‘A Jarring Moment for Jesus’
John 12:1-8 Common English Bible (CEB)
Mary anoints Jesus’ feet
12 Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. 3 Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound,[a] 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. 4 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, 5 “This perfume was worth a year’s wages![b] Why wasn’t it sold 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 carried the money bag and would take what was in it.)
7 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. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
Everything about this story is jarring. A formerly dead man, Lazarus, is alive and seated at the table eating dinner. Dead men are not supposed to come back to life and eat dinner with you. A woman, Mary, sits at the feet of Jesus and washes his feet with her hair. Women were not supposed to take down their hair in public and they were not supposed to wash another man’s feet, other than maybe their husband, with their hair. She washes his feet with spikenard oil, which should not be used on a living man, but on a dead man, not Jesus who is not only alive, but can apparently raise the dead, evidenced by Lazarus now enjoying some pita bread and hummus. The amount of oil that is used to wash Jesus’ feet is equal to about $45,000 in today’s standards…this is shocking extravagance. It’s jarring as well because that much nard oil poured out in a small place would have felt suffocating to the senses. Some might even consider it a waste of resources with what this now poured out oil dripping off of Jesus’ feet could have purchased to ease the hunger of some starving people. One would expect Jesus to reprimand her, for Jesus was the champion of the poor, but instead, shockingly, he reprimands those who reprimand her. It’s further jarring because Jesus tells them that she has prepared him for his death.
When I was about 10 I was playing soccer at my friends house next door. It was just the two of us, kicking the ball back and forth occasionally getting around one another to score a goal. It was a late summer evening and I was killing some time because my family was going to go bowling a bit later. I was excited because I was going to get to stay up late, and because I was going to go bowling. My friend kicked the ball towards me, and it went past me down the hill, so I picked up my speed trying to get it before it went too far. The next thing I knew I was shot backward as if something had knocked me in my face and flat on my back. The next thing I remember was my neighbor’s dad carrying me into my house and blood and pain. I didn’t get to go bowling that night because as I ran towards the ball with it being dusk outside I didn’t see the one new strand of barbed wire fence that my neighbor’s father had put up earlier that day. As I ran towards the ball I hit the barbed wire fence on my upper lip puncturing my face and catapulting me back to the ground giving me a concussion.
That was a jarring experience, and if you read this story of Mary and Jesus without the heightened painful emotions, unexpected change of circumstances, and surreal feeling that I experienced that night then you miss the essence of this story. Sometimes life smacks you right in the face and puts you on your back. In the story of Jesus, this is that time. Life just got very real and painful for Jesus and his followers, and the jarring events of this story illustrate that in a sobering way.
In the Gospel of John, the turning point for Jesus is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Up until that time none of Jesus’ other miracles concerned the religious leaders like this miracle. In the gospel of John, Jesus performed only 7 miracles, He turned water into wine, he healed an officials son, he healed a disable man, he fed 5,000 with a few loaves of bread and a couple of pieces of fish, he walked on water, and he healed a blind man. These 6 miracles earned Jesus many followers, but the leaders of Jesus’ day did not react with the same kind of anger that they did when Jesus performed his final miracle, his 7th miracle. Of course, the number 7 is a very significant number in the Old Testament. 7 days of creation, Joshua marched around Jericho for 7 days, Elijah told the king to wash himself 7 times in the Jordan to be healed…it is a number of completion, a holy number, a number that represents God. This 7th miracle of Jesus was the final act in the book of John for Jesus before the road was cut and paved towards the cross and his death. While the other miracles could be managed by the religious leaders who felt that Jesus was a threat to them and to their safety under the occupation of Rome, this miracle got too many people talking. Too many people were now paying attention because Lazarus was a well known man, too many had been to his funeral, to many had seen him dead. Jesus knew that bringing his friend back from death would seal his fate, but he willingly accepted that fate as the way to bring God’s love to a dying world.
This dinner is a sober affair, with Mary, Martha, the now alive again Lazarus, and some of Jesus other followers gathered together in that place. The word had gotten out that the religious leaders were out to kill Jesus and now to kill Lazarus as well to cover up the evidence, they were simply waiting for the right time. This evening was a jarring and emotional evening in the life of Jesus and his followers.
