Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 3 April, 2022. Readings For The Fifth Sunday Of Lent, Year C: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, 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.” (John 12:1-8)
What was Mary thinking? Judas must have thought that as he sat that night in Bethany and watched the sister of Lazarus making a spectacle of herself at the feet of Jesus. The way John tells the story, dwelling on the fact that Judas is a thief preoccupied with money, we are led to think that Judas sees that Mary’s action is a terrible waste. All that “costly” perfume, wasted in this one action. We aren’t told what motives Judas might attribute to Mary for choosing to do this expensive act. Her motives don’t seem to matter to him. It is as if Judas, already on the outside of the circle of disciples and looking in, simply can’t understand why she would do such a thing, even for Jesus.
What was Mary thinking? Why would she do such a thing for Jesus? For friendship and love, certainly. and perhaps for gratitude. We know from earlier in John that Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, are friends with Jesus. After Lazarus dies, it is the sisters who send for Jesus, and John tells us that Jesus comes because he “loves” them. Perhaps Mary is thinking of her love for her friend, and of her gratitude to him for returning Lazarus to her and to Martha.
What was Mary thinking? Besides love and gratitude, perhaps she feels concern and even fear for her friend. After Jesus raises their brother from the dead, news of this action spreads quickly, so that the Jewish leaders were afraid of Jesus and plot to kill him. John tells us that Jesus could no longer travel in the open, but had gone to a place near the wilderness (Jn 11:54). Pretty soon all of Jerusalem is buzzing with speculation as to whether Jesus will dare show his face (Jn 11:55) and now here he is, in Mary’s home, on his way to Jerusalem and danger, maybe even death. We can’t tell if Mary understands why her friend Jesus feels he has to go to Jerusalem, but perhaps she understands enough to be annointing him as if he were already dead. Annointing a person’s body is part of getting ready for a funeral, which is what Jesus seems to refer to when he says “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”.
What was Mary thinking? If she was thinking that her friend might die, was she also thinking of how he might enter Jerusalem, triumphantly, like a king? In the Jewish tradition, kings were annointed with oil to show that they were consecrated, set aside for certain tasks (see Exodus 40:15; 1 Samuel 16:12). It may be that by her action she recognizes that Jesus is indeed a king, a certainty that is in contrast with Pilate’s mocking question later on, “so you are a king”. And what sort of king will Jesus be? The fragrance which permeates the house with fragrance contrasts with the stench that filled the tomb of Lazarus where he had been for four days before Jesus arrived. and here is Lazarus, alive and healthy, sitting in the midst of that fragrance. It is as if Mary senses, somehow, that her action of annointing with this perfume as much to do with resurrection as it does with the funeral, and points to Jesus special role as the king who God sends to conquer death itself.. but more of that at Easter
And so to us, as we watch Mary at Jesus’ feet. What are we thinking? Are we thinking of excess? If we saw it done today would we think it a waste, as Judas does? Would we cringe, finding Mary’s actions too familar, too intimate, too over the top?
If, however, we think as Mary seems to have been thinking, then we may see something of our own call to discipleship in her action. We see the idea of selfless service to others, for Mary’s posture, washing Jesus feet, will be the same posture that Jesus will take a few days hence in John’s gospel, a posture often reenacted in worship on Maundy Thursday, when he wraps himself in a towel and kneels to wash his disciples’ feet.
If we see Mary’s action as a gift of love and concern for a dearly loved friend, then we see something of God’s love for us. The extravagance of Mary’s generosity, pouring out all that costly perfume, points us to the extravagance of God’s grace and love, just as we saw last Sunday in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke. We are reminded that God’s love for us does not count costs, and we will see that extravagant love, most clearly and terribly, when we look to the cross on Good Friday.
If we see Mary’s action not just as friendship but as worship, the outpouring of devotion for the son of God, then we may see a posture that we have resisted or not embraced fully in our own devotional lives. As we approach Easter, we have the opportunity to renew our devotion and love for Jesus, our compassion as we see him led to the cross, our gratitude to him as he hangs and dies there, and our wonder and joy as he returns to us – for really, what have we to offer, but these things?
What was Mary thinking? We can only guess by her actions. What are we called to think as we draw near to Holy Week? If this gospel story reminds us of our love and devotion to God and his son, if it reminds us of our call to service to others, and if it points us to the fragrant victory of life over death, then we are well prepared for the miracle of Easter.