Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8
So, what do you think of Mary of Bethany in this gospel text? She takes perfume that’s worth almost a full year’s salary, ad pours it on Jesus’ feet—the work of a slave. Then she wipes it with her hair—a scandalous act for a woman. What are one or two words you might use to describe her? Free spirit? Grateful? Overly dramatic? Devoted? Wasteful?
The word I think I would use is “authentic.” She is being herself in a very unique situation. Her brother, Lazarus, has just been raised from the dead by Jesus and she is responding to that. And she’s doing it in her own, unique, genuine, and authentic way. John writes that her anointing of Jesus’ feet with this expensive perfume is a preview of his being anointed for burial. Of course gospel-writer John would find deep meaning in this act and relate it to the cross. That’s what he does. But I’m not sure in this story that Mary of Bethany had that in mind at all. Her actions are her own, with her own motives of gratitude and devotion. She is being, well, Mary. And she’s not trying to impress Jesus, Judas, or anyone else. She is responding to her brother’s restored life in an authentically “Mary” kind of way: by breaking open an extravagantly expensive jar of perfume and anointing Jesus’ feet with it, then wiping his feet with her hair.
Her response doesn’t meet Judas’ approval—even though many would say that Judas has a point. Judas is one of the twelve insiders whom Jesus picked, but his criticism doesn’t stop her at all. It doesn’t even matter to her. Her response to Jesus compassion isn’t influenced at all by what others think. Not only is that authentic, but it’s courageous. Because by acting in an authentic way, she’s opening herself up for public ridicule. She’s quite vulnerable to that right now.
Jesus, however, loves her response with the perfume. Not because it’s the right one or one that he approves of, but because it’s authentic for her. Her response to Jesus’ compassion comes from the core of her identity. It’s not meant to gain approval, not for anyone else, but just a response that comes from deep within her heart.
And that’s why we usually don’t behave authentically.
When you respond to Jesus (or anyone) in an authentic way, it leaves you vulnerable. Look at the criticism Judas levels at Mary. It’s harsh. He’s not just criticizing her actions, because her actions are coming from the depths of who she is. He’s criticizing her as a person. And if it wasn’t Judas saying it, how many of us would agree with him (because if he says it, it must be wrong)? How many of us would look at each other, roll our eyes, sigh, and whisper to one another, “There she goes again. She is just so strange.” And then we’d avoid her, gravitate toward others who also think she’s strange, and end up excluding her.
Mary is taking a tremendous risk by being authentic. Authenticity makes you vulnerable because it opens us up to pain that is so easily inflicted by those around us.
We live in a culture that doesn’t want us to recognize—much less admit—our vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be weak. It is considered wimpy. Buck up, we say. Be strong, we say. Tough it out, we say. Our heroes are people of strength and power. They aren’t vulnerable, they never back down, they never give in, they are never weak.
Mary has the courage to be authentic in the face of what others think about her. She does this extravagant thing because she has been touched by Jesus’ compassion and grace. When you are most vulnerable and you are met with compassion; when you are most vulnerable and are met with love, you are given new life.
I think that’s the church at its best. A place where you are met with compassion and love when you are most vulnerable. You see, that’s how Jesus continuously meet us—when we are weakest and most vulnerable, he comes to us in love, compassion, and grace.
At our Lenten devotion time last Wednesday, those at our table were talking about this text. The question we were dealing with had to do with Mary of Bethany’s extravagant gratitude. What were we grateful for, the question was asked? Many said that this congregation was pretty close to the top of the list. Several people shared that when they were living their lives in hard places, this was a safe community for them. They were welcomed, cared for, and held without any expectations or assumptions. They could be authentic in their pain, in their weakness, and in their vulnerability without much fear of reprisal or criticism. A safe place to be vulnerable—a safe place to be authentic.
I have a friend who experienced the death of a family member a while ago. She has spent the last several months being very vulnerable with a group of friends who’ve held her, walked alongside her, prayed with her during her journey of grief. She has cried, anguished, lamented, and shared her journey—trusting that no one would tell her to be strong, or to quit being so tearful, to get on with her life. Her grief is authentic, and her journey through it is just as authentic. Not looking for approval, just a safe place to be vulnerable—a safe place to be authentic.
Can you imagine the freedom that would come with that kind of safety? To know that you can express what truly in your heart, knowing that you will only be loved in return? That’s who we are in Christ. That’s what it looks like when the church is authentic.
I pray you would find this to be an authentic community here at LCM. I pray you would feel free to be authentic here. Jesus has touched us with compassion and love, we are free to respond in an authentic way. We are free to live in an authentic way. We are forgiven; we are loved; we are free. In that, we are given new life.