April 3, 2022 Fifth Sunday in Lent The text is John 12:1-8.
1 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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”. This seems like an appropriate starting place, as we consider the several aspects of what is happening in Bethany this morning. And in an effort to bring us into the scene, I hope the aroma from the scent diffuser helps to make us feel a bit like we are there in the home of Lazarus. After all, Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet with over a pound of extremely expensive, pure perfume. And, it is in this house, along with Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary, and at least some of the disciples, that we find Jesus dining, just a short time before he is to depart for Jerusalem. And what follows is his triumphant entry into the holy city, his betrayal, crucifixion, and ultimate resurrection. All this begins next week on Palm Sunday, followed by the events of Holy Week and Easter. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves; first, what is going on with the perfume anointing and Judas’ dismay at the extravagance of Mary’s action?
It might be said that Jesus has taken this opportunity as something of a respite before entering into the final stages of his mission. This is the culmination of his three-year ministry and the temple officials have determined that his actions have elevated his perceived threat to them. For the Pharisees, Jesus has evolved from being considered a nuisance to now someone dangerous to their power and authority. A few days earlier Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and this news would have traveled to the temple priests; and as a result, now even Lazarus has a price on his head. This Jesus of Nazareth has finally gone too far!
So, why the perfume, and what the heck is nard? While a rather uncommon item today, nard is actually an essential oil from the spikenard plant which is grown in India and the Himalayas. In Jesus’ time it was formulated into an aromatic salve or ointment, often applied to the dead, to mask the odor of decomposition. Apparently, Mary is the only one who has been truly listening to Jesus’ words, as he has been telling his disciples and friends that he was to journey to Jerusalem to be killed. She is preparing Jesus’ body for death in advance of his actual demise. And the fact that she used a full pound of this perfumed balm speaks to the extravagant love she has for Jesus. Judas exclaims that it was worth 300 denarii; this was equivalent to the average yearly wage, which in today’s labor market is around $60,000. While there is no indication of how that amount of money might have been accrued, and whether or not John took a bit of literary license in describing its value, it is nonetheless an example of the great affection Mary expresses for Jesus, her teacher.
And, although Mary is obviously close to Jesus, as is her brother Lazarus and sister Martha, there are still a couple of aspects of this scene that wouldn’t be acceptable in first century Israel. A single woman would not have physical contact with a single man; yet Jesus has allowed Mary to anoint his feet with the nard perfume. Also, an unmarried woman would not “let her hair down”; women would braid their hair and keep it clipped in place on the top of their head. Mary allowed hers to come loose and she wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. She was willing to perform these actions in ways that were similar to the extravagance of using a full pound of costly perfume to anoint Jesus in preparation for his imminent death. Her love for Jesus outweighs everything else in her life.
Contrast her actions with the words of Judas; he thought the cost of the perfume was wasted on Jesus and that the poor would be better served if it was given to them. But gospel-writer John isn’t fooled by Judas’ comments; he knows that Judas was concerned only with enriching himself. And we know this to be true, for the Gospels tell us he betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, worth a good deal less than the nard perfume, about $6,000 in today’s dollars. Quite the disparity between the value of Mary’s love for Jesus and what Judas considered his willing betrayal was worth. Love is always worth immeasurably more than wickedness, corruption, or dishonesty.
And, when Judas objects to Mary’s perfumed anointing Jesus tells him, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”. Jesus knows that Mary is one of the few who truly acknowledges who he is and what his mission and ministry are all about. Days before, at Lazarus’ tomb it was apparent that she knew of Jesus’ power when she exclaimed, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Peter’s denials and inability to understand nearly everything Jesus said and did; the disciples’ arguments about which was the greatest among them; Judas’ betrayal. The disparity between these and the extravagant love that Mary expresses for Jesus should be the message we take from this event in the house of Lazarus and his sisters.
Peter says, “I don’t know the man” when questioned about his relationship with Jesus, just before he runs off and abandons him. “Which one of us the best among your followers?” the disciples ask Jesus, obviously not understanding Jesus’ constant proclamations that all of God’s children are equally worthy. “Thanks for the 30 silver coins; that’s him over there, that’s the Jesus you’re looking for” Judas tells the temple authorities, as he betrays Jesus, knowing he is destined for the cross. Not so, Mary; she responds to Jesus with faith, trust, and extravagance. She is willing to violate cultural norms; spend a fortune on anointing perfume, touch the feet of a man to who she is not married, and let down her hair to wipe the perfume on his feet. Whom shall we emulate, whose behavior shall we copy, whose expression of love for Christ shall we imitate? All during Lent we are called to examine our relationship with God and reassess how we respond to Jesus’ command to love others. Have we also remembered to consider the strength of our love for Christ and his sacrifice for us?
Peter denied him, disciples argued behind his back, Judas sold him out for some silver coins. Mary loved him! And this love is most evidenced by the anointing that she lavished upon him. The cost was not based on the value of the perfume, but in thanksgiving for the gift that Jesus was preparing to bestow upon Mary, her family, her friends, and the world. Jesus was about to lay down his life for the salvation of all who believe in him as the Messiah, the Son of God, the Anointed One of Israel. It was only fitting that Mary would extravagantly express her love for Jesus and for the blessing he brings to the world.
Rather than the denying Peter, the arguing disciples, or the betraying Judas, we should try to imitate the loving Mary, the one whose love for Jesus was stronger than the scent of the perfume with which she anointed him. And when Lent is over and we’ve once again experienced the grief of Holy Week and the joy of Easter, we mustn’t lose track of the love we ought to show for Jesus. Maybe we will remember to consider our love for Christ when a sweet fragrance reminds us to. And, perhaps when a fragrant scent triggers our thoughts, we will be brought back to Lazarus’ house, and we may find ourselves at the feet of Jesus, anointing him right alongside Mary.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, as we approach the close of Lent help us to prepare our hearts and minds as we relive Jesus’ Passion and resurrection. Guide our thoughts toward the remembrance of what his sacrifice brought about for us, and all the world. Help us to emulate the love that Mary showed toward your Son. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One in whose anointed feet we strive to follow.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.