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THE FIRST DISCIPLE
The story we just read is a great account of one person's loving action. It's an act of kindness, and real caring for Christ.
Even when we have finished reading it for the first time, though, we realize that there is something going on just below the surface. Then when we spend a little more time with it we realize something else is happening deeper in the story.
In some ways this story is like an intriguing painting where you look at it and see what is on the surface. When you look at it a second time you see parts of it you didn't see the first time. Then if you stay with it, you begin to see that it represents more than what shows on the surface. You begin to realize that it stands for more than just what you see at first glance.
This simple story means a great deal more than even the people involved realize. It tells us important things about Jesus, and also about what it means to be Jesus' disciple.
Jesus is invited to Lazarus' home in Bethany. Lazarus is the one who Jesus raised from the dead. Remember, after Jesus brought him back to life, the Chief Priests and the Pharisees began to realize they would have to do away with Jesus?
Lazarus and his sisters have invited Jesus for dinner. This is a real dinner, not just "Why don't you stop by for some burgers." They are holding a dinner in Jesus' honor. So they get out the best bowls and plates, they take the mats they will be sitting on outside and beat them clean. They may even serve meat; it's that special of a dinner.
As the meal begins we see Lazarus reclining at the table with Jesus. They talk together. Can you imagine what that conversation was like? What would you say to the person who not just saved your life, but brought you back from the dead?
Martha, Lazarus' sister, is in the kitchen again. Apparently she didn't learn from her last experience hosting Jesus. Do you remember that time when Jesus came for dinner, and Martha was slaving away in the kitchen, trying to do everything? Martha was sweating as she tried to get everything ready for a very nice dinner - she wanted it to be just right for Jesus. Her sister, Mary, was sitting with Jesus - just talking, and asking questions. Finally Martha couldn't take it any longer. "Jesus, look at this! I'm slaving away in the kitchen working my fingers to the bone, and here sits Mary, not helping one bit! Jesus, you of all people should understand fairness; tell her to get in here and help me!" Do you remember that story?
Jesus turned to Martha and said, "Martha, you are so busy with many things. But Mary has chosen the better part." He encourages her to stop working so hard, and sit down, and talk with them. The idea is that you can cook anytime, but you won't always be able to be with Jesus. Martha doesn't realize what's important in that moment. So, apparently Martha missed the message from that first experience, because she's back in the kitchen again - hard at work.
While Martha is working, Mary, her sister, does a beautiful thing. She walks over to Jesus, kneels down, takes a pound of costly perfume and washes Jesus' feet with it. Then she lets down her long hair and dries Jesus' feet.
This is an incredible experience. A pound of perfume from pure nard would cost the equivalent of a whole year's wages. Her action is so personal and so caring. She pours out this perfume and the aroma fills the entire room. It will linger there in the air for several days.
What's going on here? It was common for people to wash their feet when they came into someone's home. Think of it; this is sandy, dusty Israel and people only have sandals on their feet. If lots of people come into your house, it won't take long for the house to be filled with dust.
Here Mary washes Jesus' feet for him, not with water, but with very expensive perfume. This act makes us think of just four days later, what we now call Maundy Thursday, when Jesus was in the upper room with his disciples and he washed their feet. Remember, Jesus took off his outer robe and picked up a towel. He poured out some water in a bowl and then surprised his disciples by kneeling down and washing each one of their feet. When Jesus comes to Peter, he objects, but Jesus explains that it is necessary for Jesus to serve them in this way.
In this act Jesus cares for each of his disciples and gives them an example of how they can care for each other.
So in Mary's act we see the caring of a true disciple even before Jesus had shown his disciples what to do. Mary knows instinctively from her loyalty to Christ what it means to be a disciple. In so many ways she is the first disciple.
The meaning of discipleship is found just under the surface of this account of Mary anointing Jesus' feet. Mary acts as a disciple even before Jesus teaches the importance of this kind of service.
At another level in this account we see Mary's preparation for Jesus' death. She acts, not even knowing what she is doing.
Since they didn't have embalming then, when someone died they covered the body with sweet-smelling perfume. It was an act of generosity and kindness. This was also a way for the family to care for their loved one who had died.
This anointing made the body fragrant; it provided a pleasant aroma that lasted for days. Mary doesn't know Jesus will leave her house to go to Jerusalem where he will be arrested and killed. She doesn't know that this beautiful act shows compassion to one who will suffer. Mary has no idea she is anointing Jesus' body for death.
But Jesus knows. And since we know the story, we also know. Mary does an incredible act of love and caring, a far greater act than she even realizes.
Sometimes that happens in all our lives - we react generously, we speak an uplifting word, we respond to prejudice with love, and we never know what an impact that action has.
When I was in high school, one of my most important influences in my life was our youth pastor. After I graduated he moved on from our church, and later he left the ministry for several years. He went into education but later came back to the ministry.
Several years ago I thought I should tell him what a difference he had made for me. When I told him he thanked me, then he said, "It's strange, one of the reasons I left the ministry was because I didn't think I was making any difference." I thought what if I had told him sooner? What if the other people he helped had said something? Would that have made a difference for him? Why didn't I speak up sooner?
We don't realize how powerful small acts can be. Speak a word, do an act of kindness, offer support, and you have no idea what a difference it can make. Sometimes we are more disciples of Jesus than we even realize.
We don't always realize the enduring power of a kind word or a generous act. Mary anoints Jesus feet. The whole house is filled with a wonderful aroma that last and lasts.
The next day as Jesus rides into Jerusalem in the triumphal entry, the sweet aroma of Mary's perfume is with him. On Thursday, in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus is arrested, does the fragrance of that kind act still float in the air? Is there a hint of that aroma as Jesus carries his cross to Golgotha? Is there a scent left as those same feet are split with nails? Maybe the fragrance is still in Mary's hair as she kneels at the cross crying.
Even if the aroma isn't on his feet or in her hair, the feeling is still inside. She has done a wonderful act of caring.
A couple of final comments...
It seems to me that there is something inherently wrong with going to get a large buttered popcorn and a Coke, and then sitting down to watch the agonizing pain of Jesus' last hours. the Gospel doesn't make good entertainment.
A question: Is it appropriate to make millions of dollars in profit from a portrayal of Jesus' suffering for us?
Finally, a friend had someone say to her, "If you're a Christian, you have to see this film." That is not true. Many Christians - including many of my fellow-clergy - are choosing not to see this movie because of its gratuitous violence and gore. It is not for sensitive people - and absolutely not for children! Roger Ebert commented that if it weren't about Jesus, it would have received an NC-17 rating.
Some churches are promoting this film as an evangelism tool to bring new people into their church. But, as we said, it doesn't answer any questions; it only heightens the effect of one brief part of Jesus' ministry. After all the horrid brutality is portrayed, and without any of the background to help understand its context, thinking people will have lots of questions. Many people will leave wondering what kind of God would allow this brutality to happen to his son, let alone will it to happen.
If you really want to see this movie, you should. If you are sensitive to violence you probably shouldn't. There is good in this film, there are also serious problems. If nothing else it helps center our focus during this Lenten season.
©Richard J. Henderson 2004