Our gospel for today takes place shortly after Jesus commanded his friend Lazarus to walk out of his tomb. Now his closest friends, Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, are giving a meal in Jesus’ honor at their home, often described by the author of the Gospel of John as a safe refuge for him. The resuscitated Lazarus is present, sitting at the table. True to John’s previous descriptions of her nature, Martha is busy serving the meal.
The focus shifts to Mary, who was described on a previous visit by Jesus as sitting at his feet, listening and learning from him. So much so that Martha, who was busy cooking and serving, protested to Jesus that Mary should be more help to her. The author of John lifts up these two sisters as not only recipients of the teaching of Jesus, but as friends and followers who understand who he was and what his mission was long before some of his other disciples. When Jesus showed up after Lazarus died, Martha was the first to proclaim him the messiah in the Gospel of John. Now Mary will not only predict his death by her actions but will show her devotion to him now, rather than waiting for his death.
In the world of first century Palestine, either slaves or women, depending on the wealth of the household, were in charge of washing the feet of the guests before a feast. However, in a radical understanding of the power that women hold, the author of John tells us that Mary anointed Jesus. The word “messiah” is a Hebrew word which means “anointed.’ Kings were always anointed by other men, but here Mary is declaring her fidelity to Jesus by being the one to literally anoint him as the messiah.
In the Gospel of Luke, a woman in the crowd, declaring her admiration for Jesus, calls out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But Jesus replies “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” Jesus is not dismissing the important role played by his mother, Mary, rather he is indicating that for him, women are not just objects of desire mainly suited for child bearing and rearing. Throughout the gospels Jesus does not have a problem with being touched by women, seeing them with their hair down, or with them talking to men they are not related to. He considers and treats women as equals not only socially but intellectually. This was very radical in a society where women were to keep their heads covered, because loose hair was considered too sensual, and were not permitted to speak with, never mind touch, men to whom they were not closely related. Nor were they considered capable of serving as legal witnesses, yet Jesus will commission Mary Magdalene as the first witness to his resurrection.
The first sign that Jesus performs near the beginning of the Gospel of John is to turn an extravagant amount of water into the finest wine. Now, at this last social gathering before Jesus enters Jerusalem where he will ultimately be put to death, Mary anoints him with an extravagant amount of costly perfume, normally reserved for anointing the dead. The cost of this perfume was 300 denarii, an average yearly salary. Mary does not care; she gladly uses the expensive nard to anoint Jesus, who she has recognized as the long awaited messiah. She has learned from Jesus that it is not appropriate to hoard a gift for the future, but rather to give what the moment requires. Life is more than counting pennies at such an extraordinary time.
Ironically, the one to protest this act of extravagance is not Jesus, it is Judas Iscariot, who we know will betray Jesus, thanks to the author of John, who likes to share relevant information in asides inserted into his stories. John gives us another helpful hint as well – apparently Judas was also a thief, who skimmed money off of the funds used by Jesus and his disciples to give to the poor and pay for their expenses. True to form, Jesus does not allow Mary to be falsely accused, or her reputation as a pious woman to be tarnished. He rebukes Judas, telling him to leave her alone because she purchased this costly perfume for the day of his burial. Yet she is using it now – something that probably confused those who were present, but was understood by both Mary and Jesus.
This week’s commentary in Christian Century magazine references a story from years ago when the prestigious magazine The Atlantic profiled a study that Harvard University had done of 268 men over the course of their lives. For one man’s 70th birthday, his wife asked friends, colleagues and loved ones to write him letters of appreciation. She received 100 letters and bound them in a book which she presented to him. The researcher asked him what was in the letters and the man paused, with tears in his eyes. He said “I’ve never been able to bring myself to read them.” He explained that it was such an outpouring of love he couldn’t yet bear it. The same extravagant outpouring of love is reflected in the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary, and he totally understands the meaning of her gesture.
Jesus also makes an interesting observation: “You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Clearly Jesus knows he is heading towards his death, but what of his dedication to the poor? Jesus had a strong sense of justice, and the author of John often portrays him as being emotional about the things he was passionate about. He obviously cannot take what the hypocrite Judas is doing, co-opting the language of solidarity with the poor and marginalized for his own benefit. Jesus stops him in his tracks – because of who we are, we will always be amongst the poor, trying to help them and gain justice for them, but that does not preclude doing something generous and loving for our own loved ones.
It is believed that the sense of smell evokes memories more than any other of our senses.
The aroma of fresh baked bread, freshly cut grass, burning leaves, certain perfumes and the oils we use for anointing can all evoke powerful memories. For Mary, the smell of expensive nard will evoke memories from that time forward. She already lost – and had restored to her – a beloved brother, whose body she anointed when he died. Now, she has learned to pre-empt the power of death and anoints Jesus as he still lives, knowing he will understand her demonstration of devotion. The smell will linger in her hair, and will serve as a reminder of that meal they all shared before he was arrested on false charges, and when he lost his earthly life on the cross. It is believed by scholars that the author of the Gospel of John wrote down eye witness testimony dictated by the apostle John himself. Our story reads, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” We can imagine John as an old man, eyes closed, remembering the scent of the nard surrounding them during that last informal meal together as he narrated this story. The smell of the perfume will always connect Mary, John, and all those who were present that day to Jesus, evoking powerful memories of precious time spent together with their beloved rabbi and messiah. Amen.