Isaiah 43:16-21 Psalm 126 Philippians 3:4b-14 John 12:1-8
This is the last Sunday in Lent and it ends with John’s account of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus, much to the displeasure of Judas who says the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Sounds like he wants to do all he can for those in need, but John tells us, “He 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.” Jesus, however, defends Mary, saying, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” This is not the day of his burial – so this is not the justification for her action we might expect. Leave it to John.
Jesus, as presented to us in the Gospel of John, is headed to the cross from the very beginning – without hesitation and without concern. In the other gospels, we hear Jesus wishing there might be another way to accomplish God’s purpose. Not so in John. Jesus speaks of Mary anointing him with the perfume used for burial before he enters into Jerusalem for the final time. It is six days before the Passover Meal, the day of his betrayal and arrest. He knows what is to come.
It is an odd scene, Mary anointing his feet with expensive perfume, drying his feet with her hair. Judas voicing his concern over the cost of it, and Jesus speaking of this as preparation for his burial. Jesus then says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
There is a similar story to this in Mark, but it is not Mary who anoints Jesus, he is not in her home, but the home of a leper. The perfume is not used on his feet – it is poured on his head. In Mark’s story, it is not Judas that objects, but “some of those present who say ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’” Jesus defends the unidentified woman saying:
Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, whenever the gospel is preached throughout the word, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.
And it is. We remember her act of loving kindness.
In the gospel of Luke, the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus is identified only as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee. This woman comes and washes the feet of Jesus with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses his feet and anoints them with an ointment. The Pharisee is not concerned about the cost, but about the fact that Jesus allows a sinner to do this to him.
What these three stories share in common is that each of these women perform acts of love and Jesus defends them against others who are being judgmental. Regardless of what the money might have been used for, if sold, these women gave Jesus a great gift. The appropriate response to receiving a gift is “thank you.”
Taken out of context, Jesus saying “you will always have poor with you, but you will not always have me,” discounts Christ’s call to us to serve the poor. And, in Luke, the Pharisee suggesting that we should not accept gifts from sinners, condemns people for past behaviors. But it is not our place to judge others, and what they are able to give. In Luke’s story, Jesus says, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” The people there, object to Jesus declaring forgiveness, but that is another story.
Whether it is Judas objecting, or those present who witness the gifts these women give to Jesus, they are judging these women’s actions without seeing what is in their hearts. Jesus, of course, knows their hearts and knows they are acting with great love.
In both John and Mark, the anointing takes place days before Jesus is crucified and what Jesus says about them anointing him before his burial tells us he knows what is to come. There are times when we don’t want to say what we are thinking, because it makes it real. Jesus has told his disciples what will happen, but I feel certain they are expecting another miracle rather than what is about to unfold.
They all know Jesus’ life is in danger, so what he says here makes it all the more real. “You will not always have me,” Jesus says to his disciples. These are difficult words to hear. Yet, being human means, we are mortal – and Jesus is human. There a people in positions of power who want to put an end to the influence he has on the masses.
We began Lent being anointed with oil and ash, hearing the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We have been reminded of our mortality and we are now preparing to experience the passion of Christ – his arrest, his trial, his execution, and his burial. And for what? Jesus did this for us.
There can be no Easter without Good Friday, so Holy Week is an important week in our practice of faith. It is a difficult and painful week, but it is necessary for us to reminder Easter comes at a price if we are to fully appreciate what Jesus has done for us. Mary anoints Jesus, she demonstrates her love and appreciation for his presence that night. As part of our preparation for Holy Week, we, too, need to be grateful for Christ’s presence.
I recently received a pocket cross as a gift. On the back of the cross is a quote from Isaiah: “Fear not for I am with you.” The rest of the verse says, “do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” We can draw strength from knowing that Christ’s death on the cross is not the end. Christ is victorious! This cross is a needed reminder to me that I am never working alone. Christ is with me, just as he is with you.
But not let’s not skip ahead. Let us continue to examine our lives and our need for Christ to be a part of our lives. Then, let us remember what Christ experiences in the week that begins with such fanfare as he enters into Jerusalem with people shouting his praise. The week where that praise quickly turns to betrayal and death. Holy Week is a time when we not only remember this week is his life, it is a time when we can experience it. Holy Week is not about coming to church so we can leave feeling good, it is about understanding the depth of Christ’s love for us. So, I encourage you to participate fully by attending as many of our services as you can.
Let us pray,
Loving God, as we prepare to experience the passion of our Lord, help us to be mindful of your presence and your never-ending love for us. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.