The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. (John 12:3b)
Outrageous that such a waste of resources should be allowed, let alone encouraged. Outrageous that a household member, a woman from a respectable family, should pour out ointment over the feet of a dinner guest. Outrageous that any respectable woman would appear in public with her hair unbound. This was a sign of an immoral woman.
Outrageous that God incarnate should assume the role performed by a slave by removing his own garments and, wrapped in a towel, wash his disciples’ feet. Outrageous that Jesus would need to demonstrate that none can be part of God without sharing in service and humiliation. Outrageous the topsy-turvy role-reversal love implores, that the master becomes the servant, that the sinless one becomes sin for humanity. Outrageous that Christ on the cross, in the agony of death, should approach God asking for forgiveness for his tormentors.
Mary of Bethany loved Jesus with a passion that was outrageous. To her, the opinions of others regarding her behaviour toward Jesus meant nothing. She had heard his words “I am the resurrection and the life” spoken during an earlier visit, on the occasion of Lazarus’ death and resurrection. Through the eyes of faith, she alone determined that he who was already the resurrection could be anointed for his burial while he was still with his friends. In this act, she witnesses to Christ’s unique relationship to life and death.
The mystery of Mary of Bethany
During the events of Holy Week, three figures stand out graphically. These are Judas, Peter and Mary. Of Judas and his betrayal, and Peter with his denial, we hear much. So much so that at times we clearly identify with these two disciples. For we all have betrayed and denied Christ. Of Mary of Bethany, there is a vast difference between what we are taught of her and the description we hear in the gospels.
Layered with the veneers of tradition, whose source is the authority of St. Augustine of Hippo and Pope Gregory the Great, Mary of Bethany has at times been identified with the “woman who was a sinner” of Luke Chapter 7, and with Mary Magdalene. Search Scripture diligently, I implore you, and you may be surprised that in fact you cannot discern where Mary of Bethany is described as a hooker who gave up the game as a result of her love of Jesus!
Instead she is portrayed as one whom Jesus loved, and who chose to sit at his feet, as would any disciple of a learned rabbi. That she, because of her spiritual insight, should be the one of all Christ’s disciples to provide the only anointing his body would receive, would later be a cause for reflection. Mary may have found it difficult to explain her action. Her generosity in pouring out this ointment marks sharply the difference in attitude compared with that Judas displays.
Love such as Mary’s never calculates. Rather than judging how little could be expected, outrageous love gives to its uttermost limits, and even then thinks the gift too small. Such love entails sacrifice, and the world judges the cost far too great, and so, unaffordable.
The call to outrageous love
Love like this does not wait for more convenient or comfortable opportunities, but demands immediate action. It regrets no lost opportunities, for all love’s impulses have been acted upon. Such love does not presume, but instead espouses humility. It is not self-conscious of the correctness of its actions, the appropriateness of its presence in social or political arenas. Outrageous love is born in our interaction with God through Christ.
Jesus asked that we love one another as he loved us — outrageously. Can the modern world of commerce offer understanding and forgiveness to those who have violated its perception of financial responsibility? In the eyes of love, there may be more profit in giving than in the accumulation of wealth. Love suggests that forgiveness rather than legalistic demand affords more chances for reconciliation.
Our world is filled with people standing on their dignity when they should be kneeling in service and prayer. The principal of seventy times seven can never be weighed in our consciousness until we are prepared to stop demanding fairness. Life will never be fair while we allow the damaging actions of fearful people to continue.
Jesus’ attitude to the woman caught in adultery demonstrates that the love he advocates removes our need to judge others. Such love denies the existence of all humanly constructed barriers, instead seeing all equally as God’s children. Outrageous love replaces our need for recognition, for dignity, and for worldly comforts, with a passionate love for all of God’s creation. We become like Jesus.
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Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.