Six 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 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.” 9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:1-11)
I heard tell of a dinner party that took place to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of a particular couple, and all their family and friends were there, including the couple’s only daughter – now a middle-aged woman herself – and as the evening progressed and as speeches were made, the daughter was struck by the way that her father always referred to her mother as ‘dear’ or ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’. When she got a moment alone with him she said to him, “Dad, I want to tell you that I am really touched by the way you always refer to mum using affectionate those terms – ‘sweetie’ and ‘dear’ and ‘honey’”, to which her father replied, “well … it might be different if I could just remember her damn name!”
Things are not always as they appear. This is something that we are all familiar with. I don’t mean to suggest that we are all familiar with forgetting our partner’s name (though others who have taken as many hits to the head as I have taken may be struggling in that department) but I suspect we are all familiar with those sorts of dinner parties where things are warm and friendly on the surface but where underneath there are a whole lot of other things going on.
Our Gospel reading today depicts just such a dinner party – a lovely cordial gathering in Bethany that was put together for Jesus by three of his best friends – Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus.
Lazarus, if you remember, was the man Jesus famously raised from the dead, and it appears that this dinner may indeed have been organised, at least in part, to celebrate that incredible incident, as Lazarus appears to be seated alongside Jesus.
At any rate, however we construct the background to this particular party, it had all the hallmarks of a genteel and festive occasion. But things happened that night at the home of Mary and Martha – things that revealed what was really going on beneath the surface of this warm and festive occasion!
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. (John 12:3)
This is the incident that completely transforms the party!
What was Mary doing?!
In terms of appropriate behaviour for a hostess, her actions are as difficult to excuse as they are to explain.
This story of a woman anointing the feet of Jesus with ointment and wiping His feet with her hair turns up in all four of our Gospels, and no wonder it stuck in the minds of each of those who recorded the stories of Jesus. The incident is outrageous!
It would still be outrageous if it happened today. I won’t bother trying to get you to imagine a similar thing happening at one of our church barbeques, with some local girl coming up and pouring ointment all over the feet of me or one of the wardens as it is ridiculous to think that such a thing could ever happen! Do you think it was any less ridiculous and unimaginable in first century Judea?
What was she thinking? We are told that Mary had around half a kilo of ‘real nard’, which is intended to distinguish it from the fake nard that you could pick up at the Bethany markets for a couple of shekels. Real nard apparently came from the mountains of northern India which explains why it was so expensive, and it’s suggested that the amount Mary poured out that night would have been worth the equivalent of a year’s wages for a normal working person!
Mary’s action is outrageously exorbitant, though at the same time it is a bit cheap, or at least she seems to be cheapening herself in the way she performs – falling all over Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair!
As I say, it would be unimaginably outrageous were this to happen in the context of one of our own formal dinners. Can you imagine how this would go down in a culture where women were never permitted to let their hair down in public?!
I note that this year they’ve had to re-route the Palestinian Marathon so that it by-passes Gaza as the Hamas authorities in Gaza, being conservative religious people, will not permit men and women to run together! They weren’t permitted to run together in Jesus’ day either! They weren’t permitted to run together and they weren’t permitted to even speak together in public. Women certainly weren’t permitted to fall all over a man’s feet in public and rub them with their hair!
In Luke’s retelling of this story (or, at least we assume it is a retelling of the same incident) the woman is unnamed and simply referred to as ‘a sinner’ (Luke 7:36) – the assumption being that she is a sex-worker. This would be the natural assumption you would make if you saw a young woman behave in this way!
Was this something that happened spontaneously? Surely Mary hadn’t planned on behaving like this? Was it just her gratitude to Jesus for having restored the life of her beloved brother or was it more than that? Was she besotted with Jesus?
The latter explanation seems intuitively attractive of course, and it fits with the earlier story we get of Mary (in Luke 10:38-42), sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to His teachings. We can imagine her sitting there, starry-eyed, besotted with Jesus.
Poor thing! She was only young. How could she resist falling in love with Jesus? Even so, surely she could have shown a little greater self-control in the way she expressed that love.
Now I appreciate that I am starting to speculate, and perhaps we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about Mary’s emotional state. Even so, Mary’s actions are hard to understand, and the only thing harder to fathom in this story than Mary’s outrageous expression of love is why Jesus doesn’t put a stop to it for the sake of Mary and for the sake of the rest of her family (even if He wasn’t worried about His own reputation)!
The reaction of the disciples is a little more predictable. Judas is credited as being the one to actually voice disapproval, though I imagine that each one of the disciples of Jesus would have been squirming in his seat.
Judas – ever the one for political correctness – makes no reference to the sensual nature of Mary’s actions but only refers to her outrageous extravagance: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5)
Judas’ comment once again reveals that there are things going on beneath the surface of this dinner party. There are tensions between Jesus and the disciples, and there were obviously tensions between the disciples themselves!
