Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
This is a familiar scene. Time and again Jesus is the honoured guest at a meal. On this occasion, at least some of the other people at dinner we already know. Lazarus, Martha and Mary, we have already met. But on this occasion it is what Mary does that is remembered. Mary empties and entire jar of expensive perfume over Jesus. The fragrance filled the house, and it is a scent that lingers, almost 2000 years later we still call to mind what she did. But why does Mary do it? And what does her action mean.
Mary performs and intensely intimate, passionate and costly act of devotion for Jesus. What she does has somewhat erotic overtones. Mary touches Jesus in a very intimate way, she become as physically close to him as is possible. Touching his feet seems very personal, and intimate. And after she has poured the scent over his feet she lets down her hair and wipes them. Her hair would normally only be uncovered and untied in private, in the presence of her husband if she had one. But here Mary does it for Jesus in public, at least in the dining room. Her action is costly, not just because the perfume is expensive, but because everyone will know what she has done. Who she is and what people think and say about her will always be determined by this moment. Mary will always be the woman who did this.
We already know something of the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Why she acted this way, the reasons she did this are perhaps not hard to discern. The first time we see Mary it is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him teaching. She assumes a position, a posture and a role that is normally in that society reserved for men. She is contrasted with her sister Martha who fulfilled a conventionally female role of service. But Jesus accepts Mary’s presence at his feet. Jesus accepts Mary’s own view of herself and her place in society. For Jesus, Mary’s identity is what she declares it to be. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of being accepted for who we say we are. In a second scene, we again see Mary at Jesus’ feet. This time she is kneeling, grief stricken at the death of her brother, and laments that if only Jesus had been there sooner he could have saved Lazarus. Jesus of course raises Lazarus from the grave. Mary experiences directly the transformation of sorrow into joy, despair into hope, and death into life, which Jesus brings. The third time we find her at Jesus’ feet it cannot be a surprise then that she is overwhelmed by love and devotion. We sense just how much Jesus has done for her, what it means to her and how much Mary loves Jesus.
This is a very personal demonstration. So personal in fact that it might be unique. Who else could have the kind of relationship with Jesus that would lead them to this kind of display? Mary has received from Jesus more than almost anyone else from Jesus, the affirmation of her sense of herself and even the restoration of a dead brother. No one since Mary has had this kind of physical intimacy with Jesus. For all our metaphors of closeness to and intimacy with Jesus, they are just that metaphors, which quite rightly this story drives. But we can’t touch him like she did. He is not available to us in that way. Mary it is true, models for us both what Jesus might do for us, and also the kind of response we should make. But she is an idealised, aspirational example. And we sense that what she experienced and how she responded might be beyond us.
But her action also seems ritualistic, as though she intends that those who see learn something from what she is doing. As if she were almost offering an acted parable. The second question we posed at the beginning was: what does this mean? I think the think that catches the eye in this scene is how over the top and extravagant it all is. Mary’s display is very very startling in its setting. But also we notice the sheer cost of the perfume. We are told initially that the perfume is “costly.” Unfortunately it is Judas who informs us of its actual price:
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii. . ?”
Judas is one of those people who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Precise comparisons between values then and now are tricky. But the amount Judas mentions is the average for a year’s wages. For comparison imagine Mary’s bottle of perfume cost £29,000, and she has just used it all up in one go! That is very expensive perfume and an extraordinary way to use it. How long must it have taken her family to save up surplus income for her to have the money to buy something like that? Mary’s action is even more extreme than it at first might have appeared! Judas has a take on what this means. He claims that Mary’s extravagance is a waste. He says that in a world like this the money which had been spent on that perfume would have dome more good used elsewhere:
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
The trouble is, Judas has a point! The Bible and Jesus himself are pretty consistent about how money should be used. Their view is that if you have more than you need, the surplus should be used to help others. If you have money to spare, it shouldn’t be saved up to be spent on a bottle of perfume! Indeed the Bible’s view of wealth is that is only given anyone for it to be shared, to meet the needs of others like widows and orphans and refugees. But Judas is not the one who can make that point! John who is telling us this story reminds us who and what Judas is: a thief and a betrayer. Judas knows what is the right thing to say, the correct opinion to hold. Except in Judas it doesn’t go any deeper than that, words and opinion. It is not that he really thinks that three hundred denarii should have gone to the poor. He thinks it should have gone to him, into the common purse that he held so that he could steal it. Judas’ relationship with Jesus it seems is that exact opposite of Mary’s. Mary’s grew out of gratitude for what she had received. Judas was with Jesus to see what he could get, to find how he could leverage his relationship with the popular preacher for his own profit. In the end Jesus was worth to Judas just a tenth of what Mary was prepared to spend on him. Judas betrayed Jesus, he sold him for just thirty pieces of silver, thirty denarii, a tenth of what Mary’s perfume cost.
Judas is the counter example, the one we should avoid rather than copy. And Jesus rebukes him as such:
“Leave her alone. . .”
Jesus dismisses Judas’ protest, because he knows what really motivates it.
“You always have the poor with you. . .”
It is easy to misinterpret what Jesus means. He does not mean that poverty in inevitable and therefore some how acceptable. What he is saying to Judas and everyone else is something like: “The poor have been there all this time, what have you been doing about it?” Jesus dismisses Judas’ concern for the poor, because if Judas had really been concerned for the poor he would have already been taking action. Part of what this story means is the reminder of what Jesus is really against; Hypocrisy. Jesus knows it is easy to say the right thing and to claim to have the right opinion. But for Jesus it is actions which count. It is deeds which reveal the real content of anyone’s heart. Mary has revealed very clearly, in what she has done, what is the content of her heart. Judas in what he is about to do will also make plain the content of his.
And this is where the story is actually turning us. Jesus welcomes what Mary has done because:
“She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
In Jesus’ own take on what has happened links this scene with that following his death, which at this point in the story is only a week away. Jesus tells us what he thinks this means. Mary’s action is a foreshadowing, she anticipates something before it happens. Mary anoints Jesus’ body as if for burial. What Mary does acknowledges the reality of Jesus’ death. Jesus really does die. But perhaps more significantly and at this point in the story enigmatically, Jesus hints that what Mary has done is something no one will get the opportunity to do. Because when the women return to the tomb on Easter morning to do exactly this, anoint his body, he has already left the tomb, because he has risen.
Mary holds out for us a demonstration of just what might be possible in a relationship with Jesus. To have encountered the acceptance and hope which Jesus offers, is to be enabled to do extraordinary things. But her actions also direct our attention to how, and what it costs God to make this possible, the death (and resurrection) of his Son that same Jesus Christ.
According to my closest reckoning, this is the 1000th sermon that I have written. The first was for Advent Sunday 1991. In those 30 or so years I have preached somewhere between 2500 and 3000 (I haven’t kept such good accounts as I have with the sermons). Not all of those sermons exist written up like this, in a way that anyone else could read. Some are outlines, or notes to help me preach. It is also clear from that of course that I am happy to preach the “same” sermon more than once, on average two or three times, some sermons have been preached many more times than that. But if a sermon can’t be preached twice, it probably shouldn’t have been preached once. Once online of course a sermon can preach an unlimited number of times, in an unknown variety of circumstances. Thank you for reading, and please join me in a modest celebration of this small milestone.
The Meaning of What She Did by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0