A sermon on John 12:1-8 by Nathan Nettleton
There have been many many occasions over the years on which I’ve made a bit of an ass of myself, and one of the ones that stands out in my memory was the the time when the congregation here threw a bit of a party to mark the tenth anniversary of my appointment as pastor to this church. I didn’t know that a bit of a celebration was being organised and that a gift was being given, and when it all happened I felt awkward and embarrassed by the fuss and the attention, and I responded rather ungraciously. I don’t remember all the details of what I did or said anymore — perhaps I’ve repressed them — but I do remember the gift. It was a very beautiful ornamental glass egg. One of those kinds of gifts that has no pragmatic use, although I suppose it might be able to be used as a paperweight, but really just exists to be enjoyed for its own sake as a thing of beauty and as a generous expression of love and affection. It still sits above my desk in the office and frequently reminds me that I am loved and appreciated. But at the time, I was not comfortable receiving such attention, and I’m sorry to say that I behaved rather badly. I was awkward and dismissive and ungracious. And if anyone else still remembers my behaviour, I apologise.
The reason that I’m remembering that now is because there are some similar dynamics going on in tonight’s gospel reading. There is an extravagant expression of love, and there is an ungracious response, but there is also Jesus modelling the alternative response, the gracious acceptance and honouring of the gift, even at risk to his own reputation. So I know that I have a lot to learn from this story, and I suspect I might not be the only one.
The scene is an interesting one. All the characters in this story are people we have met before, and people who were close to Jesus. The story takes place in the home of three siblings, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, who were perhaps Jesus’s closest friends outside of his travelling group of disciples. Their home seems to have been somewhere he often liked to go when he needed some time out to put his feet up and relax with good friends. Lazarus, of course, featured prominently in the previous chapter of John’s gospel when he died and was buried, but he’s feeling a lot better now, thanks very much. Mary and Martha both featured in that story too, including a reference to Mary falling down at Jesus’s feet, an action that becomes rather more central in tonight’s story. But, of course, we’ve met Mary and Martha in another story too, haven’t we? The thing they are perhaps most famous for occurred at another dinner party they hosted for Jesus when Martha spat the dummy over the way her sister just sat at Jesus’s feet, hanging on his every word, and left her with all the work of preparing and serving the meal. Mary seems to have had a quite a thing about Jesus’s feet! Now although that story is not found in this same gospel, there are hints of it here that add a bit more of a sense of tension to the scene, because once again we have it spelled out that Martha is doing all the work of serving dinner while Mary is monopolising Jesus’s attention instead of helping with the meal.
So we have a dinner party with Jesus as a guest, an unspecified number of disciples present, Lazarus seated at the table and feeling better and better all the time, Martha doing what Martha always does running around serving everything and everyone, and in comes Mary and makes quite a scene.
She takes a large quantity of a very expensive creamed perfume and pours it over Jesus’s feet and wipes them with her hair. According to Judas’s estimation, and its not disputed, this perfume was worth about a year’s pay. The reckless expense is the scandal that is named. Judas demands to know why it is being wasted like this when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. This is no trivial question when you consider that at today’s rates, this bottle of stuff was worth about thirty thousand dollars. And although the gospel writer alleges that Judas didn’t really care about the poor, but liked to steal from the group’s common purse, that is a later observation, and nobody thought that of him at the time. At the time, Judas was quite known for his frequent charitable gifts to the poor. In fact when he leaves the last supper to rat on Jesus, the other disciples just assumed he was going out to give something to the poor, so it seems that such charitable acts were regarded as typical of him. And whatever the truth about Judas and his motives, everything suggests that he was just saying what everyone else was thinking anyway. So much so that when this story is told in the other gospels, they just attribute the question to the disciples, and Judas is not singled out. It might have been him who put it into words, but he was far from alone with his discomfort over the whole situation. And even just on this issue of the expense, the discomfort is pretty understandable given Jesus’s well known voluntary poverty and concern for the poor, attributes which there are reasons to hope the new pope might demonstrate since he has previously turned down the palaces and chauffeur driven cars that were offered to him as a bishop. But when someone has a reputation for avoiding such extravagances, Mary’s reckless act seems like an excruciatingly embarrassing faux pas. As theologian Gil Bailie has said, it’s as though we gave a dinner in honour of Mother Theresa and served up champagne that cost ten thousand dollars a bottle!
