Leave Her Alone Redux

Every year C, which the Lectionary devotes to Luke, we hear this same passage from the gospel according to John on the 5th Sunday in Lent. It’s a bit confusing, I know. John’s gospel offers stories that are quite different or just absent from the ones featured in the other three.

As luck would have it, I get to preach on the same passage that was assigned exactly three years ago. That day I focused on Mary of Bethany and how, according to many church and Bible authorities, she is one and the same with Mary Magdalene, the Tower, the one disciple who truly understood Jesus’ message and carried it forward in the early community, but who has been maligned over the centuries and whose voice many tried to suppress.

Today, I want to take a closer look at the whole passage, because its meaning is nuanced and rich. First of all, let’s give it some context: The story takes place six days before the Passover, which tells us at least two things: first, Jesus will be executed in less than a week, and second, this evening was the beginning of the day of rest.

Thus the dinner to which Jesus was invited was a Shabbat dinner. Martha would have cooked and labored to make the house look beautiful for the special guest. She would have served the food herself and lit the two candles right before sundown to indicate the beginning of a time of rest–a time devoted to honoring the Lord. In her book Leave Her Alone, theologian Megan McKenna says,

“Ritually the Sabbath is when the Shekhina–the Spirit of God that waits in exile with the people of God until the coming of the Messiah–goes to visit, to dwell with the righteous Jews who gather to celebrate […], to remember the promises and to tell again the stories of God’s compassion and justice.”

Furthermore, due to its falling right before Passover, this was no ordinary Shabbat but one of the High Sabbaths celebrated in the Jewish calendar. So, this was a very special dinner, made even more special because Jesus was the guest of honor. Everybody in this household must have been thinking of the recent miraculous event of Lazarus rising from the dead thanks to Jesus’ intervention. They were thankful beyond words, and they must have been mystified by what had happened. Wouldn’t you be?

Many Judeans were now following Jesus because of this miraculous act. Let us not forget that it was precisely because of this miracle that the Sanhedrin had decided to kill Jesus to prevent more people from following his teachings. This we just learned in the previous chapter.

People heard that Jesus was coming to dinner in Bethany, which is just a couple of miles from Jerusalem, and they were coming in droves to see him and Lazarus, the man risen from the dead. So, the atmosphere was charged. Everyone must have felt it.

And yet, it must also have felt wonderful to be celebrating the Sabbath among friends, sharing a meal, praying, perhaps singing a psalm.

Mary must have been beside herself–overjoyed to be in the presence of her teacher; immeasurably grateful to him for having brought her brother back from the dead; afraid for Jesus’ life, understanding, unlike the other disciples, that this would probably be his last Sabbath with them. She was Jesus’ best disciple, the one who sat at his feet and took in every word he said; the one who truly understood him, the one who would faithfully carry on his message after he was gone. With all these emotions stirring within her, it is not surprising that Mary decided to do this exuberant gesture of using a pound of incredibly expensive spikenard oil to anoint Jesus’ feet and wipe them with her own hair. What an extraordinary thing to do! It was lavish and without measure, but totally understandable coming from the heart of this woman who so deeply loved and knew Jesus, and who understood exactly what agony was coming his way and, hence, her way too.

Someone like Judas, a thief, a traitor, would not be attuned whatsoever to this greater reality. He was more focused on scheming and making a quick profit; not for the poor, but for his own gain. He was ready to lash out; to rebuke the woman not because he cared one bit about the poor, but because he wanted to find fault with her, probably even out of jealousy for he must have known that she was a beloved disciple.

Jesus’ response to Judas was quick and appropriate, commensurate with Judas’s rebuke. Jesus didn’t overreact; he just put the man in his place.

I couldn’t help comparing this vignette with an incident that became hot news a week ago during the Oscars’ ceremony. A famous comedian made a joke–not a very good nor a particularly sensitive one–involving the wife of one of the Oscar nominees. The offended husband decided to come on stage and slap the comedian on the face in front of a celebrity-filled theater as millions of viewers watched on TV.

The husband’s reaction was not commensurate with the alleged offense. He not only overreacted to a joke, but resorted to violence just because he could. And to boot, when later called to the podium to receive an award, he made it about himself: about becoming a vessel of love and becoming a crazy dad and “sometimes doing things for love”. But nowhere did he apologize to the colleague he slapped on the face, nor did he even mention his wife once in his rambling speech.

