Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 3, 2022
John 12:1-8 Commentary
Comments, Questions, and Observations
Jesus is anointed around the time of Holy Week in each of the gospels, but the details of each account are markedly different. Here in the Gospel of John, it occurs earlier in the timeline, before Jesus enters Jerusalem for Passover. In fact, John’s telling of the event is directly connected to the last time that Jesus was at this particular house—another time when death was the central subject. The last time Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus were all together, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11).
It is Lazarus’ resurrection that needs to be kept firmly in our minds as we read this week’s lectionary text. Too often, when we read the anointing story we forget that just days earlier, Jesus raised the four-days-dead Lazarus from the tomb. Just days earlier it wasn’t the lovely aroma of nard that filled the space, but the stench of death and loss that hovered all around. Mary and Martha each shared their pain and grief with Christ, each were comforted as Jesus wept with them. And then Jesus did the impossible and showed himself to be greater than death.
If we remember who these people gathered at this particular dinner are, what they have seen and felt, what they have been confronted by, then we will have no issue understanding what motivated Mary to offer her loving sacrifice.
The Lazarus resurrection narrative in John 11 doesn’t include any of the family’s response; instead, the story jumps in chapter 11 straight to the crowd’s response and the danger growing for Jesus and his public ministry. Might we read this anointing story as the way the family, specifically Mary, decided to respond to the gift of life that Jesus gave her beloved brother Lazarus? The Gospel writer John clearly wants us to, reminding us at the beginning of the Lazarus story that Mary is “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 11.2), thereby directly connecting the two events in his readers’ minds.
Mary anoints Jesus as the one in whom death becomes life. In Jesus Christ, death becomes life.
Mary watched it happen for Lazarus. Martha heard Jesus say that he was the resurrection and life before he raised Lazarus. And, Lazarus is living, breathing proof of Jesus’ power to command the destiny of death. This is a truth this household knows well. This truth has pervaded and overwhelmed this family’s days and nights. There is no ignoring someone who was dead but is alive again.
It has become a source of danger for not just Jesus, but for them as well… Evil wants to snuff out proof of its inability to challenge the Good God of Life—isn’t that what Judas is also doing when we hypocritically complains about wasting the monetary value of the nard? Judas wants to diffuse the power of this beautiful moment, deflate the intensity of the meaning, try to snuff out the beautiful aroma in order to make Mary the “bad guy.”
Mary doesn’t care what he thinks. Mary doesn’t care about what anyone in that room thinks—besides Jesus, that is. She rejects all of the “honourable” ways of expressing her gratitude and love to him. She is a single woman who not only touches an adult man, she lets down her hair in order to use it as a cleaning rag, mopping up the nard that she has poured on his feet. In that time and place, letting down your hair, sharing physical touch, these were meant for the confines of marriage.
It seems to me that there is no established protocol for saying thank you for resurrection. Lazarus opens his home to Jesus; Martha does what she does best, serving Jesus and his crew, each sharing with Jesus what they can. For her part, Mary breaks social protocol and anoints Jesus with costly perfume. The aroma of this act fills the space, inviting everyone there to participate in its beauty. Mary’s personal act of worship becomes an experience of blessing for each dinner guest to witness and participate in. Those who are not able to see it are those whose hearts are bent on evil.
Even the act of anointing Jesus’ feet is symbolic. Whereas kings are anointed on the head, the dead are anointed on the feet as part of their preparation for burial. Did Mary know that Jesus was going to die soon, or was she proclaiming what she knew to be true: that Jesus is the one in whom death becomes life—the conqueror of death? Perhaps it was both: that Jesus is the King who conquers death and he is preparing to die as part of establishing his Kingdom. Did Mary understand the paradox that God planned to defeat death and evil once and for all by willingly submitting to death—an act the world was invited to witness and participate in?
Exegetes and preachers often see the symbolism of the nard as a prophetic act. Mary pours out costly perfume, a precursor to what Jesus is about to do. In the words of Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Jesus is the bottle: “This bottle will not be held back to be kept and admired. This precious substance will not be saved. It will be opened, and used, at great price. It will be raised up and poured out for the life of the world, emptied to the last drop.”
And to that very last drop, Jesus is the one in whom death becomes life. The beautiful aroma of his offering continues to fill the earth, blessing us and inviting us in to participate.
Each of the four gospels has an account of Jesus being anointed by a woman while at a dinner. The details in each case are noticeably different and there is not consensus as to whether this is one event depicted with four different emphases, or at least two separate events. The harmonization of all of the accounts as one occurrence seems to first appear in the works of Bishop Gregory the Great (c. 6th century), who believed that it was Mary Magdalene who anointed Jesus—even though none of the accounts say it was her. Further, Mary Magdalene and Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, are not the same person. It’s best to not try to put the different accounts together as you preach, and to instead focus on the details that make the accounts different from one another. In John, that detail is the clear connection to the Lazarus resurrection narrative.
John says that the aroma of the nard filled the room, implicitly communicating how the anointing became a blessing to those who (besides Judas) witnessed it. It is a significant reminder that beauty pervades, expands, spreads, and blesses. The gift of beauty and love goes beyond the bounds of its initial event and recipients. But, as Judas shows, we have to have a heart beating for beauty and love rather than selfish ambition or vain conceit if we want to be able to see and share in it.
When it comes to the way that beauty captures us, there are plenty of parallels to draw upon. From the emotional response to a piece of art, to the way a video of a random act of kindness goes viral, we know that beauty expands. Even the example of dearly beloved Betty White’s passing just shy of her 100th birthday points to it. In honour of a beautiful life well-lived and witnessed by fans around the world, a grassroots “Betty White Challenge” went viral, raising funds for animal shelters (an issue near to White’s heart). Through Facebook’s giving platform alone, a reported $12.7 million was raised. A beautiful life, expanded through death.
I bet if we paused for a moment, we each could name the people or expressions of beauty that have personally pervaded our hearts and drawn us into deeper awareness of God’s goodness. I also bet we could name the times when our sin, like Judas’ did, made us blind to beauty.
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