Partying with Jesus (A sermon on John 12:1-11)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9When the great crowd of the 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. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:1-11)
I heard tell of a dinner party that took place to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of a particular couple, and all their family and friends were there, including the couple’s only daughter – now a middle-aged woman herself – and as the evening progressed and as speeches were made, the daughter was struck by the way that her father always referred to her mother as ‘dear’ or ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’. When she got a moment alone with him she said to him, “Dad, I want to tell you that I am really touched by the way you always refer to mum using affectionate those terms – ‘sweetie’ and ‘dear’ and ‘honey’”, to which her father replied, “well … it might be different if I could just remember her damn name!”
Things are not always as they appear. This is something that we are all familiar with. I don’t mean to suggest that we are all familiar with forgetting our partner’s name (though others who have taken as many hits to the head as I have taken may be struggling in that department) but I suspect we are all familiar with those sorts of dinner parties where things are warm and friendly on the surface but where underneath there are a whole lot of other things going on.
Our Gospel reading today depicts just such a dinner party – a lovely cordial gathering in Bethany that was put together for Jesus by three of his best friends – Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus.
Lazarus, if you remember, was the man Jesus famously raised from the dead, and it appears that this dinner may indeed have been organised, at least in part, to celebrate that incredible incident, as Lazarus appears to be seated alongside Jesus.
At any rate, however we construct the background to this particular party, it had all the hallmarks of a genteel and festive occasion. But things happened that night at the home of Mary and Martha – things that revealed what was really going on beneath the surface of this warm and festive occasion!
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. (John 12:3)
This is the incident that completely transforms the party!
What was Mary doing?!
In terms of appropriate behaviour for a hostess, her actions are as difficult to excuse as they are to explain.
This story of a woman anointing the feet of Jesus with ointment and wiping His feet with her hair turns up in all four of our Gospels, and no wonder it stuck in the minds of each of those who recorded the stories of Jesus. The incident is outrageous!
It would still be outrageous if it happened today. I won’t bother trying to get you to imagine a similar thing happening at one of our church barbeques, with some local girl coming up and pouring ointment all over the feet of me or one of the wardens as it is ridiculous to think that such a thing could ever happen! Do you think it was any less ridiculous and unimaginable in first century Judea?
What was she thinking? We are told that Mary had around half a kilo of ‘real nard’, which is intended to distinguish it from the fake nard that you could pick up at the Bethany markets for a couple of shekels. Real nard apparently came from the mountains of northern India which explains why it was so expensive, and it’s suggested that the amount Mary poured out that night would have been worth the equivalent of a year’s wages for a normal working person!
Mary’s action is outrageously exorbitant, though at the same time it is a bit cheap, or at least she seems to be cheapening herself in the way she performs – falling all over Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair!
As I say, it would be unimaginably outrageous were this to happen in the context of one of our own formal dinners. Can you imagine how this would go down in a culture where women were never permitted to let their hair down in public?!
I note that this year they’ve had to re-route the Palestinian Marathon so that it by-passes Gaza as the Hamas authorities in Gaza, being conservative religious people, will not permit men and women to run together! They weren’t permitted to run together in Jesus’ day either! They weren’t permitted to run together and they weren’t permitted to even speak together in public. Women certainly weren’t permitted to fall all over a man’s feet in public and rub them with their hair!
In Luke’s retelling of this story (or, at least we assume it is a retelling of the same incident) the woman is unnamed and simply referred to as ‘a sinner’ (Luke 7:36) – the assumption being that she is a sex-worker. This would be the natural assumption you would make if you saw a young woman behave in this way!
Was this something that happened spontaneously? Surely Mary hadn’t planned on behaving like this? Was it just her gratitude to Jesus for having restored the life of her beloved brother or was it more than that? Was she besotted with Jesus?
The latter explanation seems intuitively attractive of course, and it fits with the earlier story we get of Mary (in Luke 10:38-42), sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to His teachings. We can imagine her sitting there, starry-eyed, besotted with Jesus.
Poor thing! She was only young. How could she resist falling in love with Jesus? Even so, surely she could have shown a little greater self-control in the way she expressed that love.
Now I appreciate that I am starting to speculate, and perhaps we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about Mary’s emotional state. Even so, Mary’s actions are hard to understand, and the only thing harder to fathom in this story than Mary’s outrageous expression of love is why Jesus doesn’t put a stop to it for the sake of Mary and for the sake of the rest of her family (even if He wasn’t worried about His own reputation)!
The reaction of the disciples is a little more predictable. Judas is credited as being the one to actually voice disapproval, though I imagine that each one of the disciples of Jesus would have been squirming in his seat.
Judas – ever the one for political correctness – makes no reference to the sensual nature of Mary’s actions but only refers to her outrageous extravagance: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5)
Judas’ comment once again reveals that there are things going on beneath the surface of this dinner party. There are tensions between Jesus and the disciples, and there were obviously tensions between the disciples themselves!
The Gospel writer adds a parenthetical comment of his own at this point, explaining that Judas didn’t really give a damn about poor but was interested in keeping the money for himself, and this comment does indeed help fill out the picture of greed and betrayal that was underlying the happy party-scene. Even so, this should not distract us from the fact that Judas’ question in and of itself was a pretty good one! Indeed, if it hadn’t been for John’s comments and for Jesus’ response you’d be forgiven for thinking, ‘hey, the disciples are really starting to get the message!’
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