People took sides: some were for the offended husband and some were for the slapped comedian. A potentially chivalrous moment–a husband defending his wife from a perceived attack–became an ego trip for the man. The wife was silent.

Contrast that with our gospel story where Jesus was fully in Mary’s camp. He defended her actions and explained further, for everyone to understand, what Mary’s unction really meant: an anointing for his burial. On this special day, in her own home, she decided to carry out this most intimate gesture of love and compassion for her teacher, only to have a thief and traitor question her motives. But Jesus was there for her—acknowledging and empowering her, just as he did with others who back then couldn’t speak for themselves.

This exchange probably would have stopped everyone in their tracks, the mood ruined by Judas’s small-minded words. As author McKenna says, “It must have been an uncomfortable moment at the dinner party, a glitch in the celebration of a Sabbath meal. A rift opened between those who would stand with Jesus as he was arrested, condemned to death, and crucified, and those who would refuse to believe that such a thing was happening, let alone those who would betray him in deed, in word, and in running away to save themselves in fear and confusion.”

The fourth gospel presents Jesus as an advocate and defender of women. It is in this gospel where Jesus has the deeply theological and life-changing conversation with the Samaritan woman; it’s here too where Martha of Bethany declares that Jesus is the Messiah and where Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the risen Christ and is commissioned by him to go tell the other disciples.

Many scholars over the years have done exhaustive research trying to determine who the author of this gospel really was. There seems to be consensus now that John, son of Zebedee, was not the author. Some think that this book emerged from a Jewish Palestinian community that followed the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Others, among them renowned Bible scholar Sandra Schneiders, believe that this community was inspired by the women who followed Jesus, who understood his message and wanted to live as he had taught them. It was a diverse and inclusive community made up of Jews, Samaritans, and gentiles, where women could be leaders and had equal standing with men. They thrived for some time until other Christian groups with a strong patriarchal bent became the dominant form of Christianity in the early second century CE. By then, this so-called Johannine community had written their account and had to amend it so that it could be included with the other New Testament books.

However, this gospel is different. It has a definite feminine aura about it. We get a taste of this in today’s passage; the way the story is told sounds a bit chatty like a woman talking. Maybe that’s the reason why it didn’t get its own year in the lectionary. Maybe that’s the reason why many people find it difficult to engage with it. Back in the second century, the church patriarchs considered it gnostic, and therefore potentially heretical. The gnostics were rejected because they favored direct personal knowledge of spiritual things over traditional teachings, but also because they gave women leadership roles. The gospel wasn’t gnostic; it was, and is, deeply mystical. Its mysticism allowed it to see past the differences among the community’s diverse members and into the deeper reality of God within. It was imperative to make the fourth gospel more palatable to the church authorities, so the Johannine community worked hard to ensure that their gospel, with all the important teachings on mystical union and equality among Samaritans, gentiles, and women, was included in the official canon of the New Testament. They needed to pass on their tradition to future generations.

Jesus’ final statement, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” is a sentence that has always haunted me. I often think of it when I see the unhoused people on the streets, the growing poverty levels all around us, throughout this country, and globally. I think of the inequality that is built into the world’s economic systems. However, thinking of the poor just in terms of financial penury is a mistake. We all are poor in different ways at different times. We are poor when we are oppressed or silenced because we are women or belong to an ethnic minority. We are poor when we lose someone we love or when we ourselves are close to death.

So, yes, we always have the poor because we are the poor. Jesus wouldn’t be with his friends physically again. This was their last time together, and it needed to be memorialized with a grand gesture, which Mary provided with all the love and compassion that was in her heart.

I end with the words of Megan McKenna, “Jesus spoke up: “Leave her alone.” She’s with him. He’s with her. Now the option is put before us: Where are we? Whose side are we on? When we celebrate Sabbath,[…] what are we feeding on? What word do we take to heart? Who do we defend in public? What do we do with our wealth and excess? […] This story changes everything. This story is subversive. How do you respond to resurrection? How do you practice downward mobility, like Martha and Mary, becoming servants, and making yourself poor in gratitude, by using your wealth, your treasured possessions and savings, for those who are in need now?”