The Lectionary assigns the story of the Transfiguration always to be read on the Last Sunday of Epiphany just prior to the beginning of Lent. The Transfiguration is that event where Jesus takes three disciples to a mountaintop and there His appearance becomes dazzlingly bright as He speaks with the Old Testament figures of Moses and Elijah. In that brief moment the humanity of Jesus is eclipsed by His divinity. The experience launches Jesus on His journey to Jerusalem; a path we travel with Him every year through our observance of the season of Lent.
This morning we hear another story, the one that launches Jesus into the final days of His life and Passion, which we follow from Palm Sunday, through Holy Week, and to the Cross. Jesus is at the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha. He has visited before, perhaps often. You may recall how, at a previous visit, Martha became frustrated that her sister listened to Jesus as He taught rather than helping her tend to meal preparations in the kitchen.
It was their brother, Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. That miraculous action had the affect of sealing Jesus’ fate. It made Him so wildly popular with the masses that those in authority could no longer ignore the threat He posed to their power. Jesus, aware of the tension, had sought to stay under the radar, but His deep affection for the three siblings and His own crushing grief at the death of a friend, moved Him to action; action which had grave consequences for His own safety and well-being. John the Gospeller comments that after Lazarus is raised the authorities seek all the more to kill Jesus.
About a week later, Jesus returns to the home of His friends for a meal. At least some of Jesus’ followers are with Him, but only Judas is mentioned by name. The narrative text does not speak directly as to how Jesus was feeling as He came to rest in the house, but I think we can assume the following:
Jesus is hungry and tired.
He has a great deal on His mind as the Passover draws near. He plans to go to Jerusalem for the sacred festival. What will He do there and what will He not do? Teach? Heal? Challenge? Confront? Call for a revolt?
He is sickened by the commercialization of Temple worship; that a house of prayer has become a den of thieves. What, if anything, will He say about this?
And what might be the consequences of acting, of stepping into the limelight? How dark might the response of the darkness be?
How might you expect a person to be with such weighty matters on His mind? Distracted? Worried? Anxious? Tense? Mentally and physically exhausted? These words only begin to scratch the surface.
If the Transfiguration is the eclipsing of Jesus’ humanity by His divinity, then today’s reading is its mirror opposite. We see nothing of His divinity, but all of His frailty, His vulnerability, His need, His humanity.
We in the Church do a pretty good job of portraying the divinity of Jesus. We think of Him as being tall, strong, in command of Himself and the situation around Him. He can change water into wine, create a feast from a few scrapes of bread, drive out demons, walk across the waves, and calm the most vicious of storms. Yes, we do a pretty good job of telling the stories of our Lord’s divinity.
But when it comes to His humanity… well, when it comes to these stories we are mostly silent. How often do we tell the tales of when Jesus was weak or frustrated or tired or discouraged or indecisive or uncertain or fearful? This is not the Jesus we think of often. It is not the Jesus we sing of in our hymns. And it is not the Jesus to whom we pray. But this is the Jesus who comes to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus for a meal.
Years ago, when my marriage was ending, I spoke with a divorced priest and asked him if he had any wisdom, guidance, or insight for me as I walked that awful path. One thing he told me was this: at least once a month, make an appointment to get a massage. He said that after his marriage ended he became aware that there was no one to touch him, no one to hold him, no one to soothe his aching muscles or to provide physical comfort. He said he never realized how important this was to him until he no longer had it. Now, massages are not my thing, but as I meditated this week on this passage, my friend’s insight came back to mind. Who, I wondered, ministered to Jesus? Who helped Him physically and emotionally when He was in need; when the fullness of His humanity was fully on display?
The answer is no one; no one recognized His humanity or acknowledged His need except for two women: Martha and Mary. Martha serves Jesus a meal. The Greek word used here for “serve” is the very word from which we get our English word “deacon” – the order of those ordained to the ministry of servanthood.
