Healing – Mary of Bethany (Fr Tom)

I’m going to talk about healing, but forgive me for starting from a negative view;  but we inherit a confusing legacy.  In the BCP, the office of the Visitation of the Sick, is based on the premise that the person is sick because God is punishing them for their sin. There is a strong intention to get the sick person to confess their sin, which might help.  This was adjusted, a little, for the 1928 prayer book.

We simply don’t believe that a person is sick because they are more sinful than all the people who are not sick. The book of Job is an argument against this medieval doctrine.  It is similar in the Old Testament that God, Jahweh, is a God who heals; but he is also one who destroys, who kills.  We don’t believe that the people who have had covid are more sinful; at least I hope we don’t.  Perhaps some of us who have suffered with covid think we are more sinful!, because of our tradition, from which we still carry that notion. We need to be saved from that.

Jesus shows us another way. When asked by his disciples whether the blind man or his parents (chapter 9) had sinned – causing his illness – Jesus tells them ‘Neither.’ But we still carry some of the weight of the 16th century view.  (Incidentally, in the 19th century there were books written to get the sick to confess their sins.)

Perhaps, the easiest thing is to think that of others: that we just knew they are particularly sinful, therefore they’re sick – especially when we don’t like them

Jesus main role was to preach and heal the sick, to free them from the demonic powers that enslaved them.  Jesus healings were done through his body, though not always so.  They were about touch, with his hands mostly.  We all need touch and to be touched.  One of the most insidious things about the pandemic, is that we can’t touch each other.  But the disease is very real, and we need to protect others, and ourselves.  I shouldn’t need to clarify that I’m not defending inappropriate touching, which is something entirely different.

The aim of our Christian life is to seek wholeness, for ourselves and others, a continuation of the ministry of Jesus.  Health and wholeness are related words.  Being ‘saved’ in the Bible is more about freedom from trouble and illness, that it is about going to heaven when we die.  It’s not so much being ‘cured’ – that’s what medicine aims to do – it’s about being whole.  So that, we could be physically quite unwell, but actually whole.  Though both would be good.  … Which brings me to our gospel…

It’s a powerful story, Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive oil at a dinner in his honour at the home of Lazarus, Martha & Mary.  These verses follow on from the long chapter with the story of the raising of Lazarus, and the reactions of Martha, who eventually confesses her faith in Jesus as the ‘Messiah, Son of God, the One coming into the world’ and ‘the Jews’, many of whom believe in something about him; and Mary, who, when sent to Jesus by Martha, falls at Jesus’ feet, weeping, and repeats her sister: ‘If you had been here our brother would still be alive.’  It was Mary’s tears that effected Jesus’ own tears.


The family hold a dinner to thank Jesus.  It is reminiscent of the wedding feast at Cana with abundant quantities of wine provided by Jesus – God; and of what will be the Last Supper, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, instructing them to follow his example.

Mary is silent throughout this story, though the leading character.  As Jesus reclines at table, Lazarus is with him, like the Beloved Disciple later, Martha is serving (deaconing), very much in charge – again.

Suddenly Mary falls at Jesus’ feet for a second time and anoints his feet with very expensive nard (we also call in ‘spikenard’) from a plant that only grows in the Himalayas.  She wipes his feet with her hair.  An act so outrageous, extravagant: demonstrating her love for Jesus.  Her actions are intimate, tender, sensuous, somewhat scandalous.  Perhaps even a frisson of sexuality.

I can’t help feeling that Mary is healing Jesus, providing some kind of therapy. That would only be a problem if we see ‘sickness’ – exhaustion, stress, as a punishment for sin.  Jesus is under a great deal of stress.  The authorities are out to kill him, he’s been able to avoid them so far, but he knows the ‘end’ is near: in a few verses he will admit that his soul ‘is very troubled’.  Though he is God incarnate, he is fully a human being; indeed he is THE human being.  That he is under so much pressure, stress would make sense.  Mary’s anointing reflects Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, when he washes the disciples’ feet, and tells them to do the same for others.  But in the story of John’s gospel Mary isn’t imitating Jesus, he seems to be imitating her!

Then Judas, showing his true colours, as a villain, chastises Mary for her extravagant action, when the money could have been given to the poor.  Jesus defends her, and hints at not being around much longer, so they’ll have plenty of time to help the poor when he’s gone.  He says Mary’s anointing if for his burial.

What’s powerful about Jesus in this story is that he has the grace to allow himself to be served, as well as to serve, to be indulged.  He’s not ‘above it all’, which is, after all where he is from, and which is important in John.

Let us all commit ourselves to wholeness in mind and body, and indeed, in our world.  Let us determine to continue to be a community of ‘healers’.

Let us examine ourselves and our commitment to following Jesus, to loving Jesus, giving ourselves to him, as Mary did.  Let us be healers in our daily lives – with ourselves, in learning to accept God’s forgiveness, God’s wholeness, God’s salvation which is entirely available to us; and not be burdened with guilt that isn’t ours.  But also, to be aware of our failings, and always ready to admit them, particularly if they hurt others.






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