Jesus?’.
Whatever it is, ask for the strength to set it to one side, and worship the God who comes to us in this bread and wine, to feed and to save us in Jesus Christ. Amen.