12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Do you know why you should never iron a four-leaf clover? It’s best not to press your luck!
Today is St. Patrick’s Day, a day set aside to remember the life of the man who is known for his role as the first bishop of Ireland. St. Patrick is also known for caring for the poor, which seems appropriate today as we consider this passage from John’s gospel. This is a story that we can find in some form in all four of the gospels. And I generally believe that if something was so important that all four evangelists chose to include it in their writings, we should take special notice of it as well.
Let’s start by looking at the context for today’s scripture. If we consider all four of the gospels we find that Jesus had an ongoing relationship with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. He has been to their home a number of times and the text tells us how hard of a worker and what a great host Martha was while Mary was consistently the one who was more interested in matters of the heart; matters of the spirit.
Lazarus, Mary, and Martha live in Bethany which is a city just outside of Jerusalem, less than two miles away from the city gates. This is about the distance from the church to my house. The New Testament makes it sound like when Jesus was heading to Jerusalem he often stopped by to see his friends in Bethany.
In John 11, just one chapter earlier than our text for today, we find what is probably the best-known story coming out of Jesus’ many trips to Bethany: his raising Lazarus from the dead. And of course in this story is one of my favorite lines in all of the New Testament, particularly from the KJV, “He stinketh.”
Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead pushes the religious leaders to gather together to discuss what they want to do about Jesus and they make the decision that he needs to die. Because, of course, the only reasonable punishment for bringing someone back to life is death, right? John goes on to tell us that this is the last public appearance that Jesus makes before his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In the meantime, he and his disciples go camping in the wilderness of Ephraim.
Today’s passage picks up just six days before the Passover Feast with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem again. So what does Jesus do when he goes to Jerusalem? The same thing he does every time he goes to Jerusalem: he stops by to see how his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are doing. “How are you doing with that whole being raised from the dead thing by now?”
As usual, Martha is working away in the kitchen, Lazarus is taking it easy – the guy had just recently died, so we can’t be too hard on him – and Mary is being true to her reputation. She is more interested in matters of the heart and matters of the spirit. Mary grabs a pint jar of nard, which is an oil that comes from a plant similar to the lavender plant, and she dumps it on Jesus’ feet.
This isn’t like getting some Johnson and Johnson’s baby oil and rubbing it on his feet. This is expensive stuff. It was imported and usually only available as a luxury item. Judas mentions later that a pint of this oil is worth a year’s wages. And Mary just dumped it on Jesus’ feet.
But this act was not simply done because Jesus had dry or stinky feet. Some people refer to this as Mary anointing Jesus’ feet.
There were several occasions that called for anointing in the biblical days. The first one that comes to my mind is the anointing of a king. I think of Samuel anointing Saul and later David as the king of Israel. This was a symbolic act of setting aside someone for a special role.
A similar act took place when a new High Priest came into power. When someone was to begin this role, they held a service where the new High Priest was anointed as one called out by God for a specific job in the temple.
A third reason for anointing we find in the Bible was for healing of the sick. This is something we see in the book of James where Christians are invited to anoint one another and pray when someone is ill.
The final anointing that I comes to mind is that the dead were anointed with oil. Remember that when the women go to Jesus’ grave on Easter morning, they are going to anoint his body with oils and herbs. I don’t get this, because the body is just going to “stinketh” soon enough anyway. But I am sure they would wonder why I do some of the things that I do as well.
So kings, High Priests, the sick, and the dead were anointed with oil. The word we translate from Hebrew as anoint is Meshiach, and the Greek equivalent is Christos. This makes me wonder if Mary had been privy to some special insight during one of Jesus’ trips to Bethany. Perhaps he verbally shared his fate with Mary because she seems to get it. She seems to know what is going to happen and who Jesus is. Perhaps it is because she does pay so much attention to matters of the heart and spirit. Perhaps we could say it is because she had ears to hear. Mary seems prophetic in this act of extravagant love. Jesus even affirms that she is preparing him for his death when he says, “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”
Yet I wonder why this simple, peasant woman had this valuable oil in her possession to start with. I assume that this was oil that was purchased to anoint her brother, Lazarus as he lay in the grave. But she never got the chance to use it. And Mary knew that because Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, that Jesus’ life was now in jeopardy. Jesus has traded his life for Lazarus’. That is why she anoints Jesus.
But nobody else seems to get this and the disciples grumble about Mary’s generous gift. And to be honest, I struggle with it as well. I even preached a sermon once titled “I agree with Judas” because Judas suggested that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Maybe his intentions were somewhat impure, but a year’s worth of wages was poured on the floor and on the feet of a man seems like a waste to me. Especially when people in our neighborhood go hungry every day.
One of the most problematic phrases that I find in this text come from the mouth of Jesus and is found in verse 8: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
I heard a story this week from a pastor who grew up in a well-off, suburban family in Florida. She was a part of a very active youth group that participated in efforts to feed the hungry and improve her neighborhood by painting over graffiti and things like that. All of which are good things.
Then, when she was in college, she went to a third-world country where she saw people who were starving every day and people who were dying from treatable diseases. She said that when she came home she went into period of depression. Finally, she asked her father, “What can we do to help these people?”
