Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (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.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
As If Love Could Be Wasted
When you think back over your life, I wonder what you would identify as the most extravagant gifts you have received. There are different ways to define extravagance, of course, and not all of them have to do with money. I remember a wondrous birthday cake made by a friend in California, covered in tiny crystallized violets—my favorite flower since childhood. It wasn’t the money she’d spent that made it extravagant, but the skill, the time, the love that went into each tiny frosted blossom.
And then there is my coffee table, a simple Shaker design. It came on my 25th birthday, made by my husband from richly figured cherry. Lee chose an oval pattern so that our then-imaginary-children wouldn’t have to navigate sharp corners when they someday learned to walk. The base of legs attaches to the top through an ingenious system of pegs so that the whole piece can be easily disassembled, packed and moved to each new home. And he was clear from the outset that those hoped-for children would be free to race their cars on its surface; he could restore the finish.
When I think about the gifts that have meant the most to me, they have been—like that table—gifts that prepared me for what might be next, gifts that were tangible signs of hope, gifts that proved that the giver saw me—gifts that loved me into my future.
I wonder if it is possible to understand Mary’s gift that way.
Before John even introduces us to Mary, he tells us that Jesus loved this woman and her siblings, Martha and Lazarus. They were the kinds of friends who are family even before Lazarus became ill and died, before Jesus called him out of the tomb, before Lazarus was restored to life. The dinner John describes here in the 12th chapter may be the first time the friends have come together since Lazarus emerged from that tomb.
Jesus no longer walks about openly. Since Lazarus was raised, Jesus has been sequestered in a town called Ephraim. The plot to kill him has intensified as word of the miracle has spread. Crowds are speculating openly about whether he will dare to come to Jerusalem for the Passover. His very presence seems to threaten the fragile equilibrium of that occupied land.
So while there has to be a palpable sense of gratitude as the friends assemble around the table, the threat of death also hangs over this meal. Just six days before Passover, just two miles from the holy city, this gathering declares that Jesus will not give in to fear. The bold gesture would not have escaped the attention of his enemies.
It is during that dinner—wondering, perhaps, if it will be their last—that Mary gets up and pours copious, expensive, fragrant oil over Jesus’ feet. And then withholding nothing, she wipes off the abundance with her hair.
The act is foreign to us, but anointing was an ancient practice, with at least four purposes:
- Anointing was offered as a gesture of hospitality and care.
In an arid, dusty climate, skin stays thirsty.
- Anointing was offered as an enacted, embodied prayer
for healing when someone was lacking in strength.
- Anointing was offered as an act of consecration—
setting some one or some thing apart for holy purpose.
- Finally, bodies were anointed as preparation for burial.
In Jesus’ case, perhaps each meaning resonates.
But why anoint his feet? Anthropologists tell us that the people of this era and locale would have thought of three [physical] ‘zones of interaction’ with the world around [them].”
- A person’s feelings, thoughts and will were inseparably joined together and associated with the eyes and the heart;
- the capacity to communicate, to listen and respond, was linked to the ear and the mouth;
- and one’s agency, one’s capacity to act purposefully in the world was typified by the hands and the feet.
So when Mary tends and consecrates Jesus’ feet, in addition to demonstrating humility and love, it may be that she is preparing him for what he is about to do.
I can’t help wondering if, days later, the feet that were brutalized on the cross still bore the fragrance of that oil. I can’t help wondering if the scent still enveloped Mary every time she turned her head.
I purchased anointing oil the year I was ordained to ministry. Mine is an olive oil scented with frankincense and myrrh. I’ve carried the same supply with me ever since; it lasts a long time. I’ve anointed friends preparing for surgery, leaders preparing to serve, whole congregations at seminal moments, and more friends than I can count, as they prepared to die.
Not long ago, I diluted the oil. I decided the fragrance was too hard to wash off. For days I would taste it when I ate. The scent had become too powerful, too freighted.
I’ve been thinking about that this week, as I’ve worked with this passage. At some point in preparing for this service I had to acknowledge that I don’t want to go to the cross this year. I don’t want to look death in the face, and I don’t want to smell it. And so I have kept myself distracted through the holy days of Lent, waiting for the calendar to turn. Maybe it’s because some people I love are diminishing, and I don’t want to imagine the world without those wise, feisty, beloved souls.
My own reluctance gives me sympathy for those at the table in Bethany who resisted what lay ahead in Jerusalem. Perhaps such resistance played a role in Judas’ heart.
When the fragrance filled the room, he protested that it never should have been used—that the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Maybe, as John suggests, that’s greed, or maybe that’s a plea for things to go on as before. If selling resources for the sake of the poor was what they had done up to this point, why did things have to change?
Whether or not that suggestion feels persuasive to you, it’s vital that we reject any interpretation of this passage that suggests that Jesus is condoning neglect of the poor. Nothing in Jesus’ life or ministry would support that. Jesus seems to be making reference to a passage from Deuteronomy that says: “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth,” but all of his listeners would have known the second half of that verse. Like a tape playing in their heads, they would have heard: “I therefore command you, open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Jesus isn’t negating that verse; his whole life intensifies its demand. After all, this dinner takes place in Bethany, which can be translated House of the Poor. Maybe Jesus is saying “Love everyone like this. In God’s economy, love is never measured, never wasted.”
Mary gives us one glimpse of uncalculated love when she spills the perfume on his feet, but the real vision of uncalculated love will come days later in the form of a cross. Maybe Mary loved him into that future.
Karoline Lewis, of Luther seminary puts it something like this: “Do you know what… it feels like to love someone into their future, even a future that is uncertain, even a future that will mean suffering? And [do you know] what it means to be loved into your own? That without being loved into that future, you would have stayed where you were? [or not been ready for what was just over the horizon?]”
“I think Jesus took Mary’s love with him into Jerusalem. I think he acted out her love when he washed the feet of his disciples, especially when he washed the feet of Judas about to betray him and Peter who would deny him. I think he felt [that love] once again … on the cross….and I think … that love [followed him] into the tomb, [where, by the mercy of God, he was loved] into his future as the resurrection and the life.”
When Mary poured the oil on Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair, she loved him into his future. And when Jesus poured out his life, first on the streets of Palestine and then on the cross, he loved us into ours. Wherever you find yourself this morning, love paves the way ahead.
 Karoline Lewis’ phrase. See https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5309
 John 11:5
 John 11:54
 John 11:56
 Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998, 223
 Deuteronomy 15:11
 Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5309