Lectionary Sermon on John 12:1-8, 5th Lent, C, March 21, 2010

John 12:1-8

The Hair and the Poor Excuse

Picture a modest square house, about the size of a single car garage, made of mud bricks, whitewashed with a lime plaster – probably looks much like an adobe house.  It’s evening, sun is setting; it’s very dim inside.  Lighting is by oil lamp.

There isn’t much furniture at all.  On the floor in the middle of the room is a thing that looks like a Japanese tea-ceremony table.  It sits low to the ground.  If  you recline on the reed floor mat with your head close to the table, leaning on your left elbow, your right hand would be free to reach the table and take from it your food and drink.

Who is there?

This is the scene.  The home belongs to two sisters and a brother; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Who is at that table?  Most likely just men.  The women were expected to serve – as Martha is doing.  Her sister Mary is busy with something else – she has not made her appearance yet.

Lazarus is at the table – and this is the amazing thing, because Lazarus got sick and died.  He spent four stinking days in a rock tomb before Jesus finally came and spoke those words that brought life back into his wrapped-up, rotting body: “Lazarus, come out!”

He did come out, and now, some days later, he is well.  This is a celebration dinner!   A quiet celebration.  I picture it like Anne Frank’s family celebrating Chanukah in hiding; joy and foreboding sit together at that table.  Lazarus’ life has been snatched back from the grave; Jesus’ life edges closer and closer, just as he said it would.

Taking Risks in Bethany

They are taking a risk there in Bethany; it’s just over the hill from Jerusalem where “the powers that be” are feeling so threatened by Jesus that they have already tried and failed to kill him once.  If he gives them another chance, they will most likely succeed.  In fact it seems so likely to the people in that little house, that at least one of them considers it a done deal.  She has started making arrangements.

Who else is at that table?  The scene in John’s gospel has lots of shadows and not much light; the only people we see are Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and Judas.  If Judas is there we assume that the other disciples are there too, but like many things in this story, we cannot see them, so deep are those shadows.

Many mysterious shadows

There are other things we don’t see; things that don’t seem to make sense.  Mary comes into the room – but not to help Martha serve dinner; she comes in with another purpose.  She has an entire pound of perfume valued at one whole annual salary in her hands!  Why does she have it?

They just had a death in the family; should she not have used that perfume to anoint her dead brother? Why didn’t she? Was she expecting him not to die because Jesus was certainly going to come to heal him – wasn’t he?  Was she expecting, even in the hours after his death, that Jesus would show up and revive him?  Did she keep hoping until it was finally past the time when it was possible to enter the tomb?  Is that why, when Jesus finally did show up, Martha told him that Lazarus’ corpse  smelled so bad, after only 4 days in the tomb – because he had not been anointed for burial?  We do not see into those shadows; we only see Mary there, with the  unopened perfume in her hands, and the vivid memory of that day in her heart.

Feet?  Not head?

There are more shadows of mystery.  Mary comes over to where Jesus is reclining, kneels down, and pours the anointing perfume on him, as if he were a corpse. She does not anoint his head, as one would the head of a living king to honor him; she anoints his feet.  Jesus gets the message; to Mary, he is as good as a corpse already.

When Judas watches this and makes his snide remark, Jesus tells him, “Leaver her alone.  She did this so that she might keep it for my burial.”  Jesus understand her.
Mary is thinking, “May as well get him ready while you have the chance, because if the boots of those who are coming to get him kick in the door tonight, who knows; this may be the last we will ever see of him.

The Hair

Deeper in shadows still is the explanation for what happens next.  In a culture in which men and women have limited contact, especially unmarried men and unmarried women, Mary shocks the party.  As if it were not outrageous enough that she has just poured out a year’s salary’s worth of perfume on the feet of a corpse that isn’t dead yet, now she does what is only done behind a wedding door: she lets her hair down in front of a man (in fact, men!)!
She leans down and works that perfume into the bare skin of Jesus’ feet using her hair in place of a cloth.  Now she too smells like a freshly anointed corpse.  Is she expecting to share his fate?  Is she casting her lot “until death do us part” with a man who, she believes, may not live to see morning?  This goes way beyond extravagance!

