Congregational Church of La Jolla
Rev. Tim Seery
April 7, 2019
John 12: 1-8
Anointed For the Journey
Would you pray with me?
Gracious God, May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts together
be found acceptable in your sight. Our Rock and Our Redeemer, Amen.
This episode we heard today from the Gospel according to John is one of my favorite
moments in Jesus´ biography. Some version of this story appears in all four Gospels: The
story appears in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That means that this story was thought
important enough by all four Gospel writers to be included in some form. And as such we
can conclude that this means that the story was believed to be very important by a vast
majority of the Christian communities of the 1st century world. So basically, this event in
Jesus´ life is told four times in the Bible, from four different vantage points, with many
important differences in each different account of it. Earlier last year I preached on this
same story but from Matthew´s version. The text that was assigned for this our 5th Sunday
of Lent is the same but this time we get John´s version.
One of the reasons this is one of my favorite events in the life of Jesus is because it is really
just so surreal. No, nothing fantastical is going on, there’s no magic, or fireworks. On the
surface it seems like a rather plain and straightforward story but if you read this through 1st
century eyes this story would be just oozing with weirdness.
First of all, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s knows where he’s headed and likely
what’s going to happen. As he is passing through Bethany he preforms what would be the
last of his miracles before his crucifixion of which we know as the raising of Lazarus.
Lazarus was a guy who lived with his two sisters, Mary and Martha. He got sick, his sisters
called Jesus for help, Jesus got there too late, Lazarus had already been dead for four days,
Jesus arrives. Jesus weeps and is overcome with emotions. Later he rolls the stone away
and Lazarus comes out alive. Sound sort of familiar? I think yes. In English we called that
foreshadowing.
Now you see, when the Bible was written it was done so to collect and preserve all of
these oral stories that were passed on by word of mouth. So in a lot of ways it was written
as a teaching tool, with plenty of irony, foreshadowing and repetition. So, Jesus has
performed the last of his miracles before his crucifixion and he’s in this town called
Bethany, which means “House of the Poor” — in other words, its not the best part of
town….and he’s there having dinner with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, a thank you gift from
them for Jesus miracle. And I imagine Mary and Martha were really good cooks, they
didn’t have much, lived in a really poor part of town but I imagine that they showed Jesus
their love through food. And so I have this image in my mind of this kitchen which smells
wonderful, and fresh bread, and everyone is full and happy and grateful. Sitting back and
telling stories. And then just the totally most bizarre thing happens, Mary waltzes into the
room with a jar of spikenard (a perfume that was more valuable than gold). And in John´s
version of the story she proceeds to pour this perfume all over Jesus feet and then if that
wasn’t enough to wipe them with her hair. Now, just think about that for a minute. Now to
us it just sounds rather humorous but a first century person would have been scandalized.
Forget the fact that this lady has just spilled out thousands of dollars worth of perfume but
she used her hair to mop it up on Jesus´ feet! Jewish women were not permitted to let their
hair down in public. So the fact she did that was one thing. But in this culture at this time
a woman’s hair was a very intimate and sultry sort of thing. It had connotations of intimacy
and vulnerability. And the feet, were seen as the least exalted or respectable part of the
body. So we have a very interesting contrast here. Mary is applying a substance beyond
valuable to the body’s most least valued part, in an act that breaks down the boundaries of
traditional Jewish social custom.
In Matthew´s and Mark´s telling of this story, the biggest key difference is that Mary pours
the perfume town the top of Jesus´ head, not his feet. Which reminds me of when sports
teams dunk the cooler of Gatorade on the victorious coach or most exalted player. In this
version Mary is anointing him for the victory that lay ahead. So then, what do we make of
Mary using this expensive ointment to anoint Jesus feet? Often in biblical texts Jesus head
is used to highlight Jesus´ divinity and his feet are often used as a symbol of his humanity.
So likely John as a gospel writer wanted to convey to his readers that Mary was anointing
and honoring Jesus´ humanity. As he walked toward Jerusalem, as he set out to complete
his ministry someone stopped to recognize his own personhood, his own spirit, his own
personality, his ability to feel pleasure and pain, connection and rejection, a Jesus who
enjoyed good food and talking with friends. Mary anoints Jesus feet with perfume costlier
than gold in a neighborhood that was literally called “House of the Poor.” Jesus knows that
this woman’s act is not just for him, but also for her. You see, Jesus knows his mission. He
does not want to reflect the ways of earthly Kings and rulers. He doesn’t want to be bathed
in luxury ointment but when Mary does it, he knows what it means. This act of this
service, this gift, this act, is a part of Mary´s spiritual walk, it is part of her participation in
the redemption that Jesus was envisioning for the world. It is a literal pouring out of love
and a metaphor as well. She was giving and offering everything she had to Jesus. She had
seen what he did with her brother and her anointing of Jesus feet was her testimony of
abundance. It was an act of faith, of courage to break down social custom and barriers.
This story gets turned around a lot for incorrect purposes and a lot and people will quote
its final line to justify disregard of the poor. That moment when Jesus says, You will always
have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” To us, it sort of smacks as a
little intense, maybe even arrogant. It doesn’t hit our ears nicely. But a lot of scholars have
gone back to the original Greek and ask us to cut Jesus some slack. Because he’s already
assuming that if we are being good disciples, if we are living for building the Kingdom of
God, then we will obviously have the poor with us. Some scholars say its like Jesus isn’t
even considering the possibility of us not having the poor with us. He is presuming that if
we are still tied to our mission, then of course we will have the poor with us, along with
everyone else who is lost or lonely or forgotten. So he isn’t so much justifying his
expensive foot bath by telling us that the poor will always exist, he is instead reminding us
that the movement will continue, the poor will still be at the heart of the mission, (or they
better be) but that Jesus himself is on a journey of transformation. His time on earth in his
earthly, human form, the form that Mary anointed, the Jesus that enjoyed food, needed
sleep, wept, laughed, took naps, that Jesus was soon to be no more.
“Of course, you’ll always have the poor with you. But not always me.”
It is all foreshadowing for what is to come and what is, then at that time happening. Jesus
walks into our poor house of a world and breaks down social barriers, brings people
together around one table, dines with many colorful characters, and helps show us that we
can roll the stone away and be free from the tombs of our own making. Jesus shows us
how to give and how to serve and we see in Mary that in feeding Jesus and serving him
that were ushering in the beginning of their own participation in the building of heaven on
earth.
We will see next week where the journey takes us. But, in truth, like Jesus, we already
know where its going from here. But we take steps forward knowing we are washed, and
waiting, anointed and prepared for whatever might come next.
May it be so.
Amen.