Her father replied, “Well, Jesus said, ‘The poor you will have with you always.’”
Wasn’t it Jesus that said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-36; 40)? Didn’t Jesus repeatedly call people to sell their possessions, give their money to the poor, and follow him (Mark 10:17-27)? Didn’t Jesus say that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24)? And what do we do with passage after passage in the Old Testament that teach about caring for the poor?
My advice for understanding this verse from John 12 is to not allow one challenging passage to trump the overall biblical witness. If Jesus and the rest of the Bible repeatedly tell us to care for the poor and one verse says something that might challenge those clear teachings, perhaps we need to dig a little deeper to understand the passage that doesn’t jive well with the others.
I found that my study Bible had a footnote to verse 8. So I went to the bottom of the page and that footnote sent me to Deuteronomy 15:11, which says, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
Jesus and his disciples knew the Old Testament passages pretty well. In fact, it was quite common for young Jewish men to memorize the entire Torah. So when Jesus told his disciples “You will always have the poor among you,” he probably assumed that the disciples already knew the rest of the passage. Jesus might have said, “You will always have the poor among you; therefore take good care of them. However, I am not going to be here much longer.”
No, Jesus isn’t saying that the disciples of his day and the disciples of today should be ignoring the poor because it is a problem that you will never be able to solve. When he says that that they will always be among the poor, I am pretty sure that Jesus is saying that his followers should be the kind of people who interact, live with, worship with, and break bread with the poor. The poor will always be among followers of Jesus because followers of Jesus will always seek to be with the poor.
So I come back to the question of why Jesus would allow Mary to pour out this expensive oil over his feet and reprimand the disciples when they suggest that it could have been sold to feed the poor. I think that Mary is showing and Jesus is affirming that we are called to pour out extravagant love for those who are near to us, to care for those close to us, to treat the ones God places before us like Jesus himself would. And if Jesus is also saying that we will always have the poor with us, then it follows that we will always show extravagant love to the poor.
I have shared a number of times that one of my favorite movies of all times is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And while it seems a little bit strange to talk about a Christmas movie during Lent, I’m going to do it anyway.
The lead character, George Baily, is a bit of a dreamer. From a young age, George dreamed of seeing the world. Places like Paris, Hong Kong, and Rome seemed to be high on George’s list.
George’s father is a partner in Bedford Fall’s only building and loan office, which is appropriately called Baily Building and Loan. People would invest their money in the Building and Loan, and that money was used to fund the building projects around town through home mortgages.
The only other option in town for anyone that needed a loan was to go to the bank, which was owned by Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter was a mean old sort, interested only in making a buck, no matter whose toes he had to step on. He was rich, he was powerful, and he was ruthless.
George grows up to be a fine young man: smart, good looking, and likeable. And he has saved up enough money to take a trip to see the world before he starts college. But just before he is to leave, his father dies un-expectantly. And the only way to keep the Building and Loan going is for George to take over as the acting president. This means George not only has to give up his trip around the world, but he also ends up giving up on going to college as well.
A few years pass and George has the Building and Loan running like a well-oiled machine. He has also fallen in love with a young lady and they get married. Finally, George is going to go on a honeymoon with his new bride and they are going to see the world. He has the money to burn, and he is going places.
As George and his wife are leaving the wedding ceremony, they notice something going on at the Building and Loan. George invites his taxi driver to pull over so he can see what the commotion is all about. It turns out that Mr. Potter had called their loan, which pretty well exhausted all of their cash on hand. So Uncle Billy locks the doors and there is what they call “a run” at the Building and Loan. Many of the people who have invested money want their shares back now or else, they fear, they will never see that money again. This was, after all, during the Great Depression era.
When George arrives he lets everyone into the Building and Loan and begins to sort through the mess. One gentleman demands all of his money so that he can close his account. But again, there is no cash on hand. Then George’s new wife, appropriately named Mary, brings all of the cash that she and George had been planning to spend on their honeymoon trip and George begins handing it out to the people…handing out his own money.
The man who wants to close out his account takes a large portion of that money. But there are considerate people who only take what they need to get through the weekend. And when the 5 o’clock whistle blows, they have two dollars left.
Mary knows that George will be heartbroken because she knows that it has been George’s lifelong dream to see the world, and now it may never happen. George showed extravagant love for the people of Bedford Falls. Now it was Mary’s turn to show extravagant love to George.
She sends out Bert and Ernie, the cop and the cab driver, to find pictures of the exotic places that George wants to see. She finds some tropical music and puts it on the old record player, which also is running a make-shift rotisserie, cooking their chicken. If George Baily can’t go out to see the world, Mary is going to do the best that she can to bring the world to George Baily.
We are called to love the ones that God puts in front of us, and we are called to love them extravagantly. Sometimes that means spending money. Sometimes that means being creative. But always — always — it means giving something of yourself.
If there is someone God puts in your life, you have a responsibility to love them extravagantly. How that will take shape will depend on the situation and your resources. Perhaps it means giving away money. Maybe it means bringing someone’s dreams to life. It could mean pouring out a jar of expensive oil. Regardless, God puts people in our lives so we can show them love.