The Anointed One -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5C (John 12)

John 12:1-8 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.There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (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.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 

              As we draw near to Holy Week, with Palm/Passion Sunday on the near horizon, this final Sunday in Lent takes us to Bethany, a small town outside of Jerusalem. According to the Gospel of John, just a week earlier, Jesus had raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. Now, as he prepares to enter Jerusalem, with a plot against his life forming, Jesus returns to the home of Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Both sisters play an important role in the story, just as they had in the preceding story when they engaged Jesus in conversation about the resurrection (after they asked him why he didn't come earlier before Lazarus died, so he could heal their brother (John 11)). 

    In this story from the Gospel of John, which the Revised Common Lectionary provides for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Jesus visits the home of his friends for a meal. If Jesus is there then the disciples are there, along with quite a few others (one would assume). In this story, as in a story in the Gospel of Luke, Martha is in charge of the meal while her sister Mary is elsewhere, performing a different duty.  (Luke 10:38-42 --- note that in Luke Mary and Martha don't have a brother). There are a number of Mary’s in the gospels, and so it’s easy to conflate them. But there is only one Martha (though there is some suggestion that Martha is a later addition to the story in John). Regarding Martha's role in the story, she runs the household, but it's Mary that plays the primary role. 

       Here in this story, Mary anoints Jesus, which is understood here to be an act that prepares Jesus for burial. In the Gospel of Luke Mary takes the position of a disciple, sitting at the feet of Jesus. Thus in both stories, she models for us devotion to Jesus. Preachers might want to take note of the two stories, so they don't get conflated. There may be a relationship between the two stories, but then there is that other story of an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper (Mt 26:6-13; Mk. 4:3-9; Lk. 7:36-50). It's not necessary to resolve the tension between the stories, but the relationships need to be acknowledged. 

           Here in John 12, Jesus is nearing the culmination of his life and ministry. To be in Bethany is to be on the outskirts of Jerusalem. When we read this story in connection with what occurs in John 11, he's already made a major statement about his ministry by raising Lazarus from the dead. As you can understand, this event has drawn crowds (you might even call all of this a spectacle). When I read the story of the raising of Lazarus I can't help but think about the way the event is portrayed in the movie The Greatest Story Ever Told. In that rendition, word goes out around the land while the Hallelujah Chorus rings out. It's all quite moving. Even if it's not quite as exciting as portrayed in the movie, you can understand why the authorities (political and religious) might be nervous and want to get rid of Lazarus and Jesus before they become an even greater problem (John 12:9-11).  

               This reading is a natural transition point from Jesus' ministry to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem during Passover Week (Palm Sunday). In many ways, this story relativizes Palm Sunday. Yes, there will be a joyous beginning to the week, but this story reminds us that the endpoint is the tomb, and Mary's act of anointing Jesus prepares him for that moment. So, don’t get taken in by the big crowds that welcome Jesus. Crowds can be fickle and they aren't necessarily good harbingers of final results (though some politicians haven't figured that out yet). The path proposed to Jesus by Palm Sunday isn't the one he's planning to take. 

            As for John's account of this dinner party, Jesus sits down to eat with his friend Lazarus. Martha has prepared the meal. Mary brings into the room a bottle of perfume made of pure nard. From the description of the event in John, we learn that this ointment is 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, this served as an act of devotion, and the perfume was hers to use as she pleased. Yes, it could be sold and used in another way, as Judas suggested, but this was Mary’s gift to Jesus.

             In the parallel story in Mark and Matthew, a nameless 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.

              In John, 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, doesn't seem to understand the path that Jesus has set before himself. John calls him a thief, but perhaps that’s too harsh. We don't really know Judas' true motivation. He could have been a thief, or as some suggest, he might have been trying to force Jesus' hand so as to launch a revolutionary moment. It's quite possible that John is seeking to scapegoat Judas. Whatever the case with Judas, it’s clear that Mary knows something Judas does not. Though he's one of the twelve, Judas gets upset when Mary wastes such a valuable commodity on Jesus’ feet. What a waste!  

                According to John, Judas tells Jesus that this perfume could have been sold for a year's wages and used to meet the needs of the poor. Isn't that worth more than a momentary blessing? Those of us who value social justice ministry might resonate with Judas' logic. After all, wasn’t Jesus a prophet who acted on behalf of the poor and the marginalized? Shouldn't Jesus be scandalized by this wasted resource? Now, John suggests that Judas has ulterior motives in making this suggestion. Instead of thinking about the poor, he's looking for a way to enrich himself by dipping into the till. Still, even if his motives are less than pure, doesn't he have a point? How might we respond to such an act? Would we protest as well?

             Instead of reprimanding Mary for the wasted resource, 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 and he needs to prepare. Therefore, Mary has done her part by anointing him with oil in preparation for his death and burial. As for the poor, Jesus isn't them, he's letting the disciples that they will have a 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. Shouldn't the money spent on church buildings 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]

Image Attribution: Anonymous. Mary Anoints Jesus' Feet - detail, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 26, 2022]. Original source:,_16th_Century_-_Mary_Magdalene_anointing_the_feet_of_Christ.jpg.