Text John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. ”It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
1. Buried Feet
Why did Mary smear the pure nard over Jesus' feet? The gospel reading we just heard doesn’t tell us why she went to such extremes. This perfume from the nard plant in India was expensive ointment prepared from the roots and stems of this Himalayan plant. So when she cracks open the pot of perfume and spreads the entire contents of it over his feet, about half a litre, it makes me wonder what motivated her to do it. Half a litre is a lot of perfume. The bible tells us it was worth a year’s wages, 300 denarii, close to thirteen thousand dollars worth, a lot of money in anyone’s language. Imagine the scent it would leave. Think of aftershave or perfume poured on you feet, not just a drop but a half litre. Why did Mary do it? Putting a little on sandal sore feet was normal when the host’s guests arrived from some distance. But Mary buried his feet in so much ointment the pleasant scent would have been smelt just as far away.
2. Jesus raised Lazarus
Looking back at recent events in John’s gospel sees Mary at Jesus feet once before. Both Mary and her sister, Martha, pleaded with Jesus when he arrived after Lazarus’ death, saying, ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!’ Mary fell at his feet weeping, so much so it moved Jesus, and he wept too.
So Jesus raised Lazarus, he had earlier told Martha he was the resurrection and the life, and that’s exactly what he did, he gave life to Lazarus. He cleared the stone away and raised Lazarus from the dead, and in the process made himself ritually unclean through his association with the corpse. Jesus was the cause of Lazarus’ resurrection, it brought glory to God, but it also caused him to be covered with the stench of death.
3. Jesus didn’t cleanse himself
As these events were occurring the Passover festival was drawing near. With in a week lambs would be slaughtered so the Jews could commemorate, remember, and teach their children how the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites, sparing the lives of their first born sons, the night before Moses raised the nation of Israel to life from the land of Egypt. This festival called for the Jews to make their way to Jerusalem to be cleansed and purified for the Passover meal of bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and Passover lamb roasted over the fire, just as God had commanded Moses and the Israelites many years before.
But Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem to be cleansed. Rather he and his disciples leave Lazarus and withdraw to a region near the desert. Jewish ritual expected a person to be cleansed, purified, and made holy, so they could stand before the Lord, who is holy, especially those who had come into contact with a dead body. In chapter eleven just prior to the meal and Mary’s perfume pouring at Bethany, many stood in the temple area waiting for Jesus to appear. After all he had raised Lazarus from the dead and was unclean. But Jesus didn’t show, nor did he receive any cleansing. No! Jesus didn’t go to Jerusalem rather he returned to Bethany. There is a knock at the door; Lazarus opens it to reveal God standing there with his disciples, still covered with the stigma of his death.
4. Mary serves Jesus
If I were to ask you to flick through the pages of John’s gospel and find the Last Supper where Jesus gives us the Words of Institution, you would come up empty. In fact John doesn’t give us an account of the Last Supper. Instead he speaks of two meals. Both meals are linked by the attention given to the feet. At the first meal Mary washes Jesus’ feet and then at the second meal Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.
It is true that at both meals foot washing caricatures service. The very nature of foot washing shows both the humility and greatness of serving. Mary serves Jesus with faithfulness and sheer gratitude when she smears the pure nard on Jesus' feet. Probably overwhelmed at Jesus’ resurrecting power over her brother Lazarus, she served him with the same passionate emotional fervour as when she cried tears over his feet when Lazarus was still dead.
Mary’s actions came from deep within. We know that these actions were great. So great I find it hard to comprehend! The perfume’s purity is not lost on John as he reports Judas Iscariot’s disapproval and tells us the nard was worth a year’s wages. Lazarus, Mary and Martha were not excessively wealthy; after all there are no servants to do the tasks of washing feet or serving the meal, which Martha serves.
Mary’s action was also great from another perspective too. It would have taken a great deal of courage and faithfulness for this woman to let her hair down in public. It was not something done by respectable Jewish women. In her action all honour is taken from her and given to Jesus. Perhaps the perfume that might have been reserved to cover the stench of Lazarus’ death was now floating around the house as the fragrance of life and love. Or maybe Mary was still covering the stigma of death; Lazarus’ deathly uncleanness in Christ and the upcoming death that awaited him on the cross?
5. Jesus Anointed and Embalmed as Messiah and King
So what was happening to Jesus at Lazarus’ house when Mary poured or smeared the pure nard on his feet? Another word to describe Mary’s action of pouring or smearing is anointing. Mary anointed Jesus. In fact she anointed Jesus Christ, Son of God, King of the Jews.
When a king or queen is enthroned into their office, they have a coronation. In recent times we haven’t seen a coronation; in fact the last was Queen Elizabeth many years ago. But like any royal event their coronation to the throne involves much royal regalia, long processions through the streets, pomp, ritual and ceremony.
Jesus was on his way to a coronation too. He was soon to be glorified on the cross. A little later on in the gospel Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified… But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:23, 32). Jesus took his throne when he was nailed to the cross, on that throne he draws all to himself.
Mary anointed the King, maybe a little prematurely before his coronation, which would begin on the next day as he rode the donkey into Jerusalem over palm branches thrown down by the crowds. Therefore, how could she not anoint the King of Kings with such an expensive perfume? After all he is the king who draws all people to himself. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
But paradoxically in a seemingly contradictory way Mary anoints the body of Jesus just as all bodies are anointed before they are buried. Jesus even says of Mary’s anointing, ‘it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial’ (12:7). How can a king’s coronation and his enthronement be the very same thing that kills him? How can the King of Kings draw all to himself if he is hanging dead on his throne? Well, this is the mystery of the cross, this is the contradiction of the cross, this is the glory of the cross, this is the victory of the cross, and this is the beauty of the cross, where our Lord was enthroned.
Just before Jesus was crucified he washed his disciples’ feet. When he came to Peter, Peter said no to his feet being washed, but Jesus said, ‘Unless I wash your feet you have no part with me (13:8)’. Mary may have served Jesus at the first meal, but it was Jesus who served, when he washed the disciples’ feet at that second meal, when by his word he raised Lazarus to life, and when he took the ugliness of death to the cross for Lazarus and also for you. Jesus has washed us too, eternal death is no more, we are washed and now have a part with Jesus in eternity.
6. Jesus’ Service as our Passover Lamb
When we hear that Mary broke the bottle of thirteen thousand dollar scented oil over Jesus' feet, it makes us sit up and take notice. Why she did it, we can only speculate. But this double action anointing, together with the events before and after, tell us of God’s Son who was anointed and embalmed as King of Kings, was sacrificed and enthroned on the cross, was buried in death but at the same time buried eternal death, and who was raised to life is also your resurrection and your life. Sit up and take notice, Jesus serves you, he has cleansed you! Smell the sweet scent of life bought at great cost for you by our Passover Lamb. He is the resurrection and the life! In this King death has lost its stench, and now the power of death has passed over you and me. Amen.