“Mary came in with a jar of every expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus; feet, and then wiped them with her hair. The fragrance of the oils filled the house.” John 12:3 (The Message)
Over the past few days, I have been reading commentaries on the passage from John 12:1-8 as I work on my sermon for this coming Sunday. I’m amazed at the number of “takes” on this story: educated people who see Mary’s motives in a variety of ways. She is highly contrasted with Judas, and yet there are some who encourage us to see things from Judas’ point of view and not to vilify him. I think that’s an important thing to remember – we need to keep in mind the whole picture of the culture of the day, the possible setting at Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s house for their party.
For example, they would probably not have sat at what we consider a table. It was probably a low bench type table with cushions surrounding it. That would put a little different picture of Mary kneeling in front of Jesus to anoint his feet. But I’m not really focusing so much on the background details as seeking to get a little better picture of Mary of Bethany according to this scripture lesson.
“The fragrance of the oils filled the house” is a reminder of the aromatic oils that were used in embalming. Maybe they were in their house already because Martha and Mary had buried their brother not that much earlier, and Jesus raised him from the dead, so he is noted as being at the party. We are familiar with Mary and Martha from Luke 10 where Martha complained that Mary wasn’t helping her in the kitchen and is, instead, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening. Jesus told Martha that Mary had picked the better part, not saying that Martha was wrong, but saying that we need both balance and action in order to live fully, and we start with our relationship with God.
In the John passage, Mary has chosen to anoint Jesus’ feet which was a symbol of preparation for his death. Mary showed a lot of courage in this story. First, she mingled with the men, Jesus and his disciples and Lazarus (and whoever else might have been there) which wasn’t a normal thing for a woman to do. Second, she touched Jesus openly and in an intimate way. This was not acceptable in that culture – women did not touch any man including their husbands in public. Third, she let her hair down – big no-no! But Jesus saw beyond the societal expectations and convention and praised her for her act of love.
Isn’t every act of discipleship an act of love for Jesus? We are called to follow Jesus, and when we do, what we do is a way of serving him and sharing his love with others. Mary is giving back to Jesus which is what we do when we offer acts of love and kindness to others, even those whom we don’t know.
In today’s world, there is a lot of “stink” around, as well as a real lack of courage from those who are part of church communities. We don’t seem to be bold enough to “get our hands full of oil” and anoint the world with God’s love. The small courtesies, the times of “paying it forward,” the tolerance of differences, the ability to listen to another, for example, are all products of the love of God in Christ Jesus that beg to be exercised, experienced and shared. So, may we spread the aroma of our discipleship one house, one church, one person, one congregation, one community at a time so the aroma fills the entire world. God bless!