Week of Sunday March 21: Lent 5
Gospel: John 12:1-7
12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But 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 30 pieces of silver 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.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
The gospels are sparse prose; almost utilitarian. Rich use of adjectives, and incidental details for colour, are luxuries which only come where books are common. The gospels needed to convey layer upon layer of meaning for people who would listen, not read.
The gospel stories are sharp and brief, crafted to be remembered.
So when Jesus dines with Lazarus, it is no accident that we are given names: Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Judas. There is no padding; every word is loaded.
In the story, John has layered symbolism as rich as the perfume which follows. The nard filling the whole house like incense in the temple, is hint, warning and gift, for what is to come. It is poured out six days before Jesus’ work is complete. (Genesis?)
Jesus is having supper, at the table, with the one he raised from the dead. The raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11) looks forward to this meal; 11:2 says Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.
The home of this proto-eucharist is not that of a man and his family, but sisters and a brother; perhaps the fellowship of Christian ‘brothers and sisters’ is more normative than nuclear family. Did John's audience know the Lukan story of Mary and complaining Martha, in Luke chapter 10? Martha is still serving, and Mary is still at Jesus’ feet. Healed, restored and forgiven, I will still be me.
Mary’s perfume filled the whole house. John Petty reminds us that in the previous days there has been a stench. (11:39) Lazarus was dead four days; Jesus will be raised on the third. So far, Mary is the only one who gets what is happening:
The action of Mary at the feet of Jesus anticipates Jesus' own washing of his disciples' feet (13:5). Thus, Mary is presented as a true disciple, especially in contrast to Judas, one of the twelve, who is not a true disciple. Mary understands the meaning of Jesus, his coming passion, and his mission in the world. Mary gets it. Aside from Jesus at this point, she is the only one who does.
John (Petty) cleverly says at this point that Judas is the skunk in the story!
Judas complains that Jesus is not worth 300 denarii. He sells him out (the words the one who was about to betray him, tell us we are meant to make the comparison) for thirty pieces of silver, less than half the value of the nard.
We have in the same house deep devotion and love, shown to us in Mary, and cynical opportunism, and hypocrisy, shown to us in Judas. Sadly, as we know, this state of affairs will also continue in the church. Does John mean to tell us not to be surprised?
The devotion of Mary is startling and, frankly, sexual. The imperative seems always to have been to demean her act, associating it with prostitution or similar. We would be better to see her act through the filter of that deep fondness, which can be in a relationship which does not become fully sexual. In the light of that love, Judas’ attack is especially shallow. In the light of that love, we can also begin to appreciate what Jesus can be for us.
I always feel the NRSV response of Jesus is a wonderful model of a safe place church. In the gathered community, where we operate out of the deeps of our vulnerable hearts, he says without hesitation, “Leave her alone!”
Our guilty western affluence is, of course, pricked by the notion of the poor always being with us. Some say (I have no reference) that Jesus’ words are a criticism of Judas and ourselves; “You will always have the poor with you, because of your greed and theft.” Petty points us to another possibility:
The destitute beggars are to be a part of the Christian community, not outsiders to whom one may condescend. Wes Howard-Brook: "That is, the poor should not simply be objects of charity but are to be an integral and permanent part of the discipleship community" (p. 272).
I like Bill Loader’s comment.
Some will be comfortable seeing here a Jesus claiming his worthiness to be the recipient of lavish expenditure: ‘you won’t always have me around.’ But the real focus is the woman. Can we not let her response stand? It is not that we should see it as stroking the ego of Jesus, but rather as indicative of her response, indeed, to God. A person is responding to love and acceptance. It is not the time to talk budgets, but to value the person.
In many ways, our sickness of over-affluence blinds us to the joy, and purpose, of celebration. In a healthier society, perhaps Judas’ words would be seen simply as mealy mouthed. Celebration, devotion, and the ultimate waste of anointing for burial, are appropriate to living.
As Bill says, Mary’s action is not only in contrast to Judas
but also … Peter and the disciples. Both in Mark and in John, as in the common tradition which feeds them directly and indirectly, Jesus is pictured as abandoned by his inner circle of disciples. In the end it will be a few women who are left standing near Golgotha and who will venture to the tomb. The unlikely ones in Mark and John’s world, the women, become the models. This is deliberately subversive and reflects so much of the experience of Jesus’ ministry. Others were so good, so devout, and so busy being so, that they missed the point. This is grindingly obvious, when a woman like this inarticulately breaks the perfume container open and spreads the contents over Jesus’ feet.
In the resuscitation (not resurrection) of Lazarus we receive a hint of what will happen to Jesus. In the meal which follows in John’s gospel drama, we given a taste of what will follow Jesus being raised from the dead. Now the scene is set for the final act of the play. Have we, like Mary, realised what is happening? Or are we like Judas and buried in our own concerns, or even like the scheming chief priests who are determined to have their own way, blind to the ways of God?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken 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.
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