On the Fifth Sunday in Lent, in Series A, we read the account of Jesus raising from the dead his friend Lazarus. Jesus speaks the familiar words of “I am the Resurrection and the Life” which have brought comfort to grieving people for nearly 2000 years. The observant reader notices that both Martha and Mary move from a spiritualized faith to a more actualized faith as the narrative progresses. Martha begins by piously asserting that her brother will rise at the final judgment and resigning herself to his absence until then. But Jesus confronts such piety. He is the Resurrection. Does she believe that? Yes, she does. The reader is invited to walk with her into such a confession. Etymologically “confess” means “speak with.” Jesus has her speak the truth with Him. John recounts this story so the reader/hearer gets to speak with Martha and Mary as well.
What our pericope does not do for us is bring us into the very next scene. It is understandable. This reading already taxes the modern hearer with its length. But the preacher should keep reading. In the opening scene of chapter 12 of John’s narrative, Jesus returns sometime later to Bethany where Lazarus has a dinner for him, sitting beside Jesus. Martha serves (of course). It is Mary who rather steals the show. She buys a jar of expensive perfume, breaks it and pours it over Jesus feet. Then, in an act which can only be described as intimate, she wipes down his feet with her hair.
This scene from chapter 12 encapsulates the three primary responses to the resurrection for us. Lazarus bears witness to the resurrection simply by being there. Martha serves. Mary passionately worships Jesus. John portrays Lazarus and his sisters as people of wealth and status. For Mary to be kneeling at Jesus feet, anointing them and wiping them with her hair would have been shocking to her peers. Judas’ comment about the cost of the nard is only the beginning. John does not need to tell us about the shock of others, but points out Judas as a sort of plot development.
John’s depiction of Mary’s intimate and humble worship denies his first century audience their spiritualizing tendencies. Lazarus is really there, eating with Jesus. Martha serves them food. Mary, however, drives the point home. The true believer worships the man Jesus.