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.” (John 12:1-8)
We don’t often see Jesus depicted in scenes of settled domesticity. This is about as close as we get in the New Testament. We are in the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha – three of Jesus’ closest friends – and they’ve organised a special dinner for Jesus. The disciples are there. All Jesus closest friends are there. This is about as close as we get in the Gospels to a family portrait.
I don’t know about you, but I love family dinners. We had one last Friday night, partly in celebration of young Fran’s tenth birthday, though it all happened rather spontaneously.
We ended up at Pancakes at the Rocks in Darling Harbour – Ange and myself and all four children – and we had a lovely time, chatting, laughing and arguing about whether Jordan Peterson is a chauvinistic ratbag or a much-needed counter-balance to the twenty-first century feminist narrative.
In the case of Jesus’ family dinner, we’re not talking nuclear family, of course. If Jesus hadn’t disowned His blood relatives by this stage, He had certainly distanced Himself from them.
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)
Here they are – the mothers, brothers and sisters of Jesus. Some are by now good friends, and those friends are all disciples, and the disciples are all friends, and all are family!
Our Gospel scene today is taken from right near the end of Jesus’ earthly life, so this is a group of old friends. Long gone are the heady days of walking the shores of Galilee, looking for ‘fishers of men’. Long gone are the days of the Baptist and the ‘sermon on the mount’. These people have been living with each other for three years now. They are an established family. How would you describe this family of Jesus? ‘Dysfunctional’ is the first word that comes to mind for me.
I guess it depends on which part of the narrative you focus on, and I was listening to a preachers’ podcast this week where the host said very emphatically that when your congregation hears this passage, their attention will immediately be drawn to the statement of Jesus at the end of the passage – that “the poor you will always have with you” (John 12:8)
The host of the podcast, who is a pastor himself of course, said that this is the verse people always quote back at him when he’s doing a collection for the poor. “Hey, preacher, Jesus said that we’ll always have the poor with us, so what’s the point? I’m not wasting my money on a problem that is never going to go away”.
I suspect that this says more about the congregation that this guy pastors. I think I can say with some confidence that nobody takes that attitude in our community. Having said that, Jesus’ statement does seem jarring.
Just when you think the disciples have finally got the message – that, indeed, we don’t need extravagance and luxury, but that if we have wealth to spare, we should be sharing it with the poor – Jesus comes out with a statement like this!
It may help to know that Jesus is quoting – a quote would have been recognised by those who were with Him. The quote is from Deuteronomy 15:11: The poor you will always have with you”, and the latter part of the verse goes on to say, “Therefore I command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.””
In other words, according to the Deuteronomic code, the enduring reality of poverty means only that we have an ongoing responsibility to be generous.
Jesus is not contrasting the poor, who don’t matter, with Himself, who does. Rather, He’s contrasting the ongoing responsibility we have to the poor with an opportunity that is only going to be there for a moment and needs to be grasped – the opportunity for a special moment of love, as enacted by Mary.
It is Mary who grabs my attention in this passage, and I suspect that’s the case for most of us. She performs an act of love towards Jesus that is extravagant, passionate and intimate, but which also seems really inappropriate as there’s definitely a sexual dimension to it that might make us a little uncomfortable, and which surely must have made some of the others in the room uncomfortable.
“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)
Maybe if she hadn’t done the bit with her hair the scene might be open to a more conservative interpretation, but there’s no getting around the fact that this is exactly what happened. In a day when respectable women covered their heads altogether around men (just as many of our Muslim sisters do today by wearing hijabs) Mary not only let her hair down. She massaged Jesus’ feet with it!
I think that gritty detail is indisputable in this story, though many of the other details are open to dispute, as this story turns up in each of the four Gospel narratives, though with slight variations in each case.
The very fact that this story turns up in all four of the Gospel narratives should make us pause to consider how significant this incident is. Not many aspects of Jesus life make it into all four Gospels.
In terms of the countless miracles of Jesus, only one miracle makes it into all four Gospels – the feeding of the five thousand. The Christmas story (of Jesus’ birth) only turns up in two of the four Gospels. Indeed, there’s only a proper resurrection narrative in three of the four Gospels, but this anointing of Jesus is remembered in detail in all four!
