Sermon for 3/17/13: Fifth Sunday in Lent
“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.” In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.
Today is St. Patrick’s Day and I had threatened to preach about St.
Patrick – particularly that he wasn’t Irish and didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland – but Bruce threatened to make me explain green beer if I did, so I think I’ll stick to the lectionary after all. This is the fifth Sunday of Lent. For those of you keeping count, that means that we have one more week until we can celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and two weeks until we can start saying the “A” word again. Today’s gospel brings us one step closer to the crucial event that happens in between Palm Sunday and Easter – Jesus’ crucifixion. Today’s gospel is short – just eight verses – and tells what seems to be a rather unimportant little story in the immense drama that is the story of Jesus’ passion. And yet this little tale is in all four gospels, suggesting that it contains important information for understanding our faith.
Like several other gospel narratives, the story in which a woman anoints Jesus with costly oil is different in each gospel. The version we heard today is from the gospel of John. You might remember that John was the last of the gospels to be written- about 100 years after Jesus’ death – and the only “non-synoptic” one. “Synoptic” means “similar” and in the case of the gospels, that label has been put on Matthew, Mark, and Luke not because they are so very similar, but because John is so very different. How the gospel writers told their stories reflected what they believed was of primary importance in Jesus’ life and ministry. The narrative about Jesus’ anointing reflects the gospel writers’ different views on the role of women in the church and how we care for those we love.
In John’s gospel, which we just heard, Jesus is eating at the home of
Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. Lazarus lives with his sisters, Mary and Martha, whom we previously met in the gospel of Luke. In that story, Martha is serving Jesus while Mary sits at his feet listening. In what Mary Jane Chaignot has called, “the loudest whining in the gospels,” Martha prevails upon Jesus to tell Mary to get up and do her share of the work. Now, I am not going to preach that sermon today – for which we should all be grateful – but it is important to note that John says it is the same Mary – Mary of Bethany- who anoints Jesus’ feet in this story, while Martha (once again) serves the meal.
This clarification is important because several Marys appear in the gospels. Other than Jesus’ mother, there is Mary of Clopas – traditionally identified as Jesus’ aunt, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene, who appears in all of the gospels at various points and is identified as one of Jesus’ most faithful disciples. Two gospels – Mark and Luke – refer to Mary Magdalene as the woman who had seven demons cast out of her by Jesus. I grew up thinking – no doubt inspired by “Jesus Christ Superstar” – that the only Mary in the gospels (other than Jesus’ mother) was Mary Magdalene – and that Mary Magdalene was a “woman of ill-repute.” But there’s actually little evidence to support that idea (Andrew Lloyd Weber notwithstanding – sorry choir). So, why do we identify Mary Magdalene this way? Well, we can thank Pope Gregory the Great for that. According to Richard Covington:
“Few characters in the New Testament have been so sorely miscast as Mary Magdalene, whose reputation as a fallen woman originated not in the Bible but in a sixth-century sermon by Pope Gregory the Great. Not only is she not the repentant prostitute of legend, meditating and levitating in a cave, but she was not necessarily even a notable sinner: Being possessed by “seven demons” that were exorcised by Jesus, she was arguably more victim than sinner. And the idea, popularized by The Da Vinci Code, that Mary was Jesus’s wife and bore his child, while not totally disprovable, is the longest of long shots.”
Pope Gregory made his declaration in a series of sermons in response to intense debate about the identities and roles of “the Marys.” Greek (Orthodox) theologians thought there were three Marys – while Roman (Catholic) church leaders said all three were one person. By “deciding” the “correct” answer, Pope Gregory provided an argument against female leadership in the church. This is because in Luke’s account, the woman who pours ointment over Jesus’ head is a known sinner. By turning Mary Magdalene into a woman of ill-repute, Pope Gregory took away her authority as an early church leader – and as a gospel writer. She became identified by her alleged sinfulness rather than by her honored place among Jesus’ disciples. In Luke’s version, Mary’s sinful nature is the primary focus of the story, with Mary kneeling at Jesus’ feet and wetting them with her tears because she is grateful to him for saving her.
