A reflection on Mary of Bethany from the story found in John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
What will it cost to be who you truly are? Anyone who’s been alive a while—no matter how long—knows that being yourself can be risky and costly. Being who we are in the world without trying to fit into others’ expectations or cultural constrictions can cost us friends and family. In these days of extreme polarization in our culture and church, even sharing a perspective can cost valued relationships—or at least followers on Facebook or Twitter.
For me, “being myself” involves being a woman. And I have had women’s issues on my mind a lot lately. Through my work on the soon-to-be published CEB Women’s Bible for which I am an editor, I was reminded of the degree to which women’s stories and voices in the Bible are, with rare exception, relegated to the background if they appear at all. Part of the gift of this new Bible is that every woman—named or unnamed in the text—is lifted up and given some attention. That is encouraging.
Less encouraging was the article that recently appeared in The Christian Century magazine highlighting the continued gender gaps within the church—in terms of leadership and pay. In response, Mike Kinman, a former seminary classmate wrote a powerful blog entitled “Men of the Church: It’s time to call out misogyny. It’s time for women to lead.” In this piece, Mike names the women who lead and inspire him—the women who are leading the Black Lives Matter movement and female colleagues who are changing the church. He notes that these leaders have had to deal all along the way with men who try to silence, ignore, and belittle them, that they have had to work twice as hard to get half as far. Mike is clear about the fact that women of color face exponentially greater obstacles—and I would add lesbian and transgender women as well. And he goes on to acknowledge the ways that the church throughout history has been among the worst offenders in terms of treatment of women.
I have also been ruminating on the gender dynamics playing out in the current election cycle—even before we started talking about “the woman card.” It is a fascinating phenomenon to observe the attitudes and feelings among women of different generations. It has been interesting to reflect on my own perspective as a Gen X-er. And I have found it important to pay attention to the extraordinary double standards at play for Hillary Clinton as a woman running for the presidency. Plenty has been written about that and, of course, it is not new for persons running for office to be ridiculed or for women in high profile public leadership to face double standards and to be subjected to things that would never happen to a man. Women leaders in any field are always navigating a minefield of projections, latent expectations, unconscious assumptions, and more.
I bring all these thoughts to my reading of the text from John 12. Mary takes the risk to offer her gifts publicly in a way that challenges convention and without holding anything back. In response, a man completely ignores the power and wisdom of what she is actually doing, and then changes the subject and levels a personal attack. (And Judas is smart about the subject he inserts because it keeps everyone distracted from what was really going on; the attack keeps folks from seeing and learning from Mary—for over 2000 years!) Mary had come under attack from her own sister before, when she failed to stay within expected, prescribed gender roles and claimed her place as a disciple of Jesus (see Lk 10:38-42). Again and again, Mary claimed her agency and her freedom in a way that allowed her to be true to herself, to put herself out there even when it meant risking ridicule.
I want to suggest that Mary is our teacher—regardless of our gender identity, our race, our political affiliation, our vocation. She shows us that the work of being and becoming more fully and truly who we are, is always costly. But implicit in her actions is another lesson: the cost of hiding or trying to be someone we are not or trying to contort into someone else’s idea of who we are is much greater. Making decisions based on fear of ridicule or conflict bears a greater cost than taking the risk to put ourselves out there. I’m not suggesting that we should be naïve about the potential risks involved. But I am suggesting that when others’ expectations, lies or prejudice, when racism, sexism, or homophobia control how you see yourself and how you live, you can end up paying a very high price—you can end up believing lies and living a smaller life than you were made for—you can end up not really living your life; and that’s the life God needs you to live. The famous Marianne Williamson quote comes to mind: “You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world… as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Jesus’s presence liberates Mary. It is not insignificant that on both the occasions when she gets judged for her behavior, Jesus has her back. Jesus sees, loves, and affirms Mary. He understands and appreciates what she is doing and he receives her as a true disciple. Mary provides a powerful example of Christian discipleship that is liberated from fear; she gives an example of how to offer your gifts to the world and to God and to be yourself without apology, without defensiveness and with self-giving love. That is what Jesus always did, after all.
Whoever you are, however you are made, whatever your circumstances, you are a beloved child of God. Jesus sees you, loves you, and has your back any time you risk sharing the gift of yourself with others and for the sake of the Kin-dom. And—even in the midst of the emotionally fraught, politically polarized climate in which we live—if we are thoughtful and brave disciples of Jesus, we not only will put ourselves out there, but we’ll also have someone else’s back when they find the courage to do the same.
Ginger Gaines-Cirelli is the Senior Pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., and recently served as a delegate at the 2016 General Conference. The CEB Women’s Bible, of which she served as editor, releases in October 2016.