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.” (NRSV)
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ, our redeemer and friend, and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
Here Mary goes again.
This is undoubtedly the same Mary and Martha that Luke tells us about in chapter 10 of his gospel. There Mary sat at Jesus’s feet with the disciples, listening to him teach, while Martha’s abundant hospitality took on the form of a feast, but in truth, Martha took on way more than was necessary. Still, she resented that Mary wasn’t helping and called her out to Jesus. Of course Jesus said Mary was doing exactly what she should be doing.
So here is Mary again, not helping with the feast.
They have much to rejoice over. Lazarus who was dead is alive and has been returned to them. They have killed the fatted calf and are rejoicing with their friends. And in the middle of it all, Mary brings out the jar of nard. It was just like what they had used on Lazarus as they prepared him for burial just a week ago. But why did she have more? And what was she doing bringing it out now? Lazarus is very much alive.
And right there, in front of everyone, she started to massage Jesus’s feet with the precious ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. What in heaven’s name was she doing? It undoubtedly disrupted the whole gathering and immediately became the focus of everyone’s attention. There was probably a moment of stunned silence and then the chatter began.
People were shocked. There would undoubtedly be some who would make assumptions. They didn’t know Mary and Jesus had THAT kind of a relationship. And why was she making this display of affection out here? In front of them all? Shouldn’t that kind of thing be reserved for the bedroom? Besides, respectable women were not supposed to show their hair in public. They were supposed to keep their heads covered. Was there something about Mary they didn’t know?
And then there were others who were shocked because it was nard, the ointment used to anoint the dead. Jesus is very much alive too; as alive as Lazarus is. Is Mary wishing Jesus were dead? Is she expecting him to die? Does Mary know something the rest of them don’t know? Of course Jesus had been telling his disciples he would have to die, but none of the guys thought he was serious. They assumed it was a metaphor. Jesus couldn’t possibly die in Jerusalem. He had the important work of taking over the kingdom to do. Was Mary the only one foolish enough to believe it?
And then there was Judas.
Judas has to get his two cents worth in. It wasn’t his nard to decide how to use, but he had to criticize. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Three hundred denarii is a lot of money. It is about a year’s wages for a day laborer. It SOUNDS like Judas is asking a good question, but John tells us that Judas doesn’t really care about the poor. In fact, John makes some accusations that none of the other gospel writers made about Judas. Why? Why bring it up now? Did John have some insider knowledge the others didn’t have? Did the others decide that was too nasty a detail to include in the story of Jesus? (I don’t know why THAT would be so… they included enough other unflattering details of the disciples not acting like disciples should act, so why would it be different for Judas?)
But while these are all the questions our minds naturally gravitate toward, I don’t think they are the questions that really bring us to the heart of this passage. These details are all the set-up. These are the details that bring us around to the real point of this passage, and that is in Jesus’s response. “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.” (John 12:7&8) Jesus’s response might also be the most perplexing part of this passage. Jesus is speaking to Judas. Is the response just for him? Or is there a message in it for us?
“Leave her alone” is pretty clear. But is Jesus condoning the extravagance to which she has gone? Only the finest for Jesus! Does this justify fancy churches and extravagant benefits for leaders?
Is Jesus saying we cannot fix the problem of poverty?
Is Jesus saying we shouldn’t even try?
I don’t think so. Jesus is referring back to Deuteronomy here. Remember that is part of the Torah, which is Jesus’s most important and precious scripture. By Jesus’s day ‘the scriptures’ included the Psalms and the Prophets as well. But the Torah is the heart of it all. The whole point of Deuteronomy is to spell out the specifics of God’s law. You will remember Moses got the law in the form of the Ten Commandments. Deuteronomy is what we would call ‘case law.’ Deuteronomy tells that, if followed, God’s law would bring harmony and peace, justice and prosperity to the whole world. In God’s country there would be no poverty. Everyone would have enough and no one would have too much. People would look out for each other and everyone would work for the blessings of all, in particular for the blessings of the other, the neighbor, even the stranger.
But that isn’t how Judas has chosen to live, even living this close to Jesus!
John is setting up the contrast between Judas, the disciple, and Mary, the woman; between Judas the man of privilege and influence, and Mary, the humble servant; between Judas, who has been with Jesus all along and should understand what the big picture is, and Mary, who actually DOES get it.
Jesus has been telling his disciples he must go to Jerusalem and face down the authorities who have gotten it so wrong for so long. He has been telling them it will surely cost him his life. Judas and the other disciples don’t want Jesus to die. They want Jesus to throw the Romans out and take over.
Mary, on the other hand, accepts Jesus where he is and doesn’t try to make him be what he is not. She understands that Jesus’s life is on the line. Mary is generous and if everyone acted like Mary, with generosity and acceptance, the world would be a better place for everyone. John is contrasting these two. And it leaves us with a question:
What kind of disciple do you want to be?
Do you want to be like Judas, with the appearance of following Jesus?
Or be like Mary, who actually gives her whole self in following Jesus?
This Lent we have considered what we might cultivate and what we might let go. I urge you this week to cultivate generosity and humility and let go of the assumption that we know what God is up to and the fear that there won’t be enough.
A minute of silence
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.