Questions about Discipleship

Stained glass in St. Lawrence's, Chichely. (CC image courtesy of Lawrence OP on flickr)

Dear Working Preacher,

First and foremost, a word of thanks. Your comments in response to my column last week offered a profound testimony to the power of learning in and through conversation and community. You taught each other much and I learned a great deal as well. Between your comments and those to a similar post on “…in the Meantime,” in fact, I felt an urge to write a whole new column on the parable! I won’t, I promise :), but know that I’m grateful for your sharing your thoughts and selves as you did.

All of which leads me to make bold to solicit your help in earnest this week. I think this is one of the more challenging Lenten passages the lectionary sets, not least because it comes from John’s powerfully symbolic gospel and presumes the reader already knows much of the story John tells, but also because it interrupts our reflections on Luke’s story about Jesus and introduces us, suddenly and powerfully, to the question and nature of discipleship from the Johannine perspective. For this reason, rather than suggest a path for preaching it I will instead ask several questions that I’ve been mulling on all week. I hope that the questions stir your own imagination and that you’ll be willing to share some of your thoughts in the comments with me and each other. (I know the current comment feature isn’t ideal; it’s one of the “improved features” of the new WP coming soon!)

Question #1 : What was Mary thinking?

The amount and cost of the perfume Mary uses – equivalent to about one year’s wages for a manual laborer – is simply staggering. If we leave aside for a moment John’s description of Judas’ motivation, it’s not hard to understand why he objected. It is a ridiculous amount of money to squander in one moment of devotion. Unlike with his portrayal of Judas, John doesn’t reveal Mary’s motivation. So we might wonder what’s going on. Is this sheer and abundant gratitude for Jesus’ recent revival of her dead brother Lazarus? Is she simply unaware of the cost of her gift, not from ignorance but from profound adoration of her Lord? Is she aware at a deep level that Jesus will not be with them much longer? After all, in the scene of Lazarus’ revival just previous to this one some are moved to follow Jesus while others begin plotting his death. Does Mary sense this? Does she give all that she has while she has the Lord with them? These questions prompt others. What would prompt us to offer such a lavish and intimate gift? Have we ever got so caught up in the moment that we gave no thought to cost but could only give all that we had? Is this what the abundant grace and generosity of discipleship looks and smells like?

Question #2: Is Jesus talking to Judas or to us?

I know, on the narrative level Jesus is talking to Judas, both reprimanding him as well as interpreting Mary’s gift. But given my own strong reaction both to the cost of Mary’s gift and the intimacy with which she gives it – washing his feet with her hair? really? – I wonder if Jesus is not also addressing himself to me and perhaps to all of us who shrink back from such unconventional and excessive outpourings of faith, love, and service. What makes me/us shrink back? Under what circumstances would I rejoice in such a generous outpouring? What other acts of love do I label as unconventional, wasteful, or improper simply because it goes beyond my comfort zone. 

Question #3: Is this discipleship?

It’s hard not to be struck by the parallel actions of Mary in this scene and Jesus with his disciples a chapter later as Jesus strips down and washes the feet of his comrades with the towel wrapped around his waist (13:1-11). Interestingly, in this later scene it is not Judas that objects but Peter. But is this unrestrained giving and service – here portrayed by Mary, a chapter later by Jesus – ultimately the definition of discipleship? We tend to stress in our religious culture having a “living relationship with Jesus” as the central mark of being a Christian. But I wonder if at times we mistake a somewhat private sense of relationship to God with the more communal act of service that Mary and Jesus model? Other questions flow from this. If I were to look for opportunities to be in and with Christ in this way, what might I discover? Who needs their feet washed, their bodies prepared, their loads lightened, their dank and musty lives graced by the sweet fragrance of sacrificial love?

Question #4: Is that what Jesus means by saying that we will always have the poor?

Few if any of us are comfortable with this saying. We know Jesus isn’t dismissing the poor, but it’s still hard to listen to. But I wonder now if in this moment Jesus invites us to witness the gift he is about to make of his life in order that we may enter into this kind of discipleship always. That, is through his death Jesus testifies to God’s abundant love for the world and if we pause for a moment to take in the example and outpouring of love Jesus offers we may be empowered and encouraged to care for the poor all around us.

No doubt you have questions of your own, Working Preacher. And, if I can again make bold, perhaps you might consider not only sharing your thoughts and questions with each other at this site but with your listeners this Sunday and thereby invite them into reading, interpreting, wrestling with, and living this passage along side you. For they, too, think, wonder, and have lots of experience in both the faith and daily life that might be helpful to you and to each other as we seek to follow Mary in faithfulness and Jesus to the cross.

Thanks for both your insights and your questions, Working Preacher. We need them both.

Yours in Christ,