It was the fall of 1980 and I was a freshman in college. I wanted to become a Christian Education Director and grow up to be just like Joani, the Youth &Christian Ed Director in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation where we were members. I became very involved in Lutheran campus ministry at college, and one day, the campus pastor, just looked at me and said, “Why don’t you think about becoming a pastor?” Because I came from a denomination that does not ordain women, it took me a few minutes to process what he meant; once I understood what he said, it was a revelation and I saw a light above his head. That weekend I went home, so excited to tell my parents I had figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
Did I mention it was 1980? Well, let’s just say, my parents’ reaction wasn’t the response I was hoping for. Women had only been ordained for 10 years in other Lutheran denominations and word hadn’t gotten out yet. Although my parents were highly invested in making sure their three girls and one son received a college education, having their daughter embrace this traditionally male role was a bit too radical. Like most of us when we bump up against the boundaries of Tradition and The Way Things Have Always Been, our reaction is to resist, to say, “no, that just can’t be.”
I thought that maybe they were right, so I double-majored in Psychology and Political Science/History so that I could become a Psychologist or go to Law School.
In the Gospel of John 12:1-8, Mary is bumping up against Tradition and The Way Things Have Always Been. What’s going on here doesn’t sound wrong to our 21st century ears, but in the first century, what happened at Mary and Martha’s house would have been the talk of town.
For starters, Jesus feet have already been washed. Because everyone walked along the dusty dirt roads in sandals, foot washing was a customary part of hospitality before guests entered a house. The oxen, sheep, horses, donkeys, camels traveled the same roads, so their pungent droppings needed to be washed off sandals and feet as well. Mary and Martha would have already made sure this lowliest of tasks was done before their guests came into the house.
So Mary wasn’t supposed to be showing up in the dining room at all, unless to serve. But Jesus had miraculously raised her brother, Lazarus from the dead, and Mary was overflowing with gratitude, devotion and love, so into the dining room she went.
To make matters worse, Mary begins touching Jesus as she anoints his feet with perfumed oil. Men and women were prohibited from touching each other in public; in fact men weren’t even supposed to speak to a woman who was not his wife, mother or daughter.
Scandal escalates with Mary’s hair loose and flowing which she uses as a towel. Because a woman’s loose hair was viewed as too sensual, it was taboo for a woman to have her hair unbound. We still see this in some religious cultures today—that hair should not only be bound, but covered.
Finally Mary uses an extravagant nard worth an entire years’ salary to perfume Jesus’ feet. The Gospel-writer, John described Mary’s act as an “anointing” of Jesus. Anointing was reserved for kings, prophets or priests who were called by God for a special task, but such anointing was done by a male priest in Jerusalem—NOT
• a layperson
• not in Bethany where the poor and the sick were cared for
• and certainly not by a woman.
John offers us the outrageous idea that Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ is being lavishly anointed for his journey to the cross by a poor, small-town, laywoman, who, in a moment of unbridled devotion, breaks through every tradition in the books.
Judas Iscariot gives voice to the discomfort in the room. He pretends to care about the poor as he publicly shames Mary and tries to put her in her place with his supposed male superiority. If you have ever been belittled, shamed or mocked for any reason, you know how awful and uncomfortable Mary must feel.
But then the real scandal and miracle of the story takes place! Jesus admonishes Judas, not Mary, as one would expect. Jesus puts Judas in his place by saying, “leave her alone!” “Leave her alone.” Mary will not be denied. In those 3 words, “leave her alone” Jesus receives Mary as an equal. Jesus is perfectly comfortable
• being touched by a woman
• with her hair down
• talking with men
• being active in her body and alive in her senses.
Instead of siding with tradition, Jesus joins Mary in breaking down the cultural barriers between women and men, and embodies the radical equality in the Reign of God.
The Apostle Paul affirmed this radical equality in the body of Christ in his letter to the Galatians where he wrote, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Twenty centuries later, it is still challenging for us to live in this radical equality that Jesus embodied—not only with women, but with lepers, prostitutes, tax cheats, and outcasts and scoundrels of every kind. Who are the outcasts today? Who, if they joined us at the Lord’s Table, would cause you discomfort and the urge to say, “no that just can’t be; that’s not The Way Things Have Always Been?”
Perhaps your discomfort rises around people who are gay, lesbian, or transgendered. Perhaps it is with refugees or illegal immigrants who don’t speak English, or someone who suffers severe mental illness. Maybe it is with the very poor, who, Jesus reminds us, are always with us due to human greed.
Just last week I was talking about this with a friend and she shared that it’s so hard for her to deal with people who are pierced and tattooed. I told her that God will probably put someone just like that in her life to help breakdown that inner barrier, enabling her to live in the radical equality and love of God’s Reign. These are just some of the people who need disciples of Jesus to stand up and say, “leave them alone!”
I eventually accepted that my call to ministry was not a momentary delusion, and I did go to seminary. My parents went on a campus tour of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago with me. My Dad asked the male tour guide if he was worried that women like me were going to take away his job. He still couldn’t quite see it.
But then I went on internship and my parents visited on a Sunday when I was preaching. They came to the Communion rail, the dining table of our Lord. As I served them the blood of Christ, offering Jesus’ radical love and forgiveness, the barriers began to melt away. My supervisor told me that my Dad ducked out of that service before shaking hands because he was all choked up.
On the Sunday of my Ordination in 1989, my parents had flowers on the altar of their Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation as if to say, “leave her alone.” After my ordination service, my Dad gave out a “woohoo,” and popped open the first bottle of champagne.
Heaven rejoices when, with Jesus, we move through our human boundaries and step into the radical equality in the Reign of God.