Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume.
Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.)
Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
Many Jews learned that he was there. They came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. The chief priests decided that they would kill Lazarus too. It was because of Lazarus that many of the Jews had deserted them and come to believe in Jesus. – John 12:1-11 (CEB)
These eleven verses could probably be a holiday movie about family dysfunction. You try to get together for a nice dinner, and pretty soon everyone is yelling and hurling insults and judgments at each another. Mary starts it going when she anoints Jesus with a ridiculous amount of nard in the middle of dinner. Nard was expensive. Judas tells us it was worth a year’s wages for an average day laborer. Using MIT’s average of an annual living wage, a current estimate of the value of this nard is $68,000.
Mary doesn’t just dab a little on Jesus’ feet, but essentially bathes them in it, so much so that she needs to dry his feet off, which she does with her hair. Mary didn’t “accidently” spill a jar of nard on Jesus’ feet. This was an intentional act that Jesus tells us she did in preparation for his burial.
And now we remember Mary has just recovered from one burial. The trauma of Lazarus’ death (even if he was resurrected four days later) and the expected trauma of Jesus’ death may have led Mary to such an extravagant act. She may be tending to her grief by doing for Jesus what she wasn’t able to do for Lazarus.
We have seen a lot of grief in our lives. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that the grief of others makes us uncomfortable. It has its time, but mostly it should be taken care of in private. It shouldn’t be a public spectacle or be a rash act. It shouldn’t make us be involved, like this smell of nard that will follow us for days.
Therefore, those of us standing around watching are understandably uncomfortable. This woman, touching the feet of a man who is not her husband, is a scandal. We might let it go, because we know Mary and Jesus and that their relationship is platonic. Could someone help her up from the floor? Then she lets down her hair. And the scent of the nard? It’s giving us a headache. Mary needs to be less emotional.
We might not use the words of Judas, but we, too, say, “Enough already!” Possibly we’ve said or thought the same about others:
- It’s time to move on.
- You should remember the good times.
- Stop crying and be strong.
However, everyone’s grief is personal, and though our social norms tell us we should also keep it quiet, that’s not always the healthiest way to respond to grief. Time doesn’t actually heal our wounds — facing our loss, and the anger and fear that accompany it, will.
We’re told Martha was busy serving Lazarus and the others. We know from our previous encounter with these sisters that this is how Martha interacts. Generous hospitality and serving others are an act of love for her that likely also help her process her grief.
For Mary, her way is sitting at the feet of Jesus — and in this case, anointing them. Mary is judged for her extreme action, but she is likely being the most honest person in the room as they eat with one who has died and lived again and another who has said he will do the same. It is not in ignorance or weakness that Mary acts, but with the courage of truth and love.
Of course, her actions cannot be ignored, and Judas rebukes her.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “The lady doth protest too much.” The same is true with judgment. The more we judge others, the more we are likely judging ourselves. Jesus exposes this truth when he responds to Judas’ complaints. John has made it clear that Judas is a bad guy — a betrayer, liar, and thief. But this is not on what Jesus calls him out.
Instead, Jesus points out our hypocrisy. No one commented on how the food they were sharing could be given to those hungrier than they. No one suggested that they invite the hungry in to eat with them. No one cared that Mary owned this expensive jar of nard. Judgement came when she wasted it on Jesus.
Having a year’s worth of wages in our savings account is considered a good thing. And it is — there is nothing wrong with earning and saving money. But if we spend a whole year’s wages on something, it seems extravagant. The wealth is now there for all to see, and it’s easy to judge the person for not giving some of it away to those in need.
But even if some or all was given away, we still judge the choices. If you give to the arts, some will think you should give it to the homeless. And if the money is given to the homeless, maybe in the form of twenty bucks to someone who asks for it on the street, we want to know if they will put it to good use.
Mary not only had the right but also the courage to spend her money on Jesus, and we don’t like it. John tells us Judas is the only one who complained, but Matthew and Mark tell us others did so as well. It might have been shock that an unmarried woman had this type of wealth. (BTW, Her brother is the head of the household. Did he give her permission to do this?)
Or maybe they judge Mary for her generosity because inwardly they judge themselves for not being so? They are the disciples; shouldn’t they have been the one to honor Jesus in this way if it was right to do so?
Jesus tells them to let her alone, and oh, by the way, the poor are always among us. Jesus tells them to stop judging Mary and reflect on the reality that we will always have the opportunity to be courageously generous. And we will for as long as there is a lack of a living wage for all people.We will always have the opportunity to be courageously generous. #Jesus #Love Click To Tweet
While all this is happening in Bethany, tension builds in Jerusalem. The timing of this whole Lazarus-resurrection debacle couldn’t have come at a worse time for the religious leaders. Afraid of what they have to lose, the most courageous decision the religious leaders believe they can make is to kill both Jesus and Lazarus.
The religious leaders have judged this a zero-sum situation. They cannot accept Lazarus’ resurrection as anything but a threat. There find no viable scenario where acknowledging Jesus as Christ and changing some of their practices could offer an acceptable outcome.
We, too, often see the good fortune of others as a threat. It’s as if to recognize and the celebrate the success of others will result in an equal or greater reduction of our own value. We twist the success of others to become a threat to ourselves: if they are more, then I must become less. We believe the lie of a zero-sum paradigm. It takes courage to cast it aside and do better.
The Reverend Denise Anderson, Coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice with the Presbyterian Mission Agency and former co-moderator of the General Assembly, writes
“Courage” derives from the Latin word “cor,” which means “heart.” When we consider the full Palm Sunday picture, these are frightful times. So much is happening that is both hopeful and terrifying. Tensions and tears are plentiful. But the Word will remind us to “take heart.”
Times are always both hopeful and terrifying because change is constant. Our passage today is a tale of courage and fear. It is a story of where we place our faith. It is lesson asking us whether we are willing to act with heart even when we are unsure, ashamed, or afraid.
Just a few days after this dinner party, Jesus will say to his disciples, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
Even though we still have a week of tension and tears, we know that Easter is a celebration that the courage to risk everything doesn’t end in death but the fullness of the resurrected life. Our life, our faith are not a zero-sum proposition. Jesus has conquered our fear, shame, and the zero-sum paradigm.
Let us believe in the hope of Easter and find the courage to give generously and rejoice in the accomplishments of others. For each time we draw on the courage Jesus gives, the Kingdom of God comes closer. Amen.
Jesus, it is always easier to judge others than look inward at ourselves. And it is easy to talk ourselves out of generosity because we fear it might cost us too much. But these are things bound in a world where five loaves and two fish can’t feed a multitude and walking on water is impossible.
Free us of that which holds us in fear and empower us with a courage that lives out our belief that love always multiplies. Give us hope and heart to live faithfully in your name. Amen.
 Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9.
 Rev. T. Denise Anderson in her commentary on John 12:1-19 in A Sanctified Art’s Lenten series “Again & Again.”
 John 16:33 (NRSV).