Mary’s ministry to Jesus is as lavish as lavish can be. She has purchased a container of costly perfumed oil. How costly? Well, it was worth about a year’s salary – in our dollars, its value was somewhere between $24,000-$40,000. She doesn’t just use a dab or two when she applies it to Jesus’ feet, but rather gobs and gobs of it. The room is overpowered by its fragrance and everyone present instantly becomes aware of what she is doing. As all watch on, Mary lets down her hair, a taboo for Hebrew women in mixed company, and she uses it to wipe Jesus’ feet. As an act, the anointng was soothing, comforting, relaxing, and sensual. And it was priestly for, in the Hebrew tradition, it is the priest who anoints a person as king, as prophet, or for burial. Mary’s priestly anointing of Jesus is for all three.
And there is one more thing that this anointing was: it was infuriating. Judas speaks for everyone in the room when he complains that the gesture is far too costly and wasteful, especially given the overwhelming poverty and need in the area. Of course, Judas’ spoken concern is just a rouse because he himself was stealing from the common till. Throughout the history of the church, his criticism has drawn attention away from Martha’s ministry as deacon and Mary’s ministry as priest and redirected it to the conflict between the two men. This is not the focus Jesus would like us to have. His response, “The poor will be here tomorrow, but I will not”, suggests that His followers will always have the opportunity to meet the needs of others, but that His own need is immediate and just as real. It is here and now, tangible, legitimate.
We who follow Jesus can succumb to the temptation to boil down Jesus’ teaching to something simplistic such as “do for others, but not for yourself”, to mix this with what we hold in America (that we should be self-made and self-sufficient), and then come up with a spirituality which holds we should deny our own need, ignore our need, and tough it out until our need passes. We augment this thinking by under-appreciating the humanity of Jesus; by being blind to His need while magnifying His ability to endure all things.
At this house, at this meal, on this night, the neediness of Jesus is front and center. And because He accepts His own condition for what it is He is willing to receive the ministry of Martha and Mary. Mary anoints Jesus as King and as a result the man, who was tired, enters Jerusalem the next very day, greeted by shouts of “Hosanna” and the waving of palm branches. The day after that, Jesus, who was also anointed as Prophet, over-turns the tables of the moneychangers and symbolically rids the Temple of corruption. Three nights after that, Jesus, who had received the diaconal ministry of Martha’s serving, serves a meal to His followers and, as Mary had done for Him, ministers to their feet. By noon the next day, Jesus, who had a fragrant perfume poured onto His feet, would hang on the Cross, His life poured out as a fragrant offering for the whole world.
When J.S. Bach set out to put the Passion of Jesus to music, he chose to begin the story with the events that transpired at the home of Mary and Martha (and for good reason). The sisters, by ministering to Jesus’ deep, human need, provide the guidance and inspiration He needs for the days to follow.
All of this suggests many things to us, but one thing it suggests is this: each of us is to be aware of our own need, to accept it rather than repress it, and to be open to the ministry of those who know and love us because what they offer and do is a means and a sign of God’s own comfort. Sally Perry, who endured so much a year ago when three men invaded her home, is a witness to so many things I will never forget. She testified courageously on Thursday at the trial of the one attacker who did take a plea agreement and she presented herself over the course of the two-day trial as a woman of tremendous resilience and strength. When I think about Sally in relation to the neediness of our Lord, I think of all those times she embraced and received the comfort offered by others. I remember the many different ways the people of this parish and this community poured ointment on her feet; acts which pointed the way to the healing of a new dawn. Yes, Sally is strong, but not so strong that she refused the compassion of others in her time of need.
My own sense of Jesus’ spirituality is that the psalms were very important to Him. The words and the images of their poets seemed always to be on His lips. The fancy, scholarly way of saying this is that the psalms formed His cultural-linguistic heritage; the language He would use to frame His own experience of life. The Gospel narrative does not tell us what, if any, particular psalm was on Jesus’ mind after the meal and the anointing, but I would like to think that it was the one we read today:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongues with shouts joy.
Those who sowed with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go our weeping, carrying the seed,
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
For Sally, today is a day of rejoicing. And so it was for Jesus after the evening at the home of His friends, even though the comfort He received and the guidance that it provided directed Him toward the torturous events we will recall beginning next Sunday. The meal and the anointing were comforting because they met His most basic human needs and they served to call and clarify the things that He wanted to do.