Mary of Bethany


Mary of Bethany 
By Jeff Krogstad
April 18, 2011

(Based on Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8)

I can’t get her out of my head.

That woman.  It’s more than two years now, and I still think about her.  A lot.  I don’t even know her name.

That was the first time he came to our house.  When father was sick, but still living.  Father was an important man.  He was one of the leaders of the Pharisees.  Everyone knew my father was a righteous man, an observant man, who kept Torah and taught the people, and he was generous to those in need.  Father was a kind man, and an important leader. 

Jesus first came to our house because my father invited him to dinner.  Father had heard about this new prophet from Galilee.  There have been too many false prophets, and my father and the other leaders of our people are careful.  So Father wanted to hear this Jesus of Nazareth for himself.  Father was proud of having a good Jewish household, a home that was kosher from our cupboards to our clothing to our courtyards.  Everyone knew that Simon the Pharisee -- these last few years, Simon the Leper -- kept a kosher household.

That’s why it was such a shock when she appeared during the meal.  My sister was managing things, making sure all the food was just right, all the wine was just right, all the dishes were exactly correct.  I was trying to help, but I struggle in the kitchen.  It’s not that I can’t cook.  I do fine, if I can keep my mind on things.  But I get distracted from household things so easily.  That’s the only reason I saw her.  I was in the dining room where my father and Jesus and my brother Lazarus and a few others were reclining at the table.  They were talking about Torah, and about John the Baptizer, and about the temple.  I had just brought in a fresh wineskin -- they were coming down to the end of the meal -- and I heard some of the conversation, and I forgot all about the date balls Martha wanted me to bring in next.  I stood in the corner, in the shadows, listening.

I wasn’t there long before she appeared.  I had seen her in the city a few times, and I knew what she was.  Father spent a lot more time in the city than I did, and he knew, too.  But he didn’t stop her.  I could see that look on his face, that look I knew from when I was a little girl.  I would ask a question about Torah and father would get this look like, “Let’s see where this goes.”  He would say, “What do you think, Mary?”  Then he would wait and let me talk myself into a corner.  Or sometimes I would talk myself into something that amounted to a right answer, and he would grin his big, proud, toothy grin that meant he liked what he was hearing.  Then he would look me in the eye and wink and he would say, “Mary, Mary.  You know women cannot become teachers of Torah.”  Once -- just once -- after he said that, he leaned over and whispered in my ear.  He whispered, “But if you could teach Torah, you would give Annas and Caiaphas and all their dogs something to think about!”

So I stood in the corner listening to the men talk about important things, and then she came in.  She walked up behind Jesus, and she just stood there.  She did not sob, but in the candlelight I could see tear streaks on her cheeks.  She dropped down to her knees and knelt hunched over Jesus’ feet and her tears were falling on them and he turned to watch her but he didn’t say anything.  And my father had that look -- a look that said, “Let’s see where this goes.”

That woman was starting to cry harder, that ugly crying where your tears run and your nose runs and if you’re not careful you drool a little bit.  I wondered why the men didn’t throw her out?  This was father’s kosher home she had invaded.  I suppose she heard Jesus was coming to dinner at our house and came from the city.  She certainly didn’t pay attention to anyone else, she was just there because of him.  That much was obvious. 

She started to get her crying under control, and then it was like she noticed she had dripped all over Jesus’ feet.  I couldn’t believe what happened next.  She undid her hair -- it was long, which I suppose is an asset in her line of work -- she undid it and pulled all that long, black, wavy hair over one shoulder in front of her and began to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair.  She dried them off -- dried his feet off like she was drying a baby she’d just bathed.  Nobody said a word.  All the conversation had stopped long before. Everyone just watched.  Some of the men swallowed hard.

She actually bent down and kissed his feet.  Kissed them, and not just once!  Then she took out a little stone bottle of perfume.  She poured the perfume out over his feet, rubbing it into his skin with her hands.  Then her hair got tangled up and she started rubbing the perfume into his feet with her hair. 

I was so angry.  It’s hard enough being a Jewish woman, but to have her do something like this!  She’s the kind of woman that makes men embarrassed, and that makes them angry, and that makes them harsh.  There are many men in Jerusalem who are too ready to punish women for being women, and she was making it worse. 

Then Jesus spoke.  He spoke not to her, but to my father.  “Simon,” he said, “do you see this woman?”  Crazy!  Everyone was staring at her, of course they could see her, bent over Jesus’ feet, trying to put her hair back together, looking at Jesus like a dog looks at its master.  “Do you see this woman?” Jesus asked.  “She has done for me what you failed to do.  She washed my feet.  You didn’t greet me at the door, but she has given me your kiss of greeting on my feet.  The honor that you failed to give me, she has poured out like a sacrifice of perfume.”

I waited for lightning to strike, for thunder to roll through the room.  No one talked to my father like that.  Nobody.  I knew he would explode, would brand Jesus a heretic, would call out the Pharisees to stone him.

I was shocked when I looked at father and he was grinning this big, proud, toothy grin.  He was looking at Jesus as though he liked what he was hearing. 

