john davies
notes from a small curate

    Mary - Innocent Provocateur

    Holy Trinity Celtic Evening Prayer 31/3/03

    John 12.1-8, Exodus 6.2-13

    Isn't it interesting how the purest acts of devotion so often end up causing controversy?

    I'm thinking of the recent story of an Anglican priest in Dover who provided communion for a group of Albanian asylum-seekers recently arrived in the town, and found himself in the eye of a public storm, being reviled for it.

    I'm thinking of Mother Teresa who, when she first began caring for Calcutta's poorest, sickest people, came in for some fierce criticism for sullying her hands by contact with such unsavoury folk.

    You could probably think of stories of people you've heard of, or seen, taken to task when they thought they were simply being faithful to God.

    Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, knew what it meant to be caught up in the criticism of others for simply showing devotion to her Lord.

    We hear about her three times in the gospels. The first time Jesus visits her home and she sits at his feet, listening intently to his teachings. Only to find her sister taking her to task for failing to help out with the housework.

    In Mary's second appearance, Jesus returns because the sisters have called him, to tell him Lazarus is dying. Jesus takes his time reaching them, and in the meantime the brother does die. Mary sits at Jesus' feet, and says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Jesus' reaction to this sets in motion a chain of events which result in him performing a resurrection, and stirring up a hornets nest which wouldn't settle, didn't settle until the day he died.

    The third time we meet Mary is in the story we heard this evening. This takes place not long after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. At a party in their home, in Jesus' honour, Mary again sits at his feet, and pours ointment on them, expensive, beautiful, plentiful, perfume. Only to be harshly criticised by Jesus' treasurer Judas for such an extravagantly wasteful act.

    There's nothing in any of these stories to suggest that Mary was ever put off Jesus because of the dramas which seemed to rage around her every time she went near him. Her devotion to him seemed very simple, very profound, and very unshakeable.

    And Jesus always defended her: "leave her alone," he told the critical Judas; "Mary is doing the better thing," he told the complaining Martha.

    This Lent, Mary models to us someone who really does seem to be able to put Jesus first, to the exclusion of any concerns about what other people are thinking or saying about her, without ever worrying that she may be doing the wrong thing. As far as Jesus is concerned, she never is.

    The others in these stories model more familiar kinds of behaviour. That time Martha complained she was doing all the housework, Jesus put his finger on her real problem:
      "Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing." Luke 10.41/2
    And Judas' problem was that he was so obsessed by money he'd lost his perspective on everything else going on around him. He couldn't see the beauty in Mary's action: to him it was a financial transaction, and a bad one at that.

    None of these human traits were new in Jesus' time. Our other reading tonight recalled God's fantastic saving actions on behalf of the people of Israel, their release from slavery, the new land that was coming to them. But when Moses reported all this to the people, we are told:
      "they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage." Exodus 6.9
    Sadly, worries and distractions, unhealthy obsessions, discouragement and cruel bondage are still with us today. Certainly with me - let's be honest, with most of us, much of the time. They're the reason why people like Mother Teresa are thought of as being very good but very strange, or that priest in Dover is regarded as a troublemaker rather than a faithful follower of Jesus.

    We might spend what's left of Lent reflecting on what causes us to be wrapped up in these unhealthy attitudes.

    My suggestion is this - that they're all tied up in our concern to define who we are.

    We all feel the need to to this - to say, this is me, this is how you can know who I am.

    Unfortunately the only way we seem to be able to meet this need is by defining ourselves in opposition to others:
      "I'm not like him," we say;
      "I wouldn't go where they go,"
      "I wouldn't do what she does."
    I am who I am because I'm not like the other.

    And so Martha has to say, "I'm not like Mary, idling around. Look at me, being busy, being useful."

    And so Judas has to say, "I'm not like Mary, wasting all that money. If it was up to me, I'd do something far better with it."

    What's different about Mary is that she steps outside this framework of identity. She defines herself in another way. Or perhaps more accurately, she allows herself to be defined ... by Jesus.

    Rather than say, "I'm not like them," Mary says, "I want to be like him";

    Rather than say, "I wouldn't go where they go," Mary says, "I want to be where he is";

    And rather than say, "I wouldn't do what she does,"
    Mary says, "I want to do what he does".

    Mary has learned about grace. She's not in competition with anyone else. Rather, she has learned to simply accept God's free gift to her.

    Jesus came to Mary, as he comes to us, freely, openly, with no strings attached. She simply reached out and received him. Every time.

    Unworried about the consequences, not distracted by how others would see her, free of unhealthy obsessions,
    encouraged by Christ not discouraged, released, not cruelly bound - Mary seems almost otherworldly to us, caught up as we are in our crises of identity.

    But she wasn't otherworldly. She was a sister, friend, ordinary woman. Who Jesus came to. In precisely the same way as Jesus comes to us.