Are there words for what she is feeling?  John leaves them off the page; in the shadows.  We can only watch, amazed if somewhat baffled.   And yet it was this man’s words that had brought Lazarus back to life the sole male in that family; if you were Mary, what would you have withheld under those circumstances?

The Poor Excuse

But now a new kind of shadow appears, like the moonlit shadow of a stranger on an unprotected door.  It is the shadow that Judas’ dark hart pumps into the room as he speaks.  Judas’ mother had named him for his country, Judah, and for the great hero of the not too distant past who had led the Jewish forces to victory over the Greeks, (Judas Maccabee); she had held such high hopes for her son, the thief.  Judas aspires to a kind of greatness: a very personal, very ugly kind.

Like all con-men who know the soft-spots of their victims, the place where they are most likely to let down their guard, the place closest to their hearts, Judas knows where to stick his jab; he brings up Jesus’ famous concern for the poor.   You can almost see the curl in his upper lip as he spits out the quickly cost-accounted calculation.

Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  (verse 5)


No greater opposite pair could be in the same room; Mary, who has filled the room with fragrance, sitting disheveled on the floor at Jesus’ feet where nothing remains to her that she has not given; and Judas, filling the room with the stink of his contemptuous self-interest, miserable that he hasn’t got more of what no one takes with them in the end.
In between is Jesus, who alone has the words of life.

We have entered that room today.  We are among those other disciples witnessing this contrasting display from the shadows, just out of sight.  We have a choice before us.

The Choice

We all have been where Judas is – we have to admit that.  We have all been there, believing that just “a little bit more” will solve our problems.  We have all felt the impressive, comforting weight of those coins in the money bag and were afraid of the vulnerable lightness of letting them go, even when faced with needs we could have met.  But we have all also recoiled in horror of becoming Judas, the betrayer.  We want to make a different choice.

But can we be Mary?  Is it possible?  Can we see ourselves so utterly abandoned to Jesus and his cause that we relinquish every alternative source of security?  Could we ever see ourselves taking on that kind of risk – of respectability, of reputation, of livelihood?

If so, it would be possible only after coming to one settled conclusion: that Jesus’ words bring hope and life into situations that otherwise are hopelessly dead.  Look at Lazarus sitting there at table and remember that day when his name was called and he came out of that dark tomb.  Look at yourself sitting there and remember your baptism on which day your name was called, and you were brought to life as a child of God!

Memories to deal withIt has not been easy; we have gone through valleys of  shadows.  We are like Mary; each one of us has in our hands a remembrance of times of deep disappointment with God’s plans for us.  We had the perfume to anoint the dead but we didn’t imagine we would have to use it.  We never expected to have had to go through that illness, that crisis, that divorce, that pain – we prayed to be rescued but rescue didn’t come in time, and the rock rolled over the occupied tomb.  The perfume in our hands is there to remind us.

But that was not the last word, was it?  The Lord of Life has a sense of timing that we do not understand; there are shadows of mystery that remain.  But words of life from Jesus do follow the crisis; and here we are today as living proof.

And so, we want to be like Mary – joyfully giving back life for life.  We are people who have committed ourselves, “until death do us part” to Jesus and his life-giving words.
This is why his soft spot is our soft spot that Judas identified.  We are passionate about the poor, as was Jesus.  We are passionate about social justice as Jesus was, even if the pundits mock us for it.  We are passionate about the weak, the vulnerable, the outcasts, the suffering, because the Lord of Life on whom we have staked our hope was and is passionate about them.

The dishes are cleared, the oil lamps dim, the company rests. In the morning, at first light, the door will open, fresh cool air will flow in, and we will depart the house.  Mary will go one direction; Judas the other.  Which will we take?


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