So, I can only imagine that there was not a lot of conversation around that table that night. There was probably a lot of fear, nervous laughter, and a desire to just stay calm and act normal. But Mary did not allow that to happen.
When life hits us like a ton of bricks and we discover ourselves in that same place with fear, nervous chuckles, and a desire to stay calm and not lose it what do we do? I imagine that Jesus was in that place that night. How could he not have been? He knew that he had angered the powers that be and that they were after him. He knew that all of this could lead to crucifixion. If Jesus was human, then despite the tremendous amount of faith he had I have a hard time picturing Jesus with a bright and care free attitude that evening. I imagine that he too had a lot of fear, and seconded guessing of himself that he was doing. Jesus needed someone to bring some word from God into that place that night. Jesus needed something jarring to break the stuck place of despair that he might have been in that night, and it took one of his best friends, a woman, to nurture God in Jesus to a renewed state that night.
I think the reason that Jesus does not get onto Mary for pouring that expensive oil on his feet that night is because he needed it. He needed someone to love him in this way. He needed someone else to come to his side in his darkest hour and comfort and encourage him. Mary, led by the Spirit and by her tenderness, knelt down at Jesus feet and literally poured out an act of love into his life. It was an act of love that was not only seen by Jesus, but felt and smelled as well. And, it was not an act that was meant only for Jesus, but for those who looked on. For Mary knew as well that Jesus had sealed his fate by raising her brother from the dead. Mary somehow knew that all of this had a place in God’s work in the world, and Mary did the only thing that made sense to her at that time, she knelt at the feet of Jesus and gave him all that she had. She not only poured out this expensive oil, but she gave him her heart, her presence, and she humbled herself before God. In doing so I think Jesus was renewed in his own faith. But, I also think she showed us what we are to do when the events of life leave us in that place. What else can we do when the dark clouds are growing in and we are jarred from our usual life? All we can do is what Mary did. Sit at the feet of God, give God all that we have to give, look into the face of God, and wait for God to speak into our lives. While everyone else, including Jesus, I believe, was frozen with grief and despair, Mary, this beautiful woman of God performed this extravagant act of faith and love and jarred everyone back to the work and the faith they had. Mary’s prophetic act, given by God, enabled everyone to take the next step walking into God’s plan. And so we read in the next verse, tells us that Jesus left Bethany and went to Jerusalem. He went into the lion’s den to face the call of God on his life and stand up to those who were oppressing the people. Coincidence that this act of Mary immediately precedes his final entry into the capital city where he will be convicted of treason and blasphemy? I do not think so. When Jesus needed a preacher to encourage him on, God sent another Mary, this time not his mother but his friend to encourage him and empower him on his way.
Though I hate to think about Jesus, whom I love and follow, being in a place where he might have been frozen with fear and grief, there is something encouraging to me about this. For if Jesus was just a super human who never needed others to encourage him, and especially in such an over the top way like Mary did, then when life got tough it would be hard for me to look to Jesus as one who could identify with me. But, we know that even Jesus felt the weight of being human, and maybe even the temptation of turning away when the going got really tough. But Jesus was not a super human, Jesus was human just like you and me, and he knew what it meant to feel the burden and pain that life can bring, and yet, he kept going, kept working for God’s love and God’s mission, and kept looking for God to pop up in his world. I’m thankful for Mary, thankful that she was the way God popped up in the life of Jesus when he needed it. Thankful for the jarring acts of faith and love she did that evening some 2,000 years ago, and I think Jesus was as well. In the book of John we do not hear these words as an ending to this story, but they need to be read here to experience how jarring and important Mary’s act was in the life of Jesus – from the gospel of Matthew 26: 12, 13: When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Why? Because Mary, I believe, in her incredible act empowered and encouraged Jesus to fulfill his life’s calling…so much so that Jesus said forever, what she has done will be proclaimed alongside of all that I have done. It is a lasting tribute to a person’s love, and the power of that love, towards Jesus, and thereby the power of our love towards our Creator as we love others who also need Mary’s love and faith in their lives or as we allow ourselves to be loved and supported like Jesus did by those who offer us the love of Mary.