John 12:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (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.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Jesus restored Lazarus, his friend, to life. That brought Jesus much notoriety (in the Gospel of John). Now that Lazarus was once again alive Jesus sat down for a meal with him. Of course, Martha served. I should note that Martha appears in the Gospel of Luke, along with her sister Mary, with much the same configuration of relationships (Luke 10:38-42). Although in Luke there isn’t a Lazarus to raise from the dead. In Luke it is Martha who complains about Mary’s decision to hang out with Jesus instead of helping with the meal. In this case Martha simply serves, and it is Judas who complains about Mary’s actions. It would seem then that while the details differ, there is a connection between these two stories.
There are a number of Mary’s in the gospels, and so it’s easy to conflate them. But there is only one Martha. She seems to be the model of one who serves, though in John’s version she doesn’t complain about her role. This Mary on the other hand is an interesting character. In Luke she is the one who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to his message. In other words, she takes up the role of the disciple, the learner, and Jesus refuses to take that away from her. In John’s gospel she fills a similar role, though her actions are different. In Luke she sits and listens. Here she engages in an act of devotion. She anoints Jesus for burial. In both cases, Jesus commends her for recognizing an appropriate role of discipleship.
For the preacher it might be wise to connect the two accounts, just so we don’t conflate the two without some thoughtful conversation. In other words, I think there’s a connection between the two stories, but we need to be careful with them. There is, of course, another story about a woman anointing Jesus, but she’s unnamed. That story seems connected.
Turning to our text itself, Jesus’ journey is nearing its end. He has drawn near to Jerusalem. He has made quite a statement by raising Lazarus from the dead. The crowds are gathering around him, so much so that the religious leadership is getting worried. According to John they’re plotting to get rid of Lazarus a long with Jesus.
In any case, it’s six days before Passover. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is just around the corner. Thus, this is a fitting text for the Sunday prior to Palm Sunday. It prepares us for the complicated nature of Holy Week. There is both joy and pathos in the days to come. The way in which this is told reminds us that Palm Sunday is really blip in the screen. Don’t be taken in by it. It’s a false positive, because it suggests an alternative path that Jesus isn’t willing to take.
But, back to the story at hand. Jesus sits down for dinner with Lazarus. Martha serves the meal. Then Mary appears with a bottle of perfume made of pure nard, an ointment that apparently was rather expensive. She pours out the perfume on Jesus’ feet and then wipes his feet with her hair. This act of anointing Jesus’ feet fills the house with the smell of the perfume. This fragrance stands in stark contrast to the smell of death, which had been the topic of conversation in the previous chapter when Jesus asked that the stone covering Lazarus’ tomb be rolled away (John 11:38-44). Mary’s act is one of devotion and even discipleship. It might also be an act of gratitude in response to the raising of her brother. Whatever her reasons, hers was an act of devotion and the perfume was hers to use as she pleased. Yes, it could be sold and used in another way, but this was Mary’s gift to Jesus.
We should note that Mark and Matthew have a similar story. In their version of the story an unnamed woman appears at the home of Simon the Leper, who is also from Bethany, and at whose home Jesus is dining. Instead of anointing his feet as in John, this woman anoints Jesus’ head (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9). The actions are different and yet the same. In both stories the woman’s actions elicit an angry response. The difference is that in John the protester is one person—Judas—while in Mark and Matthew it is the disciples as a whole who protest. This overlap suggests a common origin to the stories, even if they have been restructured by the Gospel writers.
Judas Iscariot stands in contrast to Mary. She offers us a vision of discipleship. She seems to understand where Jesus’ path is heading. Judas, on the other hand, offers a different picture. He seems to not understand Jesus’ mission. John calls him a thief, but perhaps that’s too harsh. Perhaps John is seeking to scapegoat Judas. But it’s clear that Mary knows something Judas does not. One of the twelve, Judas gets upset when Mary wastes such a valuable commodity on Jesus’ feet, and in doing so seems to deny the value of Jesus’ own life.
According to John, the perfume could be sold for a great sum and used to care for the needs of the poor. Those of us who value social justice ministry wouldn’t want to argue with Judas’ logic. After all, wasn’t Jesus a prophet to the poor? Of course, John suggests that Judas has ulterior motives. He’s not really interested in helping the poor. He’s a thief intent on lining his own pockets. But even if his motives are less than pure, does he not have a point? How might we respond to such an act? Would we protest as well?
Instead of reprimanding Mary for the waste, Jesus commends her. Jesus tells the disciples that while the poor will always be with them, his time with them is growing short. So, it’s appropriate for this bit of perfume to be “wasted” on him. The journey forward will be difficult. He needs to prepare, and Mary has done her part. But, that doesn’t relieve the disciples of their responsibility to care for the poor and the marginalized. Honoring Jesus and caring for the poor are not mutually exclusive acts.
What I hear in this passage is a call for a more complex reading of the Jesus story. It invites us to engage in a more nuanced conversation about our own identity as part of the Christian faith. I often hear the complaint that churches spend too much money on buildings and their accouterments when that money could be better spent on caring for the poor. The critique may have validity, especially if a congregation only cares about itself and closes itself off from the world, but does life have to be so binary? Is there no place for reverence, beauty, and creativity? Must everything be task-oriented?
Gathering for worship, for instance, is an act of communion with God. This act of devotion, which might include such things as vestments, art, musical instruments, could be costly. If you’ve been in a magnificent cathedral you might be overwhelmed by its beauty, and that grandeur draws you into the presence of God. But, that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook when it comes to the poor, who are always present in our midst. Their voices need to be heard. We need to attend to their concerns, for God hears their voices, even as God heard the cries of those caught in slavery in Egypt.
Rather than an either/or vision, might we instead embrace a both/and response to Jesus? We can show our devotion to God through caring for the poor and the marginalized, but we can also show our devotion through seemingly wasted moments like anointing Jesus’ feet with priceless perfume. As Stephen Shoemaker puts it:
******We live our lives in the shadow of the cross, but we also live in the presence of the risen Christ. So here is an invitation to daily companionship with Jesus, at the Table, in extravagant acts of compassion and generosity, in moments of worship. All this in a world which lives by a mind-set of scarcity, rather than a mind-set of abundance, and so tempts us to close in and give little. All this in a world whose violence and cruelty crucify people every day. [Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2, p. 145]
Picture attribution: Bassano, Jacopo, approximately 1518-1592. Christ in the House of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56138 [retrieved March 8, 2016]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacopo_Bassano_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Mary,_Martha,_and_Lazarus_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.