I’m not going to give much attention to Jesus’s response to this concern when he says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” but I want to offer one brief observation. Although the saying is capable of being heard as excusing a disregard of the needs of the poor, that would be to misunderstand it. Jesus is probably quoting a line from Deuteronomy 15:11, and so he expects his hearers to hear the full saying, even though he is abbreviating. The full verse says “there will never cease to be poor in the land, therefore I command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’” So Jesus is reaffirming the importance of care for the poor, but also saying that it is not the only thing that matters, and sometimes it is okay to let it take a back seat.
As genuine as the concern over Mary’s reckless expense could have been, I think there is a whole lot more going on in this story; stuff that remains unspoken, perhaps because it is too embarrassing to name. I made an allusion to Mary’s thing about Jesus’s feet before, and it wasn’t entirely tongue-in-cheek. There is a sensuality to what she is doing which, even if neither she nor Jesus saw it as a sexually provocative thing, could not but have raised questions about a possible sexual dimension to their relationship in the minds of those who witnessed it. We are specifically told that Mary wiped his feet with her hair, and to do that, she would have had to let her hair down. And as theologian Tom Wright has pointed out, a woman letting her hair down at a dinner party in that culture would have been the equivalent of a woman hitching up her long dress to the top of her thighs at a polite dinner party in our time. It would have been seen as a shameless and wanton act. But of course, it is not just her hair. She is also giving Jesus a foot massage in front of other people, with a very sensually fragrant oil. Washing the feet of guests was commonplace in that culture, but Mary was doing far more than washing his feet. It reminds me of a scene from the movie Pulp Fiction where two men were arguing about whether giving a woman a foot massage was necessarily a sexually loaded act. One of them argued that it wasn’t until the other took his shoes off and said “Okay, give me a foot massage then.” He couldn’t bring himself to do it and reluctantly conceded the point.
So I’m guessing that the expression of angst over the money involved was just the bit that could be named, and that underneath it lay a whole lot more squirming discomfort and embarrassment that nobody was game to name. You can almost hear someone thinking “get a room!” Or as my teenage daughter and her friends say when confronted by some unexpected expression of sexuality, “Awkward!” And my point here is not about whether there was or wasn’t any sexual intent, but simply that this was clearly a public display of affection that was unmistakably open to that interpretation, and that the possible consequences to his reputation did not cause Jesus to shy away in embarrassment or refuse to accept what his friend Mary was offering. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, because on another occasion he accepted an almost identical gesture from a know prostitute while at a dinner party in the home of a very proper religious leader. Accepting it from his good friend Mary was surely easier, although perhaps in this case he might also have concerns for her reputation.
So, where am I going with all this. Mary’s expression of her love and affection for Jesus is reckless and extravagant and wasteful and almost inevitably scandalous, and yet Jesus accepts it warmly and graciously and with evident pleasure, and he he has no hesitation in defending her against those who are scandalised and critical of what she has done. And this is not just an interesting little incident, or even just an interesting insight into his attitudes and behaviour. It is also a sign of something more. John’s gospel is often called the book of signs, because it is so deliberate in bringing out the symbolic dimensions and meanings of everything. So what this story and Jesus’s attitudes and behaviour within it are pointing to is that extravagant expressions of love and generosity are a sign of the kingdom of God, the new incoming culture of God. And by contrast, as important and laudable as it is to have a concern to avoid waste and make as much as possible of our resources available to the poor, as soon as that turns into a miserly preoccupation that frowns on every pleasure or indulgence and wants to ration out everything in scrupulously measured and accounted handfuls, it undermines its own purpose and becomes destructive of hope and joy and life itself.
When I was so uncomfortable about the attention and gifts being lavished on me back on that tenth anniversary, if I’d been asked at that moment what it was about, I’d have probably said something like what Judas said. It’s not all about me. There are people in need and we should be giving our attention to them. And there are lots of others who are fulfilling important ministries within our church, and we shouldn’t be singling me out when others are probably not getting all the thanks and honours they deserve. And just like Judas desire to put the resources into care for the poor, there would perhaps have been some truth in those things. But there is a bigger truth that is ultimately more liberating for all the earth, and that is that extravagant expressions of love are a sign of the incoming culture of God, and here in this story we see Jesus modelling not only the generous giving of such signs, but perhaps equally as importantly, the gracious and joyous receiving of them, regardless of the scandal they might cause, because in such scandalous extravagant love is the hope and the life of the world.