An offering of spilled perfume

Sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent
John 12:1-8

Each of the four gospels includes one of these stories of Jesus being anointed with perfume or costly ointment. In Matthew and Mark, it is an unnamed woman who comes to the home of Simon the leper to anoint the head of Jesus; in Luke it is a “woman who was a sinner” who enters the house of a Pharisee where Jesus was eating, and she bathes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and then anoints them with the ointment; an even more scandalously personal act offered by this woman with a reputation. And now here in the gospel according to John, the scene is set in the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. It takes place after the story of the raising of Lazarus and just before Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on the donkey, and in sense serves as both a party celebrating the life Jesus has given back to Lazarus and as a farewell dinner shared amongst friends.

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So, a very basic question. Is this an instance of four gospel writers offering three different versions of one event, or did something like this happen more than once? Put another way, like an ancient world version of the kids’ party game of “telephone,” did one story evolve and morph and become, in effect, three different stories? From a strictly academic and scholarly point of view, it is impossible to know for sure. One of my seminary professors once told us that biblical scholars tend to be great fans of murder mysteries and detective stories; that by disposition they are often people who like to puzzle out the possibilities… sometimes endlessly, and often to no end.

Meaning no offense at all to anyone here who loves to read murder mysteries, I’m of the opinion that such an approach to the scriptures is a blind alley. With its overarching theme of the audacity of grace and forgiveness, Luke’s story of “the woman who was a sinner” who enters the home of the Pharisee does seem to have its own unique character. And whatever parallels are there between the other two basic accounts, as John offers us his version it comes with its own integrity and power. Rather than getting caught up in academic gymnastics, the more pressing challenge for tonight is to hear the gospel truth John is trying to tell us.

It seems a simple enough scene. Jesus and his disciples are at dinner in the home of their friends in Bethany. “Martha served,” John tells us, which is the role we already know is typical for her. And then out of nowhere, “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” Two things to note here. Anointing the head of a guest was a customary sign of respect and hospitality; the anointing of the feet was extraordinary. Yes, offering water and a towel for a visitor to wash his or her feet was considered good form; to actually wash the feet of a guest was the work of a servant, and only wealthy people had servants; but to take perfumed oil and anoint a guest’s feet was not a customary act.

Mary not only offered this anointing, she also let down her hair and wiped the feet of Jesus. For a woman to loosen her hair in the presence of a man other than her husband was an act of considerable immodesty, and to do so at table with others present was the sort of thing that got the rumour mill churning. But evidently at this moment Mary could care less about such things. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” John adds. In a world filled with the strong odors of human bodies, domestic animals, roasting meat… for the house to be filled with the fragrance of the perfume is no small detail. Together with the visual description of what Mary is doing, it signals the grand scale of the gesture. “Of course it’s outrageous, over the top,” comments N.T. Wright. “That’s the point. Brothers don’t get raised from the dead every day.”

The reactions of most of the people in the room are not recorded, and maybe they were all too stunned or too astonished to do anything but look on with their mouths hanging open. The reaction of one person, though, is noted. “Judas Iscariot… said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’” It is not an altogether bad question; a denarius was a day’s pay for a common worker, so we’re talking about a fairly substantial amount of money. You can imagine someone like the prophet Amos asking a question very much like this one; where are your priorities, people? In his visit this past week Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove told a story about the Baptist radical Clarence Jordan being given a tour of a big church, at the end of which the pastor pointed proudly to the cross at the building’s pinnacle and announced that the congregation had spent $10,000 for it. “You got ripped off,” Jordan replied. “Time was Christians got their crosses for free.”

John, though, is pretty clear that Judas is motivated neither by the mischievous critique of a Clarence Jordan nor by the prophetic fervor of an Amos. “[Judas] 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.” This is the first substantial appearance of Judas in John’s narrative, and he means to show us just how compromised is this character.

“Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.’” She bought it to anoint me for death, he says, which though yet a week away is really a foregone conclusion. Would Mary have had a clue that this is what she was actually doing? That it was not really the life of Lazarus that was being celebrated at this dinner, but rather it was the death of Jesus that was in view? Probably not, but as John builds his story this event does point forward to what will follow. This not only in terms of the act of anointing Jesus for burial, but also as an anticipation of Jesus getting down on his knees at the last supper to wash the feet of his disciples, offering that as a model for the Christian life.

And then follows that line—that troubling and sometimes misused line—“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” We need to be careful about how we hear that sentence. It isn’t offered as a suggestion that poverty is a part of God’s plan, nor is it an excuse to get us all off the hook. I mean seriously, if Jesus has framed his ministry as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words about good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed, it is pretty hard to imagine that we can receive these words as justifying indifference to poverty. No, it is not about indifference, but rather just a description of the world’s tragic reality this side of the Kingdom.

And it would seem that on this side of the Kingdom Jesus has made a place for acts and offerings of beauty and self-giving. I am drawn by how Calvin Seerveld engages this picture of Mary’s action, suggesting that, “When art is crafted for God and neighbour… [it is] spilled like an offering of perfume as this woman did.” Can you think of one of Gord Johnson’s songs, Jodi Penner’s mosaics, Lola Eidse’s hand painted liturgy cards, or Helen Lyons’ prints of the Stations of the Cross in this way? Or the time, energy, and financial resources that went into producing projects like our Lent and Advent books or Beautiful Mercy, our collection of art, writing, and music? Why didn’t we take all of that time and energy and all of those financial resources and put it to better use? And so, says Seerveld, some will be tempted to ask, “Do we need all of this art stuff… All that money can be saved to mount an evangelism campaign or be given to the starving poor in sub-Saharan Africa!”

And then Seerveld answers his own question. “Such well-fed critics of the arts, says Christ sharply, will always have a ghetto outside their neighbourhood, which they can remedy anytime they put their mind to it.” And then this: “Do not make it so hard, my friends, for them to spill their perfume over my body, says the Christ; over my often tired, beleaguered, recalcitrant yet expectant people; or even spill the perfume over the neighbours who maybe never had anything ‘beautiful’ done to them either. Such little artistic acts of love are worth remembering.”

Mary’s act is a scandalous, bold, and beautiful offering of her love for Jesus; an artful act, rich with a symbolism and significance she herself could not have fully grasped. It is accepted by Jesus, remembered by those witnessed it, and honoured by we who read this story so many centuries later. Against her act—or against the offering of a song, the creation of a painting, the writing of a poem—the words of Judas are hollow lies; but they too have a significance that he could not have comprehended. They are words that point to how Judas will continue (and here I am quoting N.T. Wright again) to go on “choosing a world which revolves around himself, which then itself deconstructs. Judas symbolizes the way of self-destruction, just as Mary stands for the way of self-giving. Both are costly, but in utterly different ways.”

Don’t hear anything in this story that suggests we should even begin to forget the hunger of the world. But realize that in it Jesus does speak to hungry hearts and hungry imaginations, which can embrace an act so artful as this spilling out of oil or the offering of a song, a story, a word, a painting; acts which can speak to a different kind of deep hunger and deep longing in the soul of the world.

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