The Gospel writer adds a parenthetical comment of his own at this point, explaining that Judas didn’t really give a damn about poor but was interested in keeping the money for himself, and this comment does indeed help fill out the picture of greed and betrayal that was underlying the happy party-scene. Even so, this should not distract us from the fact that Judas’ question in and of itself was a pretty good one! Indeed, if it hadn’t been for John’s comments and for Jesus’ response you’d be forgiven for thinking, ‘hey, the disciples are really starting to get the message!’
Why hadn’t this outrageously expensive perfume been sold and given the money to the poor? It’s a fair question, and Jesus’ response is (again) one that makes you squirm!
“The poor you will always have with you” says Jesus (John 12:8), and while it’s not exactly “let them eat cake” it does make Jesus look all of a sudden rather unconcerned for the plight of the suffering poor!
It’s probably helpful to realise, of course, that Jesus is quoting:
“The poor you will always have with you. Therefore I command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.”” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
Taken in this context, the statement “the poor you will always have with you” is not an attempt to dismiss the needs of the poor but is rather a reminder of the fact that the poor will still be there requiring our attention when the party is over, but that there is nonetheless a time for partying too!
The balance of Jesus in this regards is something that persons with workaholic tendencies like me really need to pick up on.
Characters like me like to think that we’re being Christlike when we work crazy hours without a break – ‘my Father in Heaven is working and I’m working too!’ (John 5:17) – but it’s worth remembering that Jesus didn’t develop His reputation as a glutton and a drunkard out of nothing (eg. Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34)!
The Son of God had a healthy appreciation of life and love and parties and, remarkably, was entirely open to outrageous displays of sensual love such as the one we read about today!
I suspect all of Jesus’ parties were a bit like that – a bit like what I imagine Loch Ness is like – calm and serene to the outside observer but with raging monsters everywhere, lurking just below the surface!
I’m not suggesting that Mary was one such raging monster, though she was a woman of raging passion, but there were other monsters there that night, and indeed one of them only comes to the surface right at the end of our narrative.
10 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:9-11)
This comment from John comes almost as a footnote to our narrative, but again it reminds us of some of the things that were going on in the background while Jesus was partying. Jesus and His friend were having a good time, but in the background there were people plotting on how they would kill Him, and Lazarus too!
The calculations of the religious authorities are cold and clinical – almost Nazi-like – as they make their decisions as to who will live and who must die, and the contrast with the spontaneous passion of Mary could not be greater!
These two figures – the passionate woman on the one hand and the clinical religious authorities on the other – represent two extremes in terms of the response people make to Jesus; the paradox being, of course, that it’s the seemingly godless woman who is our model of godly love and the pious religious leaders who embody demonic hatred and death.
Between these two extremes float the hapless disciples – some, like Peter, gradually growing to more closely imitate the saintly Mary, while others, like Judas, demonstrate their growing affinity with the establishment. And between these two archetypal extremes we 21st century disciples vacillate still!
This is the story within the story that we read today. Behind the relatively superficial story of partying and good times, a far more serious drama is being played out! Just beneath the surface there is a deeper narrative, and yet I believe that the key to really grasping our Gospel reading today is to recognise that beneath that deeper narrative there is a deeper narrative still!
For when we read this story, not simply in the context of the other dynamics that were operative at that party, but in the context of the broader story of the Gospel – of the broader story of what God was doing in and through Jesus at this point in history – we realise that beneath all the turmoil of darkness and betrayal and murder and passion and love and confusion … God is working His purpose out!
This whole scene takes place within a fortnight of the crucifixion, and things start to unravel really rapidly from this point on! Judas is going to do what he must do and the authorities are going to have their way and the disciples will flee and the women will weep and Jesus will be killed!
All the hidden agendas are coming to the surface and all the participants in this drama will play their part, but as the human actors each come to the end of their scripts at the crucifixion we discover that there has been another actor at work, or perhaps we should say ‘another agent directing the action!’ God has been working His purpose out in and through the blood and the suffering, and it is God’s script that is ultimately going to decide how the story ends!
Things are not always what they seem!
This isn’t just true of parties. It’s true of all of life! You can live life on the surface if you want and just enjoy the good times, but if you poke a little deeper you’ll uncover darkness and pain and passion and confusion, and that’s a scary place to be. But if you look a little deeper again … there’s a light shining in that darkness!
This is the Gospel. This is the Good News! This is the story behind our story, and this is our hope! For wherever our journey is taking us, in the end it will be God who determines how the story ends!
And we can have confidence in that. And that confidence can liberate us – liberate us to be more like the godly Mary and less like Judas; ever more capable of partying with Jesus in the way Jesus liked to party!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on March 17, 2013.