Mark, Matthew, and John have a different focus. In their gospels, the woman (who is unnamed in Matthew and Mark), anoints Jesus with the costly oil because she has accepted something the disciples haven’t. She understands that Jesus is going to die – and soon. The other disciples are focused on Jesus’ present teachings and ministry. They protest the waste of the expensive perfume because they are only thinking about how to deal with what is happening now. But Jesus – and the woman – know that Jesus’ endgame is much, much bigger than helping some of the many unfortunate in his world. In John’s gospel, this woman’s behavior is completely consistent with what we already know about Mary of Bethany. Mary is interested in the big picture. She recognizes that she is part of “a new thing” and she will not miss one moment of it springing forth. This Mary is not practical; she is not worried about baking the bread and setting the table and feeding the people like her sister is. You’re not going to find her at the soup kitchen feeding the hungry. You’re going to find her immersed in Jesus’ word and presence, sitting at his feet. By anointing Jesus, she demonstrates her devotion. Mary Jane Chaignot suggests:
“The women demonstrate their faithfulness and give their all… two days before the great festival of Passover, the Pharisees are using their preparation time to plot murder; the woman is using hers to anoint Jesus…The reaction in all [of the gospels] is the same – outrage at the wastefulness of using the perfume, indicating their lack of recognition of any symbolic meaning. “It could have been sold and the money given to the poor.” In Mark, “some people” say this; in Matthew, it is “the disciples;” in John, it is “Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus.” In each case, Jesus tells them to back off, saying what she did was important. “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” This does not suggest that one should ignore the needs of the poor; the point is that Jesus’ time is limited, and this is where the symbolism of her action becomes apparent. While anointing Jesus’ head could symbolize the anointing for burial, it could also refer to the anointing of a royal figure. The woman, then, is cast in a prophetic role. By anointing Jesus’ head, she is, in fact, affirming Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed… We will never know her name, but everyone will remember what she did.”
I am not arguing that Mary’s understanding of and willingness to act on her deep feelings of grief was a better way to deal what was happening than that of the male disciples. I am suggesting it was different. And I am proposing that those different behaviors reflect the social structure that was in place in Jesus’ time and is still in effect in many places today. In this story, Mary – whichever Mary she is – does for Jesus what women and men all over the world have done for centuries. She swallows her own pain and cares for the one she loves. She accepts the impending death of her beloved. She cleans him, comforts him, and prepares to let him go. And in Luke’s gospel she does something else – something that his male disciples don’t; she cries.
In our society for many years crying has been considered to be a weakness and women, as “the weaker sex,” have been appointed to do the majority of it. Pablo Picasso, who created a sequence of paintings referred to as “The Weeping Woman” series, explained his works by saying, “Women are suffering machines.” He may have been right. According to recent statistics from the World Health Organization, depression is twice as common in women than it is in men. Alcohol dependence, on the other hand, is twice as high in men. In other words, men and women have different ways of dealing with pain – and many of them are not good.
Jesus did not hide his pain. He became human so that he might know us and feel what we do – and he never rejected that humanity. When his friend Lazarus died and Martha asked him why he hadn’t been there to save him, Jesus wept. Even when he was dying on the cross, Jesus allowed himself to feel his agony as a human would – and to resent it. “My God,” he cried, “My God – why have you forsaken me”? Jesus knew better than any of our 21st century psychologists that deep pain can often precede great joy – that out of the darkness of Lent arises the light of Easter – but he also knew that we must acknowledge and deal with our pain first.
In 1984, the poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors…I think you thought there was no such place for you, and perhaps there was none then, and perhaps there is none now; but we will have to make it, we who want an end to suffering.” But as Christians we know that for us, there is such a place – there always has been, and there always will be. In this Christian community we can acknowledge our personal pain and help others with theirs. We must weep together that we may rejoice together. Our place is in the arms of one another and the light of Jesus Christ. St. Paul knew that, telling the Philippians that for Jesus’ sake he “suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in him.” King David knew it too. “Those who sowed with tears,” he sang, “will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy.” And so may we.
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