As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
“I never knew that you had to flip the fraction in that type of problem,” a student says with a look of consternation. The teacher smiles and offers encouraging words. This teacher probably went over this point at least 20 times that week. Such situations are common—ask any teacher. We should not be surprised—not because we are dealing with children but because we adults are the same. We see and hear, but seeing and hearing are different from perceiving and understanding.
In the gospels, Jesus’ disciples hear his teachings and see his miracles, but they do not understand who he is and what he has come to do. Even after Jesus tells them in the most direct way, they do not understand. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). The author immediately adds, “But they did not understand what he meant” (Mark 9:32). And to show that they do not understand, they argue about who is the greatest among them. Jesus then says, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). To further drive the point home, Jesus takes a young child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
There is something about our nature that hinders us from understanding. If we take our cues from Mark’s text, then it is rooted in our selfishness. The mindset of Jesus’ disciples is not one of serving others but having others serve them. They want to be great, and they believe Jesus can help them. This desire clogs their ears and blinds their eyes. When we are at the center, everything is processed through our desires and wants. And what does not fit, we dismiss or ignore. If the cultural critics are right, then we are becoming even more selfish. Thomas de Zengotita, an anthropologist, made this point when he coined the words “flattered self” in his book, Mediated. In a postmodern world where options abound, we pick and choose what we want, when we want. We even choose our lifestyles, sometimes several times a year, an unthinkable idea in past generations. And what exacerbates the situation is that advertisers and companies know this about us and take aim and fire. In the process, our selves become bloated. We tell ourselves we have options. In that process, we neither understand ourselves nor others, all the while we become more self-centered.
A woman in the New Testament shows us a way out.
In the Gospel of John, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, approaches Jesus and pours pure nard over Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair. Mary has the singular honor of knowing what Jesus has come to do. She understands that he has come to give his life, and he is close to doing so. And so, she does the most sacrificial thing that she can imagine. She takes her most expensive item and pours it on Jesus’s feet, and she takes her flowing hair and uses it as a brush and towel.
How did Mary know? To find this answer, we need to know something about Mary’s character. In Luke 10, we find Mary at the feet of Jesus listening. We know the story. Martha, her sister, is working hard and preparing. At one point, she complains to Jesus that her sister is not helping her. She expects Jesus to take her side, but he says that Mary has chosen what is better. It is Mary’s devotion to Jesus that allows her to understand. She gives the most important gift she possesses at that moment, her attention. When we sit at a person’s feet, we don’t want to be understood but to understand, not to be loved but to love, and not to be served but to serve. And so, Mary begins to understand the paradox of Jesus’s mission. She sees before all others that Jesus will offer his life. Love sees. In fact, when love reigns, words are not necessary. As mothers, lovers, and best friends just know, Mary just knows.
When Mary pours out her nard, Jesus accepts her sacrifice for his burial. She offers a posture of love and attention that leads to knowing.