This is not the first time that Mary has been criticized for her behavior. Not too long ago, at another dinner party in her house, it was her sister Martha who came after her because, while Martha was busy setting the table and cooking the meal, Mary had left her apron in a heap on the countertop, abandoned her female duty to serve the men, and was sitting at Jesus’ feet like all the other male disciples. She was just sitting there, soaking up Jesus’ words like a sponge, enjoying his company, apparently without a care in the world while Martha soaked in resentment because she was left alone to do all the work. In front of all the dinner guests, Martha had chided Mary for her bad behavior.
Mary apparently likes hanging out at Jesus’ feet. And today she isn’t just sitting at Jesus’ feet. She has wrapped herself around his ankles in an intimate caress, and is bathing his feet in an excess of expensive perfumed oil, and has loosened her dark tresses and is using her hair like a towel to rub the oil into the arches of Jesus’ feet and the fleshy crevices between his toes. Mary has let her hair down. She has let herself go. She has abandoned all sense of proper. For some of the folk at that dinner party, she has created a spectacle. And she doesn’t care what others think or say. That is at least part of what it means to “let your hair down.” It is to let go of your inhibitions, release yourself from the all the strictures that you or others have put in place, and just go ahead and do what your deepest desires are prompting you to do without concern for how others might respond.
I grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, in a tightly wound, overly-pious, deeply conservative Reformed community. We did our level best, never, ever to let our hair down, especially in public. Rules were not made to be broken. Others were always watching. Our eleventh commandment was, do nothing in excess. Be frugal in all things. Always bridle your emotions. We didn’t clap in church. We didn’t say, “Amen, hallelujah, thank you Jesus!” Well, there was one guy, a Hungarian in a sea of Dutch folk who did sometimes lose control and say “Amen,” but no one else ever followed suit. We didn’t hug. We didn’t get out of our pews. We were expected not to even wiggle in our seats.
The world in which Mary lives and moves and has her being is not unlike Hudsonville. Especially for women it is highly restrictive, but for men too. Women aren’t free to touch men, except for their husbands, and only then within the privacy of their homes. They aren’t allowed to be disciples or fill leadership roles in the religious community. They live under to watchful eye of the Roman’s who occupy their homeland, and under the always critical, watchful eye of the religious leaders—scribes, chief priests and teachers of the law. They have been watching Jesus like hawks because he has been “letting his hair down”—hanging out and dining with sinners, breaking the Jewish laws, letting women be his disciples, and touch him, and bunches of other scandalous, even heretical things.
So although it is only Judas who speaks up when Mary does what she does, I imagine that everybody in the room—except Jesus, and maybe Lazarus who is newly raised from the dead and has had his whole worldview blown wide open—I imagine everyone is completely flabberghasted by what they are seeing. The fragrance of the perfumed oil fills the room. Feelings of consternation and discomfort fill the hearts and minds of the other disciples. They don’t know whether to look or turn away. Most are speechless. Except Judas who finds the words to criticize Mary for the waste, and Jesus for approving the whole scandalous excess of her behavior. Jesus smells and feels only excessive, compassionate, sweet, beautiful, pleasurable love from Mary.
I think Mary herself is surprised by what she does. It seems she hadn’t planned it. She was saving the oil for Jesus’ burial. But suddenly, in the middle of this dinner party that was given in celebration of the fact that Jesus had called her dead brother Lazarus out from the tomb, stinking of death and decay, suddenly she was moved to let her hair down and bless Jesus in this full-bodied, sprawled-out-on-the-floor, don’t-care-who’s-watching, over-the-top, intimate way. For this one bright, sweet, fragrant moment, before the sewage of hatred and violence wash over him and carry him away, Mary cherishes Jesus with all that she is and all that she has.
And for the second time in her life, Jesus defends Mary. He defended her to Martha when Mary chose to sit at Jesus feet as a disciple rather than be bound by the rules that defined her proper place as a woman. And Jesus defends her now as she pours out her love without reserve, without counting the cost, without fear of the backlash and opposition.
That’s what the second picture in the bulletin shows us. Jesus reaching down and placing his hand on disciple Mary’s head in blessing and affirmation of her whole self. Mary gets Jesus. She has experienced his love that knows no boundaries. Not race, not class, not sexual orientation, not gender identity, not unhealth, not failure, not even death is a boundary that his love cannot cross to bless, affirm, and give abundant life. Mary is the one disciple who can see what is ahead for Jesus. She believes that he is the Son of God who is about to die at the hands of those who cannot stand to let an outpouring of love such as his to go unstopped.
It is this love that evokes Mary’s outpouring of love. It is this love that she affirms and blesses. It is this love that affirms and defends her love. It is a circle of divine-human love given, received, and given again without end. At the end of this story, the chief priests are plotting not only to kill Jesus, but also Lazarus because they want to silence his witness to such love. The great surprise of the gospel is that you cannot kill this love. You cannot stop it’s energy and flow. And you cannot silence those who have experienced it.
In our life as a congregation, in your life as an individual, in our offering of God’s wide welcome and excessive, over-the-top life-restoring love, in the face of those in the larger church who criticize us, who call us heretics and consign us to hell, who try to stop us and kill our witness, we remember the hand of Jesus on Mary’s head; we remember his hand on us in affirmation and blessing; and we come to this dinner table that Jesus sets with his dying and rising love, to fill us with abundant life, and to prompt us to let our hair down in service to God’s unstoppable love. And we say, “Hallelujah! Amen! Hallelujah! Amen!”