Meditation on John 12:1-8
March 13, 2016
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.’
Today, we reach a milestone in our ministry of just 5 months together–a baptism! Baptisms are times of joy and celebration in the life of the Church as we welcome the newest member into our family of faith. In baptism, the Church is refreshed and renewed by the same Spirit that marks, seals and claims as God’s own those being baptized. Baptizing baby Oscar will always be particularly meaningful to me because he is our first–together, in this place.
And today, we begin a new tradition at our church for our baptismal gifts. In addition to the beautiful banner a member of our congregation made for Oscar and his family, Oscar will receive a white baptism blanket, created by Heavenly Handmade, a crafting fellowship group of our congregation. Since we began meeting once or twice a month in January, the group of about 7 has knitted or crocheted the baptism blanket and 15 or more prayer shawls to give to people in need of God’s comfort and healing touch.
Each shawl or blanket is unique, a work of art, a labor of love! We use different patterns and yarns of a variety of colors, weights and textures. Some members of the group have been knitting or crocheting for years. Others, like me, have been crocheting just a little while and need more help. Still, I never feel like the little bit I can do isn’t good enough–because of the love and encouragement of this very special group of people. I am richly blessed! I feel almost guilty because of my joy when I am with them, as we labor with yarn, hook, and needles, creating something beautiful, for Christ’s sake.
We hear of another gift, given from a heart of love and gratitude, in our gospel lesson today. Mary of Bethany is the giver and Jesus the recipient at a dinner given in his honor at Mary’s family home. The joyful meal follows Jesus’ raising her brother, Lazarus, from the dead, after he was in the tomb for 4 days and the stench of death had already set in!
This passage is called the “anointing of Jesus,” and yet it wasn’t ordinary practice to anoint someone’s feet; it was usually their head or face. Jesus explains that Mary bought the perfume for his burial, presumably to prepare his body for the tomb. Her gift is worth a whopping 300 denarii — 300 silver pieces! This is about a year’s pay for average laborers, who receive only 1 denarii (or silver piece) for a day’s work.
This Mary could be confused with the unnamed “sinful” woman in Mark and Luke who weeps as she pours an alabaster jar of valuable perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her tears as he dines at Simon’s house. The first few times I read this passage in John this week, I mistakenly imagined Mary weeping, but she isn’t crying! She isn’t a so-called “sinful woman”–a lady of the night, like in Mark and Luke, seeking forgiveness for her sins. This is the faithful Mary whom Martha criticizes in Luke for just sitting at Jesus’ feet and hanging on his every word while Martha is doing all the work to get dinner ready. This is Mary who comes to Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb and kneels at his feet, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Only Jesus knows the loving, grateful heart that stirs Mary’s generous offering to Him. She chooses to give all that she is and from what she has– what is of great value to her society, a world that is supremely smelly by our standards. The climate is hot–without a/c or glass windows to keep out dirt, wind, heat and smells from neighbors’ herds of goats and sheep. There is no deodorant. No daily bathing with perfumed soap and treated water, no daily shampooing of the hair nor machine-washing clothes with powerful dirt and odor fighting detergents. No toilets or modern sewers. You get the idea.
The Greek word translated perfume (myron) usually refers to a perfume or ointment made from myrrh. Either as a dried powder or liquid, myron was made from a gummy resin from a low, shrubby balsam tree that grows in west-central South Arabia. It was used as incense and in cosmetics, perfume, medicine, and burial preparations. But John uses the word to mean simply perfume, for this myron is not myrrh. Verse 3 says, “Mary brought in a pound of expensive perfume made from real nard and anointed Jesus’ feet.” Nard or “spikenard” would be, for a woman living in Bethany–2 miles from Jerusalem– more exotic and difficult to acquire than myrrh. Nard is a fragrant oil derived from the root and spike of the nard plant, which today grows in the mountains of Northern India. Verse 3 continues, “Then she dried his feet with her hair, while the fragrance of the perfume filled the house.”
Mary’s gift was truly a fragrant offering to the Lord! It brings to mind the fragrant offerings of ancient Israel. Numbers 15:3 says, “And you present to the LORD food offerings from the herd or the flock, as an aroma pleasing to the LORD–whether burnt offerings or sacrifices, for special vows or freewill offerings or festival offerings….”
This passage in John also calls to mind 2 Cor. 2:4-6, when Paul refers to Christ’s followers as life-giving fragrance for the world: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”
Immediately following Mary’s extravagant gift, when the house fills with the beautiful scent, Judas Iscariot, one of the 12, responds angrily, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii (300 silver pieces) and the money given to the poor?’ Then, John interrupts with a rare narration to explain Judas’ motivation. Verse 6 says, “It was not because he was concerned for the poor that he said this, but because he was a thief. He kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” This foreshadows what will happen later in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Judas will betray Jesus for a mere 30 pieces of silver.
Mary doesn’t respond to Judas’ attack, just as the women who anointed Christ’s feet in Luke and Mark with their tears and expensive perfume say nothing in their own defense. But Jesus speaks up for Mary. He tells Judas, “Leave her alone!” Then Jesus makes a remark that has sometimes been misunderstood to mean that we shouldn’t bother to help people in need because there will always be people in need. Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you don’t always have me.”
The OT scripture Jesus is quoting actually means the opposite– that God commands us to care for people in need precisely because there will always be people in need. Deut. 15:11 says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
With Christ’s talk of not always being with them, the Lord is preparing those who love him–the faithful and not so faithful–for what is to come–the passion, his death on a cross for the sins of the world.
Friends, we live always in the shadow of the cross, but we also live in the presence of the risen Christ. Let us not become distracted by Judas’ unfaithfulness, lest we miss the call to faithful discipleship. May we remember Mary’s fragrant offering of all that she had and all that she was, in the midst of a world of treachery and betrayal–not just out in the world in which Jesus lived but amongst Christ’s own followers.
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, like Mary! The Lord welcomes us to come to Him just as we are. His grace covers all our sins! The gifts God has given us are meant to be shared with the Lord and God’s people. Don’t think you have nothing to give or that your gifts aren’t good enough! Maybe–like me learning crochet– you haven’t begun to discover all the gifts the Lord has given you to use for His sake! Our gifts are ALWAYS acceptable to the Lord, a fragrant offering, when they come from a heart of love and gratitude and a desire to be pleasing to Him.
Let us pray. Holy One, we thank you for your love and grace, always welcoming us to come to you, just as we are, and seek your face. Help us to trust you so that we are willing to be vulnerable, a fragrant offering of all that we are and all that we have, what is most valuable to us in this world. Thank you for the gift of faith and for sending your Son to show us the way back to you–through belief in His suffering work on a cross for our sakes. Thank you for claiming baby Oscar as your own by baptism and filling him with your Spirit. Please strengthen and guide him to walk in your ways. Empower us as the Church to support and encourage baby Oscar and his parents, Kara and Oscar, as they seek to nurture him in your love and grace. May he and all the other children of our church come to profess Christ as their Savior and live as his faithful followers all of their days. In your Son’s name we pray. Amen.