Do You Get It? (2007)
Bill Long 3/25/07
Contemporary Reflections on John 12:1-8
Today was the final Sunday for my Lenten lectionary class, and we studied the story of the Mary, sister of Lazarus, who anointed Jesus' feet with a costly perfume and then dried his feet with her hair. Even though Mary's action is only mentioned in one verse (12:3), her act has resounded loudly throughout the history of Biblical interpretation, and it riveted our attention this morning. I presented the passage as a series of 4 "snapshots" or "movie scenes" (Jesus and Lazarus reclining at table; Mary's "interruption; Judas' comment; Jesus' words about Judas), but the point that seemed to lodge in our minds was that Mary, finally, "got it" about Jesus. That is, her action in v. 3 indicates that she understood something of monumental importance that she had not fully grasped previously. It was worth it to her to pour out a year's worth of wages of perfume on Jesus and to humble herself by drying his feet with her hair because she realized without a doubt that Jesus was not only a miracle worker or great teacher, but that he was the Savior of the world and the one to whom she owed her full allegiance. But I also maintained in class that Jesus also "got it" in a new and striking way through Mary's action. The three points, then, of most importance this morning, were: (1) How Mary "Got It"; (2) How Jesus "Got It"; and (3) How we "Get It" in 2007.
I. Mary "Got It"
It is best to read John 12:1-8 in the context of John 11. Mary & Martha's brother, Lazarus, was ill. When Jesus heard that he was ill, rather than hightailing it over to Bethany, he stayed two days longer where he was (11:6). When he finally arrived, Martha came to meet Jesus. Jesus quizzed Martha on her beliefs regarding him, but Mary was not in on the conversation. Jesus first sees Mary in v. 32 when she greets him with these words: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." She never says what her "belief" is with respect to Jesus.
This background makes her action in 12:3 all the more poignant for, in the words of one person in my class, it seems as if here is the time when Mary "gets it." Her action is both an expression of abject humility and extreme gratitude. It is almost as if she could have said with Job, "I have heard of you with the hearing of the ear; but now my eyes see you." She and been friends with Jesus (actually John 11:5 says that Jesus "loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus"), but now she saw Jesus in a fresh and deep way. He who saved her brother was worthy of her fullest adulation, admiration and worship. It really is an overwhelming display of affection. It is the prodigal's words ("I am no longer worthy to be your son") raised to the third or fourth power. She has seen and felt something that becomes the most dramatic life-(re)orienting event of her life. She "got it."
II. How Jesus "Got It"
For some reason, we are hesitant to admit that Jesus learned anything from anybody or that he benefitted from anyone's actions. We confess the full humanity of Christ, but we rob him of it just when we need that humanity to manifest itself. My point here is that Mary's action taught Jesus something. It taught him that the central issue of his final days would be servanthood rather than healings, casting out demons, teaching or speaking in parables. Though there are other Gospel passages which emphasize Jesus' servanthood (e.g., Mk. 10:45), the action of Mary taught Jesus that his way, and the way of discipleship generally, would be in serving others.
Jesus was open to learning something from Mary because he was so emotionally attached to her and her family. There are several indications in ch. 11 of how intimately related Jesus was to these three special people. When Jesus saw Mary weeping at the loss of her brother, "he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved" (11:33). The verbs suggest the kind of anger and troubling that is reserved for the sternest and most powerful emotions that Jesus ever expressed in the Gospels. Then he began to weep (11:35), the only place in the Gospels where this is recorded.
His soul was suffused with their pain, and when Mary performs her act of devotion in 12:3, I think the symbolism of it strikes a responsive chord in Jesus. He not only commends her (vv. 7-8), but he decides to imitate her conduct by washing the disciples' feet in the next chapter. That is, he took on as a central symbol for discipleship the thing that Mary had expressed to him as her sign of affection. Jesus had done a host of other compelling things in his ministry--he had healed sick people, spoken in parables, and taught many, many things. He had even taught the importance of serving the poor--which Judas seemed to have picked up pretty well. But now Jesus realized that servanthood had to be the central category of life for those who followed him. Mary was the instrument which brought this point home to Jesus. He, too, "Got It" in a fresh way through her action.
III. Do We "Get It" Today?
Our lives are filled with information overload. Not only is there much more out there than we ever could really assimilate, this out there knowledge seeks entry into all the private spaces of our lives. It is immensely difficult to sort out our priorities and, beyond that, to embrace the one or two most important things about life. We are divided and torn people. The story of Mary helps me ask the question again today of what I "get" about life, and whether I am orienting my life around those things that I "get." What do we "get" about Jesus in 2007? About our tasks or identity today? That is the question that Mary's action encourages us to ask ourselves...