In our passage this morning, John describes for us a celebratory dinner. It was a dinner held at the start of the Passion Week just six days prior to the Passover.
We are told Jesus and his disciples were invited to dine at a home in Bethany. It is a small village located approximately two miles outside of Jerusalem. Jesus was familiar with the town. He had taught there and, as John writes in chapter 11, raised Lazarus from the dead there, an act that symbolized his eventual resurrection.
Bethany was a resting place for Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Since his transformation Jesus has been singularly focused on reaching Jerusalem. It was there that he would fulfill the mission to redeem humanity. He would do so by offering himself as the sacrifice for humanity’s sin.
John says that Jesus is the guest of honor at this dinner. We don’t know who hosted party, but we might guess it was the homeowner and the larger community. The dinner might have been a celebration of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. We might suppose this based on the fact that John included Lazarus at the meal, along with his sisters, Martha and Mary.
Initially, the meal goes off as we might expect. Martha helps to prepare the feast. Luke describes Martha as someone focused on hospitality. Her way of honoring Jesus is by cooking the meal. Lazarus is sitting at the table likely with Jesus. This indicates that he was also being honored.
Everything was going according to plan until Mary decides to do something unexpected, but not out of character. She takes an expensive bottle of perfume and pours it on Jesus’ feet. She then proceeds to wipe the perfume away with her own hair. It is a deeply emotional act that fits with what we know of Mary. Luke tells us that it was Mary who desired to sit at Jesus’ feet, which was symbolic of wanting to learn from someone. Mary has a deep devotion and love of Jesus and we see this everywhere that she is discussed in Scripture.
What Mary does in this passage is deeply sensual and emotional. It is one that takes over the entire room, both literally and figuratively. Literally, the smell of the perfume filled the entire house. You could smell it everywhere. Figuratively, Mary’s act probably caught the entire party off guard. All eyes likely would have been on Mary and Jesus looking for a response.
Traditionally, this Sunday prior to Palm Sunday is one that we have set aside to focus on Mary’s act. There is a reason for this. Beyond the emotional aspect of her act there is a deeply significant reason that is found in her act of love. What Mary truly has done is to anoint Jesus with these perfumes. It is an act that she does simply out of her love for the Lord.
The act of anointing was an important aspect of the Jewish faith and Hebrew culture. During an anointing, an oil or perfume would be applied to a person.
It is an act that has some deeply religious connotations and can have several purposes. For one, someone could be anointed to take on an important office, such as king or prophet. Anointing oils could be placed on someone as an act of hospitality or as a way of refreshing the body. They could also be placed on the sick. Finally, oils were used to anoint a body following someone’s death. Regardless of what purpose was behind the anointing it was a deeply significant act of faith when it was done. It was an act rich in symbolism and trusting in God’s love, direction care, and protection.
Mary’s act of anointing Jesus with the perfume takes on several meanings. What Mary did was to prepare Jesus for his burial. She can sense that Jesus’ death is coming. Jesus has taught that he would need to die in order for the mission to be fulfilled. Sensing that this day was coming Mary is preparing Jesus for his burial. Mary’s grief, which we see in the fact that she let her hair down symbolic of one’s grief, and love for the Lord led her to make this offering. As well, Mary’s anointing was symbolic of Jesus’ kingship. Jesus is truly king of all. It is a kingdom that does not come through military or political exploits, but through the greatest act of self-sacrifice. What Mary did was a beautiful act of recognizing who Jesus is and he was going to do.
Her act of anointing Jesus’ feet was truly a public act in response to her faith and love of Lord. It was a love fostered by her personal experiences with Jesus. Her experiences with Jesus were deeply personal and transformative. Mary was Lazarus’ sister and she would have been overwhelmed by the fact that Jesus raised him from the dead. As well, Mary was welcomed into fellowship with the Lord. It was something uncommon in those days for a woman to be valued and appreciated. Mary had reasons to love the Lord. These personal interactions transformed her and led her to respond openly to what Christ had done.
This is true for each of us. When we have experienced the Lord it calls us to respond. The deepest response we can give is to love Jesus. Love is an emotional of deep reverence and trust. Our love of Jesus is an emotion that responds to our faith in Christ with hope, appreciation, and truly delights in all that the Lord has done. It is an emotion based on what God has done in this world. We love the Lord because of how God has acted throughout history. We love Jesus because he died on the cross for you, for me, and for all people. We love because God is with us.
Our love of Christ transforms us. It motivates us to grow closer to the One who came and seeks us. Our love of the Lord is centered in a heart transformed by our encounters with Christ through Scripture, prayer, and seeking to live more closely with the Lord each day.
Love is fostered when it is shared and expressed. We know in our own personal lives that our love cannot stay within. It must be expressed outward, whether it is a kiss to our children, a gift to a loved one, or a kind word to someone we care about. When we love someone we want them to know it, and this is especially the case when it comes to our love of Christ. Expressing our love to the Lord is a deep expression of our faith and is quite holy.
This is what Mary does when she anoints Jesus’ feet. She is making an outward expression of her love of Jesus by anointing him. It is an expression of her deepest most feeling of love and trust in the Lord. It is an act that Jesus appreciates and welcomes.
Not everyone shares this same appreciation. One of Jesus’ disciples is open about his belief that what Mary has done is wasteful. This disciple is Judas.
John notes Judas’ frustration with Mary’s action as a way to focus on Judas’ personality and why he would betray Christ. Judas believes the perfume should have been sold to support the poor. Judas’ appeal might seem understandable. However, there is something deeper going on. Judas is more concerned about his own interests. His discipleship was clouded by greed and self. John says the real reason Judas wanted to sell the perfume was to benefit his own finances. He tells us Judas routinely stole money from donations given to support Jesus and the disciples.
The contrast between John and Mary is clear. While Mary responds out of her love and reverence Judas responds based on a love of self and an unappreciative attitude for who Jesus truly is. It is a love based on his own desires. What John does is open the curtain in order to shine light on Judas’ true devotion to the Lord while highlighting what true devotion to Jesus looks like. This is why Jesus is quick to denounce Judas’ concern. Jesus says Mary is right because his time is short. Mary has shown love to the Lord by caring for him in this moment. Jesus says her devotion is based on a love of the Lord and not of self.
Mary’s devotion begs us to examine how we respond to Christ. Our encounters and interactions with Jesus require a response from us. The basic response is a love of the Lord that transforms every aspect of how we are. Love is truly the most basic element to our relationship with the Lord. It is also the greatest, because it signifies our hope, confidence, and assurance that what Christ did for the world, he also did for us.
Our love of Christ is not simply faint words of expression. It is a real and powerful emotion that transforms everything about us and calls us to live in response to all that the Lord has done for us. Our love inspires us to respond with a devotion similar to Mary’s, by caring for Christ in how we share our love. Mary’s response to her love of Christ was to anoint him for his death and kingship. Our response to love can be seen in so many ways and is truly by living our lives in response to what Christ has done and continues to do in each of us.
What Mary shows us is that it is acceptable to allow our love of Christ to not be a hidden and private expression, but to be expressed fully in how we live and share our love with others. As Jesus says, what we do for others we do to him.
Our love of Christ can be exhibited in so many ways, such as prayer, giving, serving, or taking leadership in the life of the community. For Mary, she expressed her love through the offering of perfume. What about us? How will we respond to the greatest love ever shared to us?