Then Jesus went on.  He said, “Her sins, which were many, are forgiven, so she loves a great deal.  The one who is forgiven little will love little.”  Father nodded slowly, as though Jesus was the teacher and he was the student, as though he was getting his mind around a new idea.  A little bit of that grin clung to the corners of his mouth and his eyes.

Then, for the first time, Jesus spoke to the woman, looked right at her, and he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” 

Now father’s face clouded up.  Jesus was going too far, too far.  Who can forgive sins but God alone?  We talked about it for days afterward, late in the afternoons while Martha was cooking and father was feeling well enough to sit out in the courtyard in the sunshine.  Who can forgive sins but God alone?  There are certain things only God can do.

I can’t get her out of my head, that woman.  Because her sins were forgiven.  Her life changed in that moment -- I saw it.  No man had ever spoken to her that way.  I got to watch her life change.  What’s more, other women heard about it.  There were some right in Jerusalem that became part of Jesus’ following as the word got out: some that had been demon possessed, some that had been healed.  The wife of Herod’s household manager started following Jesus around and listening to him when he was in Judea.  She would even buy food and lodging for his disciples.  There were many women who got interested in Jesus because he didn’t see them as cattle, as property, but as humans.  It is a powerful thing, to have a man treat you like a human being.  I know.  I became one of his followers, too.  Every chance I got I would sit and listen to Jesus speaking, or teaching, or making quiet jokes that most people missed. 

When my brother got sick, we sent word to Jesus.  That was after father died.  Lazarus became the head of the house.  Life was good for us.  Lazarus was content being a well-to-do Jewish bachelor, and Martha and I -- mostly Martha -- did our best to keep the household for him.  Then he got sick.  Really sick.  I was terrified.  We all die, I know this, but -- and I am ashamed to admit this -- I was afraid for myself, and for Martha.  What would become of us without Lazarus?  My cousin Jobab would inherit the house and he would bring his wife and ten children to live here, and there would be no room for us.  Jobab is not the kind of man to think about what would happen to us.  We are just women.

We sent word to Jesus, and Lazarus got sicker and sicker.  No word back from Jesus.  I knew people that had been healed by Jesus.  I was sure he could do something for my brother, for all of us.  But Lazarus slipped off into that sleep that dying people sometimes drift into -- he spent more and more time asleep until finally he just stopped speaking, then he stopped waking up, and then he stopped breathing.

The mourners came, and we washed his body, and they wept and wailed and sang out in the courtyard.  Jobab came to pay his respects, and to size up the property.  The Pharisees came out from Jerusalem in droves to grieve with us.  And we buried my brother in the cave.  We wrapped him up and laid him out in the little alcove where father’s body had been last year, before we put his bones into the white stone box that now sits high up in the shelf in the wall in the tomb.  We laid Lazarus there, then we sealed up the tomb just like we did with father.  A year later we would have opened it back up again to put my brother’s bones in a stone box to wait for the Day of the Resurrection, and then, because the mourning was finally done, Jobab would have taken over this house and Martha and I would have gone to the streets of Jerusalem to beg.

Then Jesus arrived.  He cried with us.  We talked about the resurrection.  Then – oh, then – he called my brother out of that tomb, and Lazarus came walking out, blinking in the sunlight, stumbling because of the grave clothes that he still wore.  I stood there with my mouth hanging open, tears on my cheeks, as Peter and John and one of the others unwrapped my dead brother and helped him walk up the hill toward the house.  I stood there thinking, “There are certain things only God can do.”  Like raising the dead, for instance.

It’s been a few days now.  I am constantly amazed to see Lazarus up and walking around the house, or sitting in the courtyard, or laughing -- laughing! -- at one of Martha’s sarcastic jokes.  Right this moment they are all in the other room: Jesus, and Lazarus, and the disciples, and a bunch of others.  What do you do when you’re Jewish and your brother comes back from the dead?  You throw a party.  So they’re in there, around the table.  Martha is in her glory, hustling back and forth to and from the kitchen, a flurry of date balls and matzoh and lamb and wine.  Lazarus reclines at Jesus’ side.  The disciples seem uneasy, like men who are waiting to get in trouble for something, like dogs spoiling for a fight.

And what about me?  I am here, not helping Martha, not listening in on the men’s talk.  I can’t get her out of my head -- what she did, how she treated Jesus, how she wept for him, how she looked at him, how she made herself scornful for him.  I understand now, it was worship.  There are certain things only God can do, and forgiving her sins and healing her heart is on that list.  Healing my brother and saving my life is also on that list.  It was worship.  I see that now, as clearly as I see that alabaster jar of perfume that Father gave me.  He joked with me when he gave it to me, too.  He said, “Mary, save this for a time you really need it.  It’s worth a man’s wages for a year!”  Then he winked, and whispered, “You can buy a man’s heart with that, if you want to.”

So I’m taking the alabaster jar of perfume, and I’m going to break the neck off the bottle so it can never be closed up again.  I’m going to pour it out on Jesus’ feet.  I’m going to take off my veil and loosen my hair.  I’m already starting to weep, not in shame but my heart feels like it will burst for gratitude, for love.  There is no man’s heart I want to buy, but I see much clearer now that it is Jesus I want to honor, to worship. 

It is Jesus I want.  Nothing else matters.

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