Mary of Bethany – in three parts

an icon of Mary of Bethany

an icon of Mary of Bethany

Three times in the gospel of John we hear of Mary of Bethany at the feet of Jesus.

The first is an act of attending; of listening; of being in the presence of the Holy One. (Luke 10: 38-42 – Mary of Bethany sits at the feet of Jesus)

The second is an act of raw grief expressed in an accusation. (John 11 (selected verses) – Mary of Bethany weeps at the feet of Jesus)

The third is an act of pure, extravagant love. (John 12:1-8 – Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus)

I want to suggest that these three stories are paradigms for the journey of faith – steps along the way – adoration, struggle, loving response.

When I first looked at all three stories about Mary of Bethany I was struck by the progression from adoration to action. In the first story, Mary sits attentively at the feet of Jesus. In the second story, she pushes the relationship they share beyond the niceties with an accusation that Jesus has failed her as she pours out her raw grief at his feet. And in the third story, Mary responds to who Jesus is with grace and generosity, with love and care as she anoints his feet. She moves from adoration to action.

What then do we make of this final act, the act which Judas calls wasteful? The father who, in last week’s gospel reading, ran to meet his returning son was also wasteful in the way he lavishly and extravagantly used his resources to welcome his son home. That excessive response of love is another meaning of the word prodigal. So too with Mary: she might also be described as prodigal: for she spends a full year’s wages in one act of love. Hers is a prodigal love.

I want to turn briefly from the three accounts of Mary of Bethany to another set of three: worship, witness and service.

In The basis of union of the Uniting Church in Australia, there are three things which run like a refrain – worship, witness and service. As The Uniting Church, we are called to worship God, to witness to Christ, and to serve those in need.

Dare I suggest that Mary of Bethany was the archetype for a good Uniting Church member, because Mary did all three of these: worship, witness and serve?

  • When she sat at the feet of Jesus she was attending to the Holy One – that is an act of worship.
  • When she wept at the feet of Jesus she was both worshipping (lament) and witnessing (proclaiming what God, through Jesus, could have done).
  • And when she anointed Jesus for his burial she was worshipping (honouring), witnessing (to his coming crucifixion) and serving (providing an act of care).

It is very important that we are aware of the way in which our lives are acts of worship, witness and service,

In 1967, Marshall McLuhan published a book entitled The medium is the massage. (Interesting, isn’t it, that most people who remember that little book think that the title is The medium is the message.)

I wonder what those words mean to you? “The Medium is the Message.”

To me it means that the way something is done (the medium) can be far more important than the actual content of what is done. The way we live our lives is, in fact, the message of our lives.

“The Medium is the Message” reminds me that the only way people can come to know God’s love is through the relationships we have with them. Through the work of the Holy Spirit we embody the presence of Jesus Christ. We carry within our own lives – our words and our actions, our silences and our inaction – the message of God’s love for all creation.

McLuhan also said, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

We might paraphrase that to say we shape our resources and our resources shape us. Mary’s resources – the extraordinarily costly ointment – she gathered and held, but then those same resources gave shape to her generosity. Mary used the resources she had to live out her identity as a child of God and a follower of Jesus.

I find this single act of generosity very confronting because I know that my natural inclination is to try to preserve material resources – not to throw away a year’s salary in a single act of love. I am as reluctant to pour out myself prodigally as I am to run with arms outstretched to offer forgiveness and grace.

But if I am not prepared to allow my resources – those gifts which God has provided – to shape my life, how am I able to worship, witness and serve?

Next week our congregation meets for our Annual General Meeting and to talk about how we have been living since this time last year. Our annual reports reveal how we are living out our identity as children of God and as followers of Jesus. Here are the corporate signs, the communal signs, of our worship, witness and service.

Are the really significant themes of the gospel visible in our Annual reports?

  • Worship;
  • Hospitality and a sense of belonging to a Christian community;
  • Connecting with the wider community;
  • Building community in a society which is suffering for the loss of that sort of unity; and
  • Restoration, renewal and reconciliation – for people and for creation.

These things are the embodiment of worship, witness and service. These things become the medium for the message of grace, mercy and love. Just as Mary’s act of love emerged from her identity as a follower of Jesus, so our acts of love emerge from our identity as a community which follows Christ.

I cannot finish without very briefly addressing the words of Judas: “Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Judas’ question reveals that his thinking is locked into an either/or world: either this extravagance or feeding the poor. But Jesus provides a both/and sort of answer. For Jesus this isn’t either/or it is both caring for the poor who will always be with us and this act of apparent wastefulness of material possessions in the worship and honour of Jesus the Son of God.

These gospel readings remind us that we are called to reflection and to action; to worship, to witness and to service. The story of Mary of Bethany reminds us that our God is one of extravagant grace-filled love who wants us to know, even to joy in, the blessing of loving extravagantly.

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