Lent 5C: A Scandalous Gift of Love
By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff
Imagine the scene: You have been invited to a dinner party at your friend Martha’s house; a dinner party thrown in honor of her good friend Jesus. Martha is well-known for her fabulous feasts, so you accept with pleasure. When Jesus arrives you witness the strangest, most uncomfortable moment of your life. Martha’s sister Mary brings out a small, 2-oz bottle of Clive Christian No. 1 Imperial Majesty perfume (the perfume Katie Holmes wore when she married Tom Cruise) which costs half of your
annual salary! You stare in horror as she pours this bottle over Jesus’ feet. The whole room fills with the sweet spicy scents of bergamot, cardamom, rose, and jasmine. The waste shocks everyone into silence, but what she does next is even more bizarre and inexplicable. She bows down over his feet and wipes them tenderly, carefully, with her hair. The awkward silence deepens until Judas mutters under his breath, “If she was just going to waste the money, why not give it to that homeless shelter down the road or something?” You’ve thought that same question about the megachurch down the road. As Jesus responds, “Leave her alone; you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” you have to wonder just what is going on here?
In some cultures today—particularly in some Jewish and many Muslim communities—the wearing of tichel or hijab is a sign of respect and modesty. The unbinding of hair is reserved only for a husband. In our own culture, caressing another’s feet (a phrase which conjures a certain Semitic euphemism to mind) is not generally done outside the bedroom. Thus, the familiarity of Mary’s action is astounding, embarrassing, and uncomfortable for those witnessing (or reading about) such intimacy.
Mary is shameless as she steps far outside the bounds of convention, teetering on the edge of scandal. Mary’s actions are laced with a wanton tenderness found between married couples, not an unmarried man and woman. Even for Jesus, who regularly stepped outside the social mores binding women of his time (remember his encounters with the Samaritan woman [John 4:4-26] and the hemorrhaging women [Mark 5:25-34, Matthew 9:18–26, Luke 8:40–56]), the fact that he allows her to perform this display of tender love is also astonishing. The question that has occupied the imaginations of theologians throughout the centuries must have been on everyone else’s mind in that moment: Is there something more than meets the eye going on between them? Perhaps something romantic?
Of course there was something going on between them. Mary has fallen in love with the Christ, with God the gracious lover of souls, who looks with compassion and a multitude of mercies upon all who turn to him for help. Like others throughout millennia, like the Disciples (though John insinuates that Judas is the exception), like Paul, like you and me, Mary has come to know the “surpassing value of knowing Christ who has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). Mary is in love with the God who loves her. Mary adores the God who adores her. Mary revels in the joy that comes from her very soul being laid bare before her Maker and finding, instead of judgement, love and desire for her soul, for her true self, for her.
Mary shows her love for God in a scandalously bold and confident display of affection in pouring out her heart as she mourns what Jesus will soon endure. Mary has heard Jesus’s teachings and his warnings about the path he must travel. Mary weeps at the sacrifice of Almighty God for her own self. As she lovingly prepares him for death, then finally for burial, she grieves openly and shares in his suffering. Judas, in juxtaposition, is resentful. John conveys the pattern of Judas’s life as one of betrayal of trust and hoarding of treasure. Judas keeps for himself instead of following the example Christ sets, the giving of self. John makes it clear that Judas’s question to Mary is not born out of concern for the poor. Judas is uncomfortable with Mary’s display of devotion. Where Mary gives, Judas hoards. Where Mary sacrifices financially, Judas seeks self-benefit. And yet, what Judas critiques as waste is, in fact, the greatest gift that Mary can give. Not expensive perfume or money but the offering of her very life, stripped of all masks, given in service to Christ.
What greater gift can any of us give to God who gave himself for us than to offer ourselves to God, to strip our souls bare of all self-protection, to pour out our very lives in dedication to the One who poured out his own life for us?
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is priest-in-charge at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Winchester, Kentucky and is part of the Network for Pastoral Leadership and Congregational Development. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts in the Kentucky countryside. Chana lives in Winchester with her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, and their hedgehog, Jacob.