The Gospel of John is not newspaper narrative. It is full of metaphor and symbol designed to open the reader to deeper meaning. In Chapter 3, for example, John’s Jesus says, “I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus is the foil which points us beyond the literal. “4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’…. 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
We meet another such call to spiritual depth, and its foil of shallow life, in the John 12 reading set for this week. The text looks forward to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and is followed in Chapter 13 by the unmistakeable challenge to costly discipleship. It is set in the context of a meal where the hostess, Mary, publicly
took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (12:3)
The original story has a woman anoint Jesus’ head, which is politically provocative; kings were anointed. (Mark 14:3-9, Matthew 26:6-13) Luke knows the tradition which had a woman anointing Jesus’ feet, but makes her “a woman of the city, a sinner,” which can be used to excuse her excessive devotion. (Luke 7:36-50) But John makes this anointing the act of Mary the sister of Lazarus, who is beyond reproach. Her actions are unmistakeably erotic.
The unbinding of hair is reserved only for a husband. In our own culture, caressing another’s feet … is not generally done outside the bedroom. Thus, the familiarity of Mary’s action is astounding, embarrassing, and uncomfortable for those witnessing (or reading about) such intimacy.
Mary is shameless as she steps far outside the bounds of convention, teetering on the edge of scandal. Mary’s actions are laced with a wanton tenderness found between married couples, not an unmarried man and woman. Even for Jesus, who regularly stepped outside the social mores binding women of his time … the fact that he allows her to perform this display of tender love is also astonishing. (Chana Tetzlaff)
The foil to Mary is Judas, who is repelled by the intimacy of Mary’s actions. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” he cries, which is a seemingly worthy response. But Jesus takes Mary’s part and condemns society with has statement, “You will always have the poor with you.”
Judas is repelled by the intimacy of Mary’s actions. In John these actions symbolise an intimacy with Spirit, a total giving of oneself to God as one gives in sexual intimacy. Judas recoils from spiritual renewal and intimacy, and hides his fear with the emotional blackmail of “the poor.” John emphasises this. “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.”
The words of hope in all this? There is something beyond money. There is an intimacy with God which is lavish and extravagant, and which is resurrecting.
And the poor? Perhaps Sydney Carter’s song provides direction.
“The poor of the world are my body,” he said,
“to the end of the world they shall be.
The bread and the blanket you give to the poor
you’ll know you have given to me.” he said,
“You’ll know you have given to me.”
“My body will hang from the cross of the world
“Tomorrow,” he said, “and today.
And Martha and Mary will find me again
and wash all the sorrow away,” he said,
“And wash all the sorrow away.”
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.