by David Glover
editorial assistant Zygon Journal, project administrator, ZCRS
Grace and peace to you from our lord and savior, Jesus Christ
Having traveled this far through Lent with Luke’s shocking scenes, and their exhortations to repent, we now find ourselves hearing John tell us of what might be the most shocking scene of all—a party that ends up with one of the hostesses on the floor wiping ointment into the feet of the guest of honor with her hair, and, to top it all off, the whole building smells like a mortuary. What a party killer!
But let’s back up. This is John after all, and not Luke with whom we have been travelling during our previous four weeks of Lent. How did Jesus get to this party in the first place?
In the chapter preceding this week’s text Jesus, while on his way to Jerusalem, stops in Bethany specifically to raise Lazarus from the dead. You know the story, it is read other years at this time. Jesus, hearing from Martha and Mary that Lazarus is ill waits two days before traveling on to Bethany and once there learns that Lazarus has been buried for four days—he is good and dead. In spite of this Jesus calls the dead man from his tomb; after which Jesus and his disciples leave for Ephraim.
So, the party that we hear about today is the one that Martha and Mary throw for Jesus six days before the Passover to thank him for giving them back their brother and giving Jesus a chance to spend time with his dear friends in Bethany before continuing on to Jerusalem the next day to join in the activities leading up to the festival. Presumably Jesus had retreated to Ephraim to give the sisters some space in which to plan and prepare for the party since preparations for something like this are more difficult when the guest of honor is underfoot and especially when the guest of honor is someone like Jesus. Someone who has a history of turning water into tasty wine and feeding thousands at the drop of a hat; there could be embarrassing moments during the preparations if these preceding feats were remembered in his presence.
Martha and Mary complete their preparations and the appointed hour arrives for this unusual party. Jesus and Lazarus, raiser and raisee, sit down with Jesus’ disciples and the other guests to celebrate this particular resurrection feast and Martha begins to serve them all.
The party continues as all parties are wont to do, louder at times, softer at others. The next day’s plans may come up. Maybe it was really at this party that Jesus told the disciples whom in Bethany to approach to get the now famous donkey on which he rides in to Jerusalem. John doesn’t say, he only tells us that Jesus found a donkey sometime after the party and before he got to Jerusalem and the only information provided by the other gospels is that the donkey was acquired somewhere near Bethany. We don’t really know what minor conversations occurred or what final details for the next day’s journey may have been set at the party—the story of the donkey is for next week’s preachers anyway. What we do know is how the party broke up.
Somewhere, somehow, Mary procured a good quantity of high quality nard and at some point in the evening she entered the party room and poured this nard on Jesus’ feet. And, to be really sure that it got on his feet she knelt down and rubbed it in with her hair.
How could she stand it with her nose an inch or two from the source of this strong smell? We know it must have been strong smelling because the whole house was filled with the aroma of this burial perfume. And what was she thinking! Reminding everyone of death when they were celebrating Lazarus’ return to life.
Mary was willing to sacrifice her stinging, watery eyes and skirts and hair damp and pungent from the spilled nard because Jesus had given her back her brother. She may also have been able to stand the smell because it was familiar to her, familiar from the time a week or so previous when she had anointed Lazarus’ body prior to his (first) burial and where the strong aroma also masked the smell of death that had come to their house.
With her action she reminded everyone at the party of the need to constantly repent of their daily sins for death may come at any moment. Something that Jesus had to speak of before some of those present realized what was happening. (Something which we had also heard Jesus say two weeks ago from Luke’s account about the Galileans whom Pilate killed and the residents of Jerusalem on whom the tower fell.)
At the end of this resurrection feast her extravagant act reminded everyone that generosity begets new life which begets generosity. Following Jesus’ gracious gift of life given to her brother she responded with a gracious gift of preparation for Jesus. A costly gift, as we know, a year’s savings from her retirement or “rainy day”/unemployment fund.
Are we ready to respond likewise? With all that we have? By the grace of God and through the sacrifice that Jesus has made we can. If we are but willing to respond as Mary’s example has shown us.
John 12: 1-8