Funereal Perfume

The sense of smell can evoke powerful memories. The scent of perfume may bring to mind festive occasions. But here in John 12:1-11 Jesus associates the rich aroma of expensive perfume with a funeral–with his own burial.

Appreciate the appropriateness of Mary’s extravagant gift. The value of the rich perfume which Mary poured over the feet of Jesus was, estimated by an expert, at a year’s wages for a laboring man, the equivalent of thousands of dollars.

Matthew and Mark’s Gospels record what is probably the same anointing, but Luke includes an earlier, different one. John ties this incident with the raising of Lazarus. Remember Jesus’ words about walking in the day, rather than in darkness? The time for him to walk in daylight was nearing its end. But before it ended, Jesus was celebrating in Bethany with a number of his followers. Herman Ridderbos comments: “[Jesus’] words disclose the degree to which the approaching end becomes ever more vividly real to him and how intensely and graphically he involves his fellow guests in that end in order to open their eyes to its reality, which is increasingly important for them as well. Mary has an inkling of it. While in Jerusalem the tensions and threats surrounding Jesus grow increasingly more ominous and as Jesus still moves in the fullness of his glory among his own in Bethany and is still ‘with her,’ she has grasped the urgency of the moment and has seized the opportunity while it is still available. Thus she gives Jesus the loving response of his own at the appropriate time, doing so vicariously, as it were, for all generations who will remember and honor her for it as long as the gospel is proclaimed (Mk. 14:9).” (The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, p. 420)

Picture Jesus, Lazarus, and other guests reclining on couches as they ate. Martha is busy being Martha. Then Mary enters, pours the rich perfume on Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair–a display of utter humility and devotion, especially in a culture in which women did not let down their hair.

It may be reading too much into the text to assume that Mary had a full awareness of the impending suffering and death of Christ and that she would not have the opportunity then to anoint his body, but she does seem to be more aware of his death than others, certainly more aware than the disciples. She has at least an inkling, and probably much more, of what Jesus is about to do.

Jesus is the one who brings up the topic that is probably not discussed too often around a festive dinner table–his burial. While it may be difficult to understand exactly what Jesus meant by her keeping the perfume (it had just been poured out), what is clear is that he is rebuking Judas for his objection and he commends Mary and connects her act of devotion with his impending burial.

Whatever others in the room may or may not have known, Jesus is moving on his timetable. He is progressing towards not just attending, but being the Passover. Despite the efforts of the leaders of Israel to hasten his death (and even that of Lazarus!), he will function as Priest as he has been appointed. At the beginning of his public ministry he had been anointed with the Holy Spirit. Now he accepts this anointing from Mary as he prepares for the heart of he redemptive work, his death and resurrection. He will, as Isaiah had prophesied, make his grave with the rich in his death. Jesus sees that being fulfilled, not only in Joseph of Arimathea’s generous provision of his unused tomb, but also in Mary’s extravagant anointing. He is about to give himself as the silently suffering lamb so that the guilt of your sins might be placed on him.

As John (and the Holy Spirit) juxtapose the responses of Judas and Mary, they call you to sacrificial service of your Lord. Though the other Gospels mention criticism of Mary coming from the disciples, John identifies Judas as the specific source of criticism. His proposed alternative use of the gift is insincere. John points to Judas’ role as treasurer for the group and his desire to pilfer funds. No denunciation of Judas’ treachery could be stronger than John’s simple juxtaposition of “one of his disciples,” and “who would betray him.”

At the end of John 11 you have seen the self-centeredness of the Sanhedrin who were willing to sacrifice one man so that their position and authority could be upheld. Judas also has his own interests in mind. From his perspective the establishment of the messianic kingdom was going nowhere. If he cannot get his hands on the extravagant gift, he will name a price for betraying his Master.

The excuse he used was concern for the poor. Jesus’ rebuke sets the priority straight: his presence and the events relating to his sacrifice take precedence even over providing for the poor. Don’t use Jesus’ words as an excuse for neglect of those in need: his quote from Deuteronomy 15 is set in a context of Moses setting forth what being God’s covenant people looks like. In the New Testament as well the diaconal function of the church is crucially important. Providing for the poor is part of your response of devotion to your Lord.

Mary’s gift expresses deep devotion to her Lord, profound appreciation for who he is and for what he has done for her. Lying behind her devotion is not only gratitude for Jesus raising her brother, Lazarus. She also has some sense of her own need and the necessity of the suffering and death of her Lord. A lack of understanding of your own sinfulness leads to a shallow view of the person and work of Christ.

As you understand your need of the Savior, turn to him in faith–that is one reason John recorded Mary’s action. Pour out your life in response to him. You may not have an expensive gift to offer. And even if you were to proffer a flask of Mary’s ointment, the feet of Jesus no longer walk on the earth–“you will not always have me.” But the humility and devotion, which were really what made Mary’s gift precious, are gifts you can offer. You owe him the best of what you have and of who you are.

Do you grasp the importance of Jesus’ burial? Are you willing to pour out, not expensive ointment, but yourself as an offering of gratitude to him?

[in preparation for a sermon on John 12:1-11, Jan. 6, 2012]

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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