Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there.
Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.
Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
We’re turning to John’s Gospel today, which, quite frankly, is a little unnerving for me, as I find John’s Gospel more difficult to deal with than the other three
John retells the story of Jesus in such a way that things are rarely as they appear to be. Jesus speaks of being born ‘from above’ and seems to be talking about some sort of re-birthing, but He’s not (John 3). He speaks of ‘living water’ and people start looking for a well, but they’re on the wrong track (John 4). Jesus tells the crowds ‘my flesh is food indeed!’, and most of His audience shake their heads and go home, and we’re left wondering too (John 6)!
Personally I prefer Luke’s Gospel, as it is much more straightforward. In Luke’s Gospel we get explanations of some of the parables, lest we miss the point, and Jesus speaks unambiguously about our need to pour ourselves out for the poor and needy, whereas John quotes Jesus as saying, “the poor you will always have with you”!
There’s much that is recorded in John’s Gospel that is not as it first appears to be, much that is mysterious, ambiguous, unsettling. Our scene in John 12 though opens with Jesus attending a meal, and what could be more straightforward than that?
Indeed, while there were a lot of strange and wonderful things about the Lord Jesus, one very ordinary thing about Him was that He had to eat! And while he was able to speak in a way that others couldn’t speak and pray in a way that got results others didn’t get and perform miracles in a way that other just couldn’t, it appears that when it came to eating and drinking, He was exactly like the rest of us.
Even so, with Jesus you come to expect that unexpected, and the presence of Lazarus at table with Jesus that night should serve as a tip-off that nothing could remain stable for too long with Jesus in the room!
Lazarus, you may remember, had been dead only a few days earlier – so dead in fact that when Jesus asked for the stone to be rolled back from the tomb, the ever-practical Martha said, “but Lord, he stinketh!” (King James Version). Well, now he stinketh no more but instead has a hearty appetite and is at table with the family!
And you’ll remember, I trust, the reaction of the religious authorities to this amazing miracle? They held a party in Jesus’ honour, didn’t they? They organised a ceremony and gave Him the key to the city! They proclaimed a day of prayer and thanksgiving for the wonderful new things that God was doing in their midst NOT! Rather, we are told, it was the Lazarus incident that made them resolve to kill Jesus.
We’ve trod this path before, but I suspect that there may still be some of us who find it hard to believe that the religious establishment could get in a murderous rage over the wonderful gift of new life to Lazarus. After all, isn’t that what we religious people are on about – healing, forgiveness and new life?
No. That’s what we’re supposed to be on about, but if you look historically at religion in our society, you’ll find that religion generally functions as a form of social control.
Religion is ‘the opiate of the masses’, as Marx put it. It keeps people in their place and helps them to transfer any frustrations they might have with the government to their inward struggles with guilt and sin.
And so you can’t have charismatic preachers like Jesus moving about and functioning completely outside of the accepted channels, destabilising society and challenging the accepted order by preaching on hillsides and raising dead people!
We look for a quiet, peaceful life, with predicability and order, where nothing can be lost that is not insured, and where every mishap is balanced by an appropriate form of compensation, where people know who they are and where they belong, where lepers stay in the lovely leper colonies that we built for them, and where aunt Sally, as much as we all loved her, stays in the ground where we put her!
The role of religion is to provide stability and comfort in an often chaotic world, is it not? Well …, not the religion of Jesus, so it would seem, for nothing is as it seems with Jesus, who turns out not to be quite the ‘Prince of Peace’ that we might have thought He was, for every time He enters a scene, there is always ensuing conflict!
And it doesn’t take long at this dinner party before the chaos breaks out, this time through the surprising appearance of Mary, pouring a ludicrously expensive jar of perfume over Jesus’ feet, and then wiping His feet with her hair!
Is this Mary Magdalene – former sex-worker – going a little bit overboard in a misguided attempt to show affection to her Lord? No, this is Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, respectable disciple of Jesus and co-host of the dinner.
What exactly was going through her mind? What was she trying to achieve? Where did she get the perfume, and why did she pour it on Jesus’ feet rather than on his head or neck?
I don’t pretend to be an expert when it comes to perfume, but I do know that the first places you normally put perfume are on your neck and on the inside of your wrist.
The latter spot, I assume, goes back to the days when it was appropriate to pick up a girl by putting her in a headlock. She might struggle at first, but after a little while, you’ll hear a more resigned voice, saying, ‘hmm … is that Brut 33 you’re wearing?’
My tip for the young blokes here is to mix in just a little bit of chloroform in with the perfume on the wrist, and by the time she’s out of the headlock and realises what she’s doing, you’ll be married with two kids. It worked for me with Ange anyway.
At any rate, I don’t want to distract from this serious, if mysterious, scene in the house of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, where we see this strange yet wonderful act of Mary’s, at a table where there was a bizarre blend of friendship and love and life and death with the erotic and the domestic!
Judas says, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor”, and we perk up, because that’s what we would have said!
What are we doing, spending all this money on a church restoration project, when there are still thousands dying each day of starvation, and when the young people of our own area are still in such great need of support? These slate tiles should be sold and the money give to the poor!
If only life were that simple, for indeed, things are not always as they appear. Judas, who seems to care about the poor, doesn’t really care much at all whereas Jesus, who appears somewhat nonchalant in His response, “The poor you will always have with you”, we know full well truly does care!
Things are not always as they appear, and it is easy to misunderstand Jesus, just as it is easy to misread Judas, just as the act of Mary itself can be interpreted a number of ways. At one level she is simply washing and perfuming Jesus’ feet, but at another level, Jesus tells us, she is in fact preparing Him for His burial!
Now, I’m not going to conclude this sermon with a simple, ‘and the moral of this story is ..’ type of ending. That would not be doing justice to the mysterious nature of the scene, nor to the way the Gospel writer presents Jesus as an elusive figure.
Indeed, when Jesus says, “you will not always have me with you”, I do wonder whether we ever really ‘had’ Him, at least in the sense of had Him where we wanted Him?
We like to think that we have Jesus all sorted out, all packaged up, so that we can take him with us wherever we go and show Him off to people. But we know full well really that it’s not we who take Jesus places, but Jesus who takes us places! He leads this dance. He is the one who speaks, heals, raises up and saves, though so often we barely understand what He is doing.
There is much that is mysterious about the Lord Jesus, just as there is much that is difficult to pin down in this and similar passages in John’s Gospel. The characters are elusive, their words often have double meanings, what they say often does not match what they do.
And yet there is one thing that is totally unambiguous in this story – one thing that is entirely obvious and not open to interpretation, and that is what is found, not in the words but in theactions of Mary, which were unambiguously an act of love.
Mary loved Jesus, and as she throws herself at the feet of Jesus, washes, perfumes and massages him, we see clearly just how much she loves Him – unselfconsciously, perhaps evenshamelessly, and certainly sacrificially.
Mary pours herself out in love for Jesus, just as He prepares to pour Himself out for her and for us! Her act anticipates His act. Her love is a foreshadowing of His love.
While the words of those who sat around that table are open to interpretation, her love is unambiguous. She showed it with her hands and with her hair!
It’s probably an urban myth, but I remember being told of a pastor who collected the offertory one Sunday morning, held it up to Heaven and said, “regardless of what we say of Thee, this is what we truly think of Thee. Amen”
I don’t know if that is true, but what is true is that it is acts of love and devotion, rather than mere words, that show where our heart truly is. We know the heart of this woman through her act of love, just as we know the heart of Christ through His cross.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, March 2007.