Mary is Jesus’ star student. She gets him. Maybe she’s especially good at interpreting Scripture or unraveling his parables or applying his teaching to ordinary situations. In fact, she is probably a whiz at all these things and more. She’s the brightest crayon in the box.
But this is not what makes her a stellar pupil. What sets Mary apart from all the other disciples is that she gets Jesus.
Let me explain what I mean by way of analogy. My wife Joy gets me.
She has hung with me long enough and attentively enough to read my various moods and emotional states from a look in my eye that no one else can see.
We have been through so much together that she can tell when I’m holding my tongue. And she knows what I’m choosing not to say.
We share so many memories that, when I reminisce about a tender part of my life, her listening is a remembering we do together.
We love to make plays on words, and some have made us laugh so hard that we will remind each other of them from time to time. I can say a word or a corny phrase that will mean absolutely nothing to anyone else–like “Fricky Fresh” or “H-O-N-D Honda”–but Joy and I will be transported together to a shared place: our first year of marriage in Germany, our oldest son’s first spelled word, that time I was actually right about something.
Joy knows by a subtle look that I need to leave a party or I’m so proud I could burst or I’m really sorry.
Joy gets me. And Mary gets Jesus. As a person.
The first and most important thing that Mary gets about Jesus is that he gets her. Completely. There’s no hiding from Jesus. There’s nothing that he fails to understand even when she can’t quite articulate it for herself. He gets her.
She also sees that he gets everybody he meets. He gets all of us. Mary doesn’t feel at all diminished by this, as if she gets less of Jesus because she has to share him with everybody else. Somehow she realizes that there’s enough of him to go around for everybody without any one of us getting divided attention or low energy.
That’s why Mary just wants to be with Jesus. Earlier in Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus had come to dinner in this same house with Mary and Martha and probably Lazarus. Martha was fuming because all Mary wanted to do was sit with Jesus, to soak up not only his words but his person, his being, his presence. Martha was left soaking the dishes.
In fact, Mary would have been content to soak the dishes with Jesus. Or mop the floors or go to a movie or walk the dog or sit and watch the grass grow. The point is to just be with Jesus in whatever he’s doing. He gets her. And she gets that.
On this particular night, Jesus is hard to be with. Not because he’s in a bad mood or he’s distracted with business or he’s put off by something unbecoming that Mary has been thinking lately.
Jesus is facing his death. He is facing his death precisely because he gets Mary. And Martha. And Lazarus. And the Sanhedrin, and the Roman soldiers, and you, and me. He gets us. And he knows that we need more than we can ever do for ourselves to be ourselves.
Here’s what it is to be ourselves: to be the beloved. To be God’s beloved. That is just what Jesus has come to make us. And it is going to take his death on a cross to get us there.
Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that God won’t love us until Jesus dies for us. In fact, Jesus dies for us precisely because God does loves us.
No, I’m talking about something that happens in us. Jesus’ death is the highest expression of God’s love for us. And as it turns out God’s love is not just how God happens to feel at the moment. It is the metamorphosing power of God’s very being.
Being loved–loved perfectly and unconditionally–changes who we are to the very marrow. We can’t earn this sort of love. That’s a contradiction in terms. Then it would be love on the condition of doing lovable things.
No human can love us like this. Our love is intermittent, adulterated with self-interest or self-loathing, and all too often withdrawn from fear or in retaliation. Only God can give us a love that will make us more than we can ever be on our own terms: ourselves as God’s beloved. As he intended us to be in the first place.
As God’s beloved, we can finally love God generously and even extravagantly. We can spend ourselves completely in his service, like Mary did by spending an entire year’s wages on precious perfumed oil for his anointing.
Mary anoints Jesus precisely because she gets him. She knows where his heart is. And she knows how to respond. It does neither him nor her any good to blather on with words of phony comfort. “Oh, it’s all going to be okay.” “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” “Everything happens for a reason.”
Truly following Jesus means that Mary refuses to insulate herself from him even, or especially, at a time like this. Speaking shallow words and offering superficial comfort would serve to shield her from this awful, tender, glorious truth. Jesus is giving his life for her. For us. For everybody.
And so Mary does the one thing that seems to make sense. She anoints him with oil. She acknowledges the gift of his life for her by symbolically preparing his body for death.
Judas stands in stark contrast. He’s been following Jesus on his ministry tour and attending all his lectures. But he doesn’t get him. Oh, he can recite Scripture and spot somebody else’s sin a mile off. But Judas has his own agenda. That’s what it means to say that he’s a thief and a liar. He’s following Jesus simply because it advances his own agenda.
Plenty of Christians are doing the same thing, really. They betray Jesus by using him as a means to their own end.
Maybe they want to make sure to get into heaven, but it’s really the eternal comfort they’re after, not Jesus’ company.
Maybe they do the very things Jesus teaches us to do like serve the poor, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless, and they do so without especially seeking out Jesus in all these works of mercy.
Maybe they want the formula for a happy marriage, successful kids, or financial security, and they would drop Jesus like a hot potato if following him threatened how they perceived any of these things.
Judas didn’t get Jesus. He was just using Jesus to be on top. When the world sees people calling themselves Christians who use his name to get some kind of edge, they rightly wonder what Christianity has to offer.
But Mary, Mary shows the world, and shows all of us, something entirely different. Mary follows Jesus wherever he goes. Not to get ahead. But because she gets him.
She gets that he will enter into the very worst we human have to offer. The deepest suffering, violence, indifference, deprivation, oppression, loneliness, terror, and death. He lays himself down upon the cross because we are already there.
The cross is where we have absolutely nothing left to offer him. Where we have no pretense to pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And that is where he can finally do his greatest work for us. Love us because of who he is, not who we are. Love us to death. Love us into new life. Transform us into the indelibly beloved.
Jesus gets us. And we gradually become most fully who we are as we begin to get him.
This sermon was preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, West Monroe, Louisiana, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The text for the sermon is John 12:1-8.