Our Gospel lesson this Sunday is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus’ feet, only to get reprimanded by Judas… and defended by Jesus.
In preparing my sermon, I came across a very interesting interpretation by Nancy Rockwell. I’m going in a completely different direction in my sermon. But Rockwell’s take has made me think of Jesus in a startling new way: as so much more human… as truly one of us caught up in and trying to make a life for ourselves in the midst of life’s ambiguities.
Rockwell begins with how unique and special Jesus’ relationship is with Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ family, three siblings living together in one home in Bethany, across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. It’s the only home in all the Gospels that Jesus visits more than once. He seems to be there every time he’s in Jerusalem — I always assumed it was his “headquarters” his Jerusalem ministry.
The Scripture never tells when, where or how Mary, Martha and Lazarus met Jesus, but we know they have become integral in his community of followers. It is in their home, Rockwell suggests, that Jesus appears first among the disciples on Easter. She also suggests that the Last Supper took place in their home, but I’ve always thought of it in a borrowed room in Jerusalem proper.
But Rockwell wonders if even more isn’t going on here. She notes that every story where Mary enters Jesus’ presence — no matter in which Gospel — she has a noticeable effect on him. His attention and sympathy are drawn to her; she reaches his heart, and it opens to her.
I don’t find it too much of a stretch to read a certain intimacy between Jesus and Mary. He defends her against Martha’s complaints that she’s not upholding her half of the entertaining; actually, he sides with Mary. In another episode, Jesus receives Martha’s reproach and then resignation over Lazarus’ death. But Jesus shares Mary’s tears over her brother’s death and responds with his most amazing miracle, raising Lazarus. Is he trying to heal Mary’s heart?
No matter what the situation, Jesus does not seem to be willing to be separated from Mary.
The disciples must have noticed this intimacy, maybe felt jealous of it, for they criticize Mary more than once, something we have no record of them doing to the other woman that is close to him, Mary Magdalene. Likewise, despite some jealousies, they are not recorded as criticizing one another either.
This week’s story is of Jesus’ arrival at their home six days before Passover. They throw a feast in his honor. Lazarus is there, a fact often forgotten. But never to be forgotten is Mary’s presence, for she brings out a jar of costly perfume, made with pure nard, we are told, and anoints his head, his hair, and then, using her own hair, his feet (in a sort of amalgam of the different Gospels’ versions). Jesus and Mary are joined in an embrace of fragrance.
Judas recoils. From what? The text suggests his reaction is about his desire that Jesus focus on a specific political agenda. Or, as Judas himself explains, it’s the extravagance of her gesture that bothers him? But what if he draws back over that peculiar feeling that comes in the presence of enamored lovers?
Again, Jesus protects and defends her. “Leave her alone!” he rebukes Judas, saying “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me.” Perhaps, Jesus understands that he will not have or be there for Mary much longer.
There is no one else in the Gospels, Rockwell concludes, for whom Jesus feels so tender, is so responsive, speaks so protectively, and with whom he chooses to be a frequent guest.
Scholars at Harvard are researching the possibility that Mary Magdalene may have been Jesus’ wife. They work with written text fragments from the early churches that refer to a wife. As well, they surmise such a relation from Magdalene’s central role in the community of the disciples. According to all four Gospels, Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother; she was the one who led the women to his grave to anoint his body; and she was the first to know of his resurrection. All of these details raise the possibility that she was Jesus’ wife:
A wife would have been permitted, along with a mother, to attend his death.
A wife would have been permitted access to his tomb.
Yet nowhere are there are details — no words or actions from him — that indicate soft and tender feelings for her.
In an era when marriage was arranged by parents for their children at an early age, and not rooted in romance and young adults’ self-determination… when marriage was a contract of duties and obligations, not a commitment of tenderness, Rockwell wonders: could Jesus have wed in his early teens a woman he did not love in a romantic way. And then could it have been, Rockwell imagines, that later with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, that Jesus’ heart discovered a depth of love that made him new or fully human?
Could Jesus have walked the streets of his ministry with Mary’s name on his mind, bringing a smile to his face? Didn’t he certainly have the scent of and her perfume in his hair? Could the most astonishing of his miracles, the raising of Lazarus, for which John says the authorities chose to kill him, been done for love of her? Was there something more behind Luke’s record of Jesus declaring that Mary would be remembered always? Could a man whose ministry invited others to new life have been experiencing such a heady reality in his own life?
Would it make a difference if Jesus were married. Or if he lived some of those years between his early teens and his early thirties that have been lost to the record in a marriage? Would it make a difference if he fell in love with Mary of Bethany? And that during his years of ministry, if he too had some new experience of such feelings, of loving and being loved?
Too far fetched? On the actual textual analysis, I have to be humble. I like Rockwell’s reasoning, but is there sufficient textual support? Maybe it’s more a homiletical suggestion than a biblical discovery! In that sense, it’s important — even if mostly a preacher’s daydream — in as much as it helps us wrestle with the story and go deeper.
I often feel similarly when I read the queer theorists who try and uncover gay narratives in the Scripture, for example Theodore Jennings’ recent “The Man Who Jesus Loved.” There’s always value in normalizing or even making sacred a fuller range of human experience by finding it part of God’s story and the biblical text. But sometimes I wonder if suggesting its buried in the Bible is a bit of a stretch, pushing the textual evidence further than we can prove?
Still, Rockwell’s interpretation left me thinking of Jesus in new ways. As human with a heart that wasn’t always easy to read, even for he himself, and a life that was complicated, even ambiguous. And I take great hope from thinking that his ministry came out of all that. Not quite despite his complicated life. But alongside of it. In fact, perhaps, his depth came of his willingness to try and be really human when one has to admit that was is not always clear or simple…
See you in church,