Reflection – March 17: Lent 5

Monologue adapted with permission from “An Extravagant Gesture,” written by the Rev. Ann Pollock, Castlegar United Church.

My name is Martha. You may have heard of me. I lived with my sister, Mary, and my brother, Lazarus, in the town of Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem. We were friends of Jesus – had been for many years, and whenever he came to the city, he would stay with us. We were his friends, but like the others who followed him, we also saw him as a wise teacher, and believed that he had a special destiny, that he was the Messiah that our people had waited and longed for. We thought, and hoped, that he was the one who would free us from the Romans who ruled over us.

One day we had a dinner party much like many others we had hosted over the years when Jesus came to visit. As usual, I was in the kitchen, supervising all the preparations, making sure everything was being done to make our guests comfortable, and to provide them with a good meal. My sister Mary, was who knows where? By rights, of course, she should have been helping me in the kitchen, but ever since that time when I had complained to Jesus about her lack of help, and he had responded that by sitting at his feet and listening to him, Mary had chosen the better part, I had resigned myself to the fact that when Jesus was around Mary would stick to him like glue and hang on his every word.

So, I was in the kitchen. Mary was around somewhere.  And as usual, Lazarus was hosting our guests, lounging with them on the couches and cushions in the courtyard.   Except it wasn’t quite as usual. It had only been a few days since Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, and he was still looking a little pale and shaky, not quite back to his usual, gracious self.

Lazarus was not the only one who was still recovering from that remarkable event. It had been an emotionally draining time for Mary and me, thinking that our brother was dead and grieving our loss and then having him come back to us. But it was the authorities who were really upset by what Jesus had done. For them, raising Lazarus from the dead, meant that Jesus had gone from being a manageable nuisance to a serious threat.

Jesus had stayed low and out of sight for a few days, but now it was almost time for the big Passover celebration, and Jesus always came to Jerusalem for that. As he stretched out in our living area that evening, he looked as calm and relaxed as ever, but there was a tense feeling in the air.   Everyone knew that something was going to happen, and happen soon.   We all hoped it would be that Jesus would make his move and take control of the situation. But we were also at little bit worried about the authorities and what they might do.

I was determined to make this evening extra special, as a way to thank Jesus for the incredible thing he had done in bringing Lazarus back to us, so I was busier than ever in the kitchen. But suddenly I became aware that a hush had come over our guests. The usual talking and laughing had stopped and I caught a whiff of some fragrant perfume. I remember it as being a scent that smelled something like mint and ginseng.

I went over to the door to see what was happening and I couldn’t believe what I saw. There was Mary at Jesus’ feet. Although normally women stayed out of men’s discussions, for Mary this was not unusual. That was often where she could be found when Jesus came to visit. No, it was what she was doing that shocked me and everyone else who was watching. Mary was holding our jar of pure nard – some people call it spikenard. It was very expensive stuff. Anyway, Mary had taken this jar and was pouring the nard over Jesus’ feet! And then she was wiping up the perfumed oil, not with a towel, as anyone else would do, but with her own hair, of all things! The whole thing was just too bizarre! It was a way over the top! I didn’t know what to do or say. Judas was the first one to recover enough to speak. Ever the practical one, Judas was the money manager for Jesus and the disciples. Anyway, Judas asked the question that was on many of our minds at that moment. He asked Mary why she was wasting such expensive perfumed oil in this way. Wouldn’t it have been better to sell it and give the money to the poor, if not use it for some of the many expenses the disciples had on the road? All this time, we had been listening to Jesus preach about God’s love for the poor and how we are called to work for economic justice, to make sure that the poor are fed and given their proper share of the world’s resources. You would think Jesus would have agreed with Judas on this. I mean, we all knew how fond Jesus was of Mary, but still, even he must be able to see the logic in what Judas was saying.

But no, instead of chastising Mary for what she had done, he said to Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought the perfumed oil so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When Lazarus and I discussed it later, he told me that Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy. The total verse says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’”  So Jesus wasn’t saying that because there will always be those in need, there is no sense trying to help them.   I know some people have understood his words in this way and have used them as a justification of not doing anything to care for the poor. But Jesus was saying just the opposite, that we are to open our hands to help them, which of course, is much more in line with what he had been preaching and teaching all along.

After all that happened later that week – Jesus’ arrest, his trial, his crucifixion and then his resurrection, I got to thinking that what Mary did was loving but also prophetic. Mary could have anointed Jesus’ head, a sign that everyone would have recognized as her anointing him as a king, the kind of ruler most of us who were with him hoped and expected him to become. But Mary didn’t do that. Instead, she dropped to her knees and poured the perfumed oil onto his feet and massaged his sore and tired feet with an extravagant and generous love. Oil like that was only used on a person’s feet when they were being prepared for burial. Do you think she knew that Jesus’ time with us would soon be over and that he needed the comfort and loving touch of his friends before he faced the cruelty that lay before him? We all knew that we were living in dangerous times and that Jesus was taking a huge risk by going to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations. We knew the Roman troops were present in huge numbers ready to use force at the slightest provocation and still he went.

I’ve thought a lot about those times and what happened in our home so long ago. Jesus allowed himself to be cared for and nurtured just as he had so often cared and nurtured others. Because of him, I know that it’s important not only to offer loving care to others but also to accept the generous gift of care from others. When I do that I have more joy and energy to reach out to others and welcome them with the same generosity of spirit that Jesus and Mary taught me.

It’s been good to remember those days with Jesus and to feel that he is with us still. I hope my thoughts have also helped you to have a new understanding of what was going on in those days so long ago. I hope and pray that your faith will be strengthened and your commitment renewed, as mine have been, by thinking about these things.

May the peace of Christ, that passes all understanding, be with each one of you this day and in the days to come. I pray it may be so.

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