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?” (John 12:3-5, NRSV)
TEXT: John 12:1-8
“You know what I hate about the church? They’re always asking for money!”
How often have you heard that said? How often have you said it?
Well … let’s face it … it’s true! The church—whether it’s your church, or another church, or a little church, or even a gigantic, multi-pastor megachurch—“the church” always seems to have its hand out, begging for money.
Always. The pleading never ends. Always, there is another fund-raiser, another “special envelope” appeal, another yearly budget that has to be met somehow.
Always. Always, there is another project, another crisis. A leaking roof that needs repairing. A worn-out refrigerator that finally quits working altogether. An elevator that’s leaking hydraulic fluid and certainly will not pass the next required inspection. A deteriorating building that, every year, seems to cost more and more to heat, and illuminate, and maintain. And then there’s staff that expects to be paid.
Always. Always, we have with us the “poor”—the hungry, the needy, and the homeless in our own city; and the victims of natural disaster, war, plague, and famine all around the world. And, blast it all, the church even has the nerve to ask for money to help them, too!
Ordinary people like you and me—we who live on fixed incomes, who are not millionaires, who may not even be adequately employed … Well, we get sick of hearing about it, don’t we?
Then, on the Fifth Sunday in the Midst of Lent, the Revised Common Lectionary serves up a gospel lesson wherein Mary of Bethany takes 300 denarii worth of perfume and pours it over Jesus’ feet. For an ordinary worker in Jesus’ day, 300 denarii would be almost one year’s wages; at the minimum wage rate in Alberta, it would be something close to $60,000 in today’s money.
It was very costly perfume, made of pure nard. Just to be clear, that’s nard—not lard! “Nard” refers to spikenard, the plant from which this ointment was derived. Imported from India, it would have been a rich rose-red in colour, and very sweetly scented. John tells us that Mary had a whole pound of it, and that it was pure.
Normally, this would have been watered down or thinned, so that it could be sold for a profit … but not this time. Mary’s gift is of a large quantity, and of the finest quality, and worth a tremendous amount of money.
But … $60,000 worth of perfume! That’s mind-boggling, isn’t it? Can you imagine the pastor going to the church treasurer and asking him to cut a cheque for $60,000?
“What on earth do you need it for?”
“It’s for the Maundy Thursday service. I’m going to buy perfume to pour on people’s feet …”
I think the treasurer might be siding with Judas on that decision!
Or, maybe not. Not if he knows what’s really going on in the mind of Judas Iscariot. Six days before the Passover—less than a week before he will betray Jesus in the garden—Judas has certainly already formulated his plan.
He says, “Why was this perfume not sold … and the money given to the poor?” But what he really means is: “Don’t waste it on this guy! He’s not going to be king of anything. He’s toast! Jesus is done, doomed, finished.”
Now, Judas, of course, thinks he’s the only one in the room who knows this. But he’s wrong. Maybe none of the other disciples realize it, but Jesus has figured it out. And it sounds like Mary of Bethany knows it, too. Because when Judas begins to scold her about the perfume, Jesus cuts him off, saying: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
The day of his burial? Yes, among its many uses, nard was sometimes used in the embalming process. Jesus is implying that—perhaps alone amongst those who heard him teach—Mary has understood that, when he said he was going to be killed in Jerusalem, he was speaking literally.
Remember? Remember how often Jesus told his disciples what lay ahead?
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over … they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (Mark 10:33-34).
“… Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21).
Mary of Bethany—who used to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him (see Luke 10:38-42)—must have heard him say these things. Now, we usually think of her sister Martha as being the more practical, down-to-earth one of the two sisters, but Mary is the one who went out and bought stuff for the funeral! Mind you, she probably didn’t need to purchase a pound of the most expensive perfume she could find. That much pure nard … to be used all at once … That seems like an awful lot, even when used for embalming. Yet, according to Jesus, she bought it to keep for the day of his burial.
“She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
That’s what Jesus says, here. But, wait. It’s not the day of his burial, is it? That’s a whole week away. There’s much that has to happen first: a triumphal entry on a donkey’s back; shouts of “Hosanna!”; a last supper; betrayal, a rigged trial, and cruelest torture.
This is not the day of Jesus’ burial. What’s going on? Why did Mary change her mind about how and when to use this costly ointment? Well, truthfully, you could speculate here in many directions.
Maybe she thought she wouldn’t be able to get near Jesus’ body when the time came. But that seems unlikely. After all, you really can’t embalm somebody in advance! I’m pretty sure most people would not appreciate you trying to do that to them. I know I wouldn’t like it.
So, what is going on? What else is spikenard extract used for? Well, it was an anointing oil—and it was, of course, used to anoint the dead. But, listen, here’s a question—one which the Bible students amongst you might just be able to answer: in the Bible—besides dead people—who else gets anointed?
Kings get anointed. The Hebrew term “Messiah”—or, in Greek, Christos—means “the anointed one,” and is used to describe anyone who is anointed to be king.
Is this what Mary had in mind? When Matthew (26:6-12) and Mark (14:3-8) relate the story, they add the detail that the nard was poured over Jesus’ head, as well as his feet—which is certainly how kings would have been anointed. Did it suddenly occur to her that—while there would be others who would anoint Jesus’ corpse—nobody else was going to anoint him as king?
Did Mary of Bethany realize that Jesus’ only earthly throne would be a cross? Was she anointing him before he ascended to it?
Or did she, perhaps, see even further into the future—all the way to his triumphant resurrection? To his ascension to his heavenly throne? Were her actions at Bethany symbolic of her faith that, in fact, Jesus was not approaching the end, but rather the beginning, of his reign?
We can’t know any of that for sure. But we do know this much: whatever she thought the future held for Jesus, Mary believed that he was worth the very best she could offer. To honour him, no expense was too great. To express her love for him, no gesture was too grand.
When I think about that—when I consider this example of deep devotion and unquestioning faith—I want to leave the side of Judas, and kneel at Jesus’ feet with Mary of Bethany. I wish I could do that. I wish I could anoint him, this One who is my King, my Saviour, the Lord of my life. I wish I could tell him—and show him—how much I love him. Of course, I can’t do that, because he isn’t here. At least, he is not present the way he was that long-ago day in Bethany.
And yet, he is here, isn’t he? His body is present … in us. Remember? Remember what the apostle Paul said?
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27) … and the members should have the same care for one another (12:25).
Or as Jesus himself put it: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
So, let’s keep faith, as Mary of Bethany kept faith: faith in the God who can raise us up, even as he raised Jesus up; and who holds the future—in safekeeping, for all of us—until the day of our own anointing. Amen.