Sermon for Williamstown
5th Sunday of Lent, 13th of March 2016
Today’s reading from the Gospel according to John contains one of those lines that I wish Jesus had never said: ‘You always have the poor with you’. This is a verse that has been frequently misused, including by Tony Abbott at a meeting of Catholic Social Services in 2010 (my favourite Jesuit, Father Andy Hamilton, then pointed out that Abbott was misreading this story). But I talked about that verse three years’ ago. This liturgical year the lectionary gives us Jesus’ anointing in the same week as International Women’s Day, and so I want to focus instead on what this passage says about women.
Jesus is in Bethany, the home of Lazarus. In the chapter before this, we’re told about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead; which led many Jews to believe in him, and had the Council worrying: ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place* and our nation.’ They decided that it would be better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed, and from that day on they plotted to kill Jesus. As Jesus and his disciples enjoy dinner in the house of Lazarus, death is approaching. But only Mary of Bethany responds to its approach.
Lazarus and both his sisters, Martha and Mary, act as disciples here. Martha serves, she literally ‘deacons’, and Lazarus sits at the table with Jesus and his other disciples. But it’s Mary who best models what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. She takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair. She offers Jesus her wealth; the perfume was worth about a year’s wages. She offers him her honour; unbinding her hair and touching Jesus’ feet. Later, on the last night of his life, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet and tell them, ‘if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ Washing each other’s feet is a sign of the love that the disciples are to show for each other. Mary is already able to show this love, withholding nothing of herself from Jesus. The house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume she offers; filled with the love she is showing.
But Mary’s anointing is not just a sign of love. We are hearing this story in the fifth week of Lent and so we know that Jesus’ hour is looming. Here, while Jesus is having a meal with his friends, he’s also being prepared for his burial. The other disciples, not having our 2000 years’ worth of hindsight, are probably unaware of how close Jesus is to his death. They may be in denial about what going to Jerusalem is likely to mean. In her anointing of his feet Mary recognises how close Jesus’ death is and acts prophetically. This isn’t a royal anointing of Jesus’ head. People didn’t anoint the feet of a living person, but they could anoint the feet of the dead as part of the ritual of preparing a body for burial. In less than a week, the man who is now sitting and eating with disciples and friends will be dying on a cross. By anointing Jesus’ feet in preparation for his death Mary is acting as a prophet, recognising what the other disciples do not, that they will not always have Jesus with them.
In the version of the anointing told by Matthew and Mark the unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head. In both cases Jesus tells those who object that the woman is anointing him for burial. Like Mary of Bethany’s anointing of Jesus’ feet the connection is made between the perfume and Jesus’ death. But priests and kings also had their heads anointed. We’re told that Moses anointed Aaron’s head to consecrate him priest (Leviticus 8:12) and Samuel anointed Saul’s head to make him king (1 Samuel 10:1). The unnamed woman who anoints Jesus for his burial in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, by anointing his head, is also revealing that Jesus is priest and king. There is no doubt that she is acting as a prophet, with Moses and Samuel as he role models. Mary of Bethany doesn’t seem to be making the same prophetic statement, as she anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair, until we remember that in the gospel according to John Jesus’ crucifixion is also his glorification. While other gospels separate Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, one of my New Testament lecturers told me that in John’s gospel it is as though Jesus ascends to God from the cross. It is in John’s gospel that Jesus seems to choose to die: ‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ In John’s gospel, when Jesus’ death is glory, anointing Jesus for his death is also anointing him as priest and king, and this is what Mary of Bethany prophetically does.
On International Women’s Day this Tuesday I attended a meeting organised by Hobson’s Bay Council of interfaith leaders. It was an interesting meeting to attend on such a day. There were some other women there – it wasn’t one of those ecumenical Christian meetings at which I was the only woman or one of only two or three but as we introduced ourselves I discovered that with the exception of a Buddhist nun I was the only ‘professionally’ religious woman there. There were some lay women leaders from the Anglican Church and a Pentecostal church and I do not want in any way to denigrate the ministries of lay people. But I did find it a trifle amusing that on International Women’s Day I was being reminded again of how unusual it still is for a woman in any religion to be a religious leader.
The Uniting Church, thanks be to God, has been ordaining women since the moment it came into being in 1977, because of the hard work done by members of the Congregationalist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. I have never experienced a church that has not ordained women. In some places ordained women ministers have become so common that the son of a colleague of mine had to ask his mother whether boys could be ministers too. She is a minister; the family came to my church whenever she had a non-preaching Sunday; her son was used to half-a-dozen or so other women ministers coming to his house to drink tea and coffee and laugh and cry with his mother. My friend reassured her son that boys can be ministers too, and personally I’m hoping he’ll grow up to be one. But I suspect that for most children a female religious leader is till the exception rather than the rule.
In today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah we’re told by God: ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ Initially this was a reassurance to the Jews in Babylon that their exile there would come to an end. In the context of today’s gospel reading it also reminds us that in Jesus God did something unique, something that had never been done before and would never be done again – became incarnate and dwelt among us. And in the context of International Women’s Day the reading from Isaiah reminds us that sometimes new things, things that have never been done before, are inspired by God. Religions and churches that believe that history and tradition tell us that women can’t be religious leaders are failing to see one of the new things that God has done.
International Women’s Day is a day to remember just how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go to achieve equality between the sexes. Women have the vote and are able to continue to work after marriage; women earn 17.3% less than men on average and one woman in six experiences violence from a current or former partner. The Uniting Church also has much to be proud of and a long way to go; women have been being ordained for decades; we still have had only one female President, with the second to be installed in 2018 and there are still some cultural groups within the Uniting Church who are only just having their first woman minister ordained. Let alone the fact that in most churches it is still the men who do the up-front work and the women who serve the tea and coffee and wash the dishes.
Today’s story from the gospel according to John is a story about many, many things. The most important element is the prophecy of Jesus’ death and burial, the time when his disciples will no longer have him. But it is not insignificant that the person who acts prophetically in this story is Mary of Bethany. In this week following International Women’s Day it’s important for us to remember that Christ’s church should be a place in which women and men are equal, and never a place in which women are forbidden leadership.