Last Tuesday was International Women’s Day. I saw a post on social media with read: “Can’t wait for International Women’s Day to be over. Then we can get back to International Men’s Year.” It was a joke, of course, but it was making a point. There’s something wrong with the world if the achievements and aspirations of over half of the global population are highlighted for just one day. It tells us something about the pervasive nature of gender inequality. Of all inequalities, it is the most insidious, for even women sometimes defend it.
International Women’s Day is about challenging gender inequality. It is about challenging us all, women and men alike, to think differently, to look at what we are conditioned to accept as the norm and ask: Is is right that that’s how things are?
I want to take that and apply it to our Gospel reading. It is, I’m sure, a familiar reading to many, probably all of us. Normally we read it as a story about Jesus, some other men and a woman. How might it look, though, if we put many at the centre of it? Or rather, how might it look if we took off our culturally conditioned spectacles and saw the truth – that Mary is the central character in this story because she is the one who acts, while the men argue over her actions?
We have already encountered Mary in the Gospel, and we have already learned that she is, for her time and culture, unusual. She may have earned the rebuke of her sister Martha for not busying herself with preparing food, but she chose, on a previous occasion, to sit with the men around Jesus, in conversation. In defending her choice, Jesus struck a blow for gender equality. She has done the better thing, he said.
So, already, we know that Mary is different, a woman who has liberated herself to some degree from the shackles of cultural expectation of the role of women. So, in her, we have a living embodiment of one of the values of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus came to inaugurate. In her, we see that the Kingdom stands for equality of all, that no one, because of their gender, or because of any of the other ways in which we divide people from one another, is to be treated as lesser than any other. The Kingdom of God is about overturning the order of the world which is enthralled by sin. Inequality is a sin that Jesus challenges.
Now, on this occasion, we hear of Mary doing something even more extraordinary. She anoints the Anointed one. That’s what the Hebrew word “Messiah” and its Greek translation “Christ” mean. The Anointed one. Anointing is about power. For centuries, anointing was used by powerful men – popes – to confer power on other powerful men – kings and emperors. It is a ritual which is incorporated into British coronation ceremonies, when an archbishop will anoint the monarch’s head with oil. But here we read of a woman, a lay, working-class woman, anointing the Son of God. It is not just about preparation for death and burial. It is about recognising who Jesus was, something Mary did, and which many others took much longer to see. And it is about a giving of power.
That’s a challenging thought. How can a powerless person give power to another? If Mary teaches us anything, it is that she was not powerless. Though she was a woman in a society which tried to strip women of power, it could not achieve that. Everybody, by virtue of the dignity of being human, has power. Nobody is entirely powerless, no matter how hard others try to take that power away. She chose to give her power to Jesus, to join her life to his, in this act of self-giving love.
And she did it in a way that broke a series of taboos. In that culture, women did not touch men to whom they were not related or married. In that culture, women’s loose hair was thought of as being sensual. These were taboos that Mary, this liberated woman, did not care about. She cared about Jesus. And it is clear that Jesus cared about her. He did not flinch from her. He was not offended by her touch. This was a moment of great intimacy, an intimacy beyond the intimacy of the mind. There is physical intimacy too. And this reminds us of something. Bodies matter in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ life is about incarnation, about God becoming physically and bodily human. We serve God by serving one another’s embodied selves, by sharing food and warmth and shelter, by providing clothes. We do not simply serve God with our minds, by our words. Faith is not just about belief and understanding. It is about bodily care too.
Mary broke another taboo too, one which is just as pervasive now as then. It was Judas who was most shocked. He saw her action as wasteful, though his motives were hardly pure. This perfumed oil represented a year’s wages, but Mary didn’t care. She embodied a different relationship with wealth. To her, it was not something to be preserved. It was not an end in itself. That she anointed Jesus’ feet is important. She put her wealth in its place, at Jesus’ feet. Too many people are ruled by their wealth, are consumed by the concerns it brings. Is there enough? Is it invested well? Is it working hard enough? Is it safe? How can I protect it? Mary showed that wealth is to be stepped on. Life is more than counting pennies. Mary’s action challenges that well worn cliché – Time is money. No, it is not. Time is life and if we equate it to money, we lose sight of the great gift that the life God gives us is.
When we read this story with Jesus at its centre, we read it as a story about his impending death. When we read it as a story with Mary at its centre, we read it as a story about life, about the life God wills and intends for all people. In Mary we see liberation. The things that bind people, that oppress them, are sinful, and Mary shows a life freed from that sin. In Mary we see that in God’s kingdom, each person has dignity, that in all ways, because God loves us equally, we are called to treat one another equally as an expression of our faith. And in Mary, we see expressed the truth we saw when Jesus provided wine at Cana in Galilee, and that we see as he pours out his life for us on the Cross, that the Kingdom of God is characterised by abundance – extraordinary generosity, abundant life for all.