Mind you, in the other three Gospels the woman who does the anointing has no name, and in Luke’s Gospel, she seems to be branded as a sex-worker!
In Luke, the scene takes place in the home of Simon, the Pharisee, and we’re told that “when the Pharisee who had invited [Jesus] saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)
Does this mean that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, was a sex-worker? Surely not? It is possible, of course, that there was more than one anointing, with multiple women letting their hair down but this is unlikely. More likely, I’d suggest, is that the woman who performed this act of love came to be identified as a sex- worker because good girls just don’t do this sort of thing.
There’s no denying that this was a self-consciously sensual act. What was going through Mary’s mind at the time? We have no idea. What does this imply about her relationship with Jesus? Again, we have no idea.
Was Jesus embarrassed by Mary’s actions? Was He gritting His teeth, or at least wishing that she hadn’t done it all quite so publicly? If so, He doesn’t let on. On the contrary, Jesus defends Mary against her detractors, represented by Judas in this case – someone who most definitely is a dysfunctional member of the family.
Interestingly, Judas doesn’t deride Mary for being shameless but for being wasteful, though it’s hard to know exactly what was going through his mind.
The Gospel writer, of course, thinks he knows exactly what was going through Judas’ mind – namely, that Judas was thinking about the money only because he was a thief. I’m guessing though that if Judas had still been around to defend himself when John’s Gospel was written, he might have asked that his questioning of Mary’s extravagance be interpreted a little more generously.
There we have it – this snapshot of the family of Jesus at rest. It’s a bit like one of those pictures you get when you have a family dinner and you ask one of the restaurant staff to take a picture of you all at table so that you can post the image up on Twitter for the whole world to see (something I totally forgot to do last Friday night).
Jesus didn’t have Twitter, of course, and yet this snapshot made it to the top of the social media anyway by getting featured in all four Gospels, and Jesus even predicted how many ‘likes’ Mary would receive.
In Mark’s version of this story (which is probably the first one written), Jesus is recorded as saying “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:9)
In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus goes even further, saying of the woman “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Matthew 26:10), which is something I don’t think Jesus ever says about anybody else ever.
This anointing is clearly a critical moment in the New Testament, as it was clearly a critical moment in Jesus’ family life and a critical moment for Jesus Himself! The question is ‘why?’ What makes this act – as simple and as ephemeral as it was – such a pivotal moment in the greater Gospel narrative? I think the answer may be that this is really the only instance in the Scriptures where one of us – one of the disciples of Jesus – actually tries to give something back to Him!
We are familiar with the New Testament narrative. It’s the story of Jesus, and it’s the story of God’s love for the world, demonstrated for us and made real for us in Jesus, and on the whole, the love-traffic (so to speak) is all one-way.
As the Gospel-writer, John, himself says in his first letter, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) The New Testament is the story of God’s love for us and not a story of our love for God. Yet in this story – in the story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany, one of us does something beautiful for Him!
I think this story is unique in the New Testament. I couldn’t think of any other instance in the Gospels where one of us tries love Jesus back.
There’s the story of the women who go to embalm Jesus’ body post-crucifixion, of course, but that was when Jesus was dead, and people always think well of the dead. This event took place while Jesus was still very much alive and moving, and Mary’s action was risky, and it was flawed, and in many ways it was ‘human, all too human’ (to use Nietzsche’s phrase) yet she was clearly genuine.
Perhaps Mary didn’t really know what she was doing, and maybe she had a lot of confused feelings mixed up inside of her, and I suspect that if she’d told Lazarus or Martha what she was planning on doing (assuming that she did actually plan it) they probably would have tried to talk her out of it. Even so, this intimate and sacrificial action was a genuine pouring out of love for Jesus, and Jesus says, “Leave her alone … She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Matthew 14:6)
Mary is our representative, not because she is the ideal representation of what love for God should look like, Mary is as confused as the rest of us. She is our representative because she was willing to let loose her passion for Jesus.
Welcome of the family of Jesus. Yes, it’s a dysfunctional family in many ways. It’s a family with people like Judas in it – people who say the right thing but whose hearts are far from right – and it’s a family with people like Mary in it – people who do weird and embarrassing things, but whose hearts really are in the right place. And then there’s the rest of us, doing our best to sound as right as Judas but to love as genuinely as Mary. Welcome to the family.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 7th of April, 2019.