April 3, 2022
Picture the scene. Jesus and his disciples have come to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. It is six days before the Passover; to clarify, it is six days before Jesus’ crucifixion. The plot to arrest and have him killed is already underway; and Jesus and his disciples are coming back into the public sphere after a few days of hiding. As the Gospel of John tells the story, what precipitated the plot to kill Jesus was his raising of Lazarus.
So Jesus chooses to emerge from hiding for this event, what we may conclude was a celebratory dinner, welcoming Lazarus back into the land and community of the living; and to thank Jesus for bringing him back from the dead.
This celebration, this dinner party takes place against the backdrop of the intensifying opposition to Jesus. With Passover six days away, Jesus and his disciples are going to Jerusalem to be a part of that ritual celebration. It is a time of increased tension and possible violence. Passover recalls God’s deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery and oppression and the parallels with the Jewish community of Palestine living in territory occupied by Rome was not lost on anyone. It’s a moment fraught with tension.
But it’s also a time of celebration. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and his family treats their dear friend Jesus and his disciples to a dinner party. We might imagine that in addition to the family and the presence of Jesus and his disciples, there are others in attendance, townspeople who may be curious to see this man who was raised from the dead.
And suddenly, in the midst of the conversation and dining; something unexpected happens. Mary takes a pound of costly nard, drops to her knees, anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume, and wipes his feet with her hair. It is an extravagant gesture in so many ways. First, we’re told that it costs 300 denarii; that’s roughly equivalent to a year’s wages for a day laborer. Again, to put it in terms we might understand—a year’s income at the minimum wage is currently around $15000. As we know all too well, that’s not enough to live on, not a living wage, but an awful lot of money for a jar of perfume.
Then there’s the fact that she did this in public and wiped his feet with her hair. It’s an extravagant, inappropriate, intimate gesture that crosses boundaries of host and guest, male and female. But there’s something else. The gospel writer describes her actions using the exact same language he will use in the next chapter when he describes Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples. This points us forward to the Last Supper and all that will come and underscores the connection between her act and Jesus’ death and burial that he himself mentioned.
There’s another detail in the story that directs us elsewhere in the gospel. John tells us that the perfume filled the whole house. That’s quite a difference from the smells that are mentioned in chapter 11, at Lazarus’ tomb. When Jesus told them to roll the stone away from his tomb, Martha says, “Lord already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” The scent of the perfume overwhelms whatever lingering odors there might be in the house.
This extravagant gesture, and then the reaction. In Mark’s version of the story; the response comes from some of those in attendance at the meal. In Matthew’s version, it’s the disciples. Here, John puts the criticism in the mouth of Judas alone, and attributes it, not to any sincerity on Judas’ part, but blames it on his greed and thievery.
Jesus’ response is a defense of Mary’s actions—she purchased the perfume for his burial. And then the sentence made familiar by the endless debates around our concern and care for the poor: “You always have the poor with you; you do not always have me.”
In spite of this story being very closely tied to the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, in spite of the fact that John has very carefully woven it into the intricate tapestry of his gospel, there’s a certain timelessness to the themes and the conflict that is depicted here. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? What constitutes a faithful response to God’s call to us?
On one level, Mary’s response stands in for all of those over the centuries who have sought to be faithful to God through worship and beauty: the splendor of church architecture; the beautiful vestments, the music that lifts our souls heavenward.
On the other hand, there is the call to serve the poor; the cry for justice, the desire to help those in need. In a time when there are limited resources, the question of how best to allocate those resources is an important one. We began Lent on Ash Wednesday hearing these words from the Prophet Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
All of which seems to be a clear repudiation of religious acts like fasting in favor of works of mercy and justice. Jesus’ words, as ambiguous as they might seem, are not necessarily a repudiation of such efforts. He may be saying in effect, “Look, you will have plenty of opportunity to serve the poor, they’re not going anywhere; but I’m here for only a few more days.”
I would like to offer yet another way of thinking about this act. I mentioned earlier that John uses the exact same verb to describe Mary’s actions of wiping Jesus’ feet as he will use in the next chapter to describe Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples. There, as he offers an explanation of his actions to the disciples, he says:
“ if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Mary is foreshadowing Jesus’ own actions. She is also modeling discipleship, what it means to follow Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we are certainly called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and the like. We are also called to serve each other, and to serve Christ. Our worship, our prayers, our music, our beautiful space bring us into God’s presence even as we experience that presence in word and sacrament. To linger in Christ’s presence, to spiritually anoint and dry his feet helps us deepen the intimacy of our experience of Christ, to express our love, and to be touched by his love.
As we approach Holy Week, as we come closer to Golgotha, to the cross and the tomb, may we find ways of experiencing and deepening Christ’s presence in our hearts and our lives. As our relationship deepens, as our experience of Christ expands, may it strengthen our resolve and inspire us to work for justice and to care for those in need.