Johannes 12:1-8 (11:55 – 12:11) – 2016

13 Maart 2016 Pinelands – Sondag voor Palmsondag en Doopdiens
Prediker: Dr Tiana Bosman

It is almost time for the Jewish Passover Feast. Jesus’s life is in danger – because of everything that He has taught and done, recently also calling a dead Lazarus from the grave to life again. The chief priests and Pharisees ordered his arrest and people where not so sure whether Jesus would indeed attend the feast since the chances of being arrested and killed was so high. However, this does not stop Him from going.

Bethany was a town located 2 miles outside of Jerusalem. Many of the Jewish pilgrims found lodgings there since Jerusalem could not cater for all the people. Jesus and his disciples also went to Bethany where they were acquainted with Lazarus (whom Jesus called back to life) and his two sisters Martha and Mary.

We’ve met these siblings in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus was a guest in their house. There Martha was working hard at preparing a meal and serving Jesus, but she was unhappy since, instead of helping her, Mary went and sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to and learn from Him. When Martha complained about this Jesus answered her: “Martha, Martha… Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her”. It is noteworthy that, having positioned herself at Jesus’ feet to learn from Him, Mary identified with the disciples. In history there have been and still are many theologians who believe that Jesus had a very special place in his heart for Mary, loving her as much as He did the disciple Simon Peter.

Now, a week before the commencement of the Passover Feast, Jesus goes to the house of Lazarus and his sisters yet again. And everyone is in his or her expected roles. Jesus was amongst the men who reclined at the table with Lazarus, ready to be served and enjoy a meal together. (People did not sit at a table on chairs during that time and in their culture.) Martha was where she was supposed to be according to society’s customs – in the kitchen cooking and around the table serving the men. Then Mary appeared, and as previously she was completely out of tune as to where she should be (in the kitchen) and what she should do (helping Martha). But Martha has probably learned her lesson and this time around she does not complain about Mary’s lack of help. However, Judas has got some complaining to do. And if we read the same story in the other gospels, the rest of the disciples where also very upset by Mary’s behaviour.

She entered the room, took 1 litra (between 350 and 500 ml) of very expensive nard ointment (only available in the Himalayas north of India, so it has travelled a significant way to the vicinity of Jerusalem), she opens the flask (breaks it open according to Mark) and anoints the feet of Jesus with the most lovely aromatic oil, not leaving a drop to spare. All-in-all strange and unexpected behaviour. Not only did Mary disrupt the men’s meal and conversation, she also made them very uncomfortable by doing something completely out of the ordinary. People did not go around anointing each other every day. This custom was usually kept for the inauguration of a king, and then it would have been a man anointing – not the feet, but the head of the upcoming king! (Eg Samuel anointing first Saul and then David).

As if that was not enough, Mary untied her long hair and dried Jesus’ anointed feet with it. Now the men are really shifting around uncomfortably. In the Jewish custom a woman was never allowed to untie her hair in public. Only in the presence of her husband, behind closed doors, she could let her hair loose, since this gesture signified a very deep intimacy – not to be put on display in the presence of others. But Jesus does not object. On the contrary.

Why would Mary do such a thing? The text does not provide us with many answers. Mary, for one, does not speak at all. (At least there she seems to know her place.) We can only speculate. A few good guesses as to the practicality of her deed (anointing Jesus’ feet instead of his head) could be that perhaps Mary did recognize the Messiah, the king in Jesus since she would be familiar with his teachings. Maybe she understood it better than the rest of the disciples? But being a mere humble woman and not a man of stature in the community (like Samuel), she does not see it fit to anoint Jesus’ head, she rather kneels down by his feet – there where she belongs (if anywhere at all). Or – perhaps she knelt down by his feet because that was the part of his body furthest away from the table.

Judas complains that this flask of oil is way too expensive to go to waste in this way. It cost 300 denarii, equal to a day laborer’s annual income! Being the bearer of the purse he reasons that the oil could have been sold and the money used to feed the poor. True, off course, but John informs us as readers that Judas was a thieve using his very good and proper reasoning (taking care of the poor) as a lie to get his hands on the money and take some for himself. He did not care for the needs of the poor at all, only for his own greed.

Jesus, however, sees the gratitude in Mary and defends her. Even if one should consider that Judas reasoning was all above board with no hidden motives, his argument does not hold, since, says Jesus, “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me!” Prior to saying this, Jesus gives meaning to what Mary did. Whether she knew it or not, whether she acted on impulse or within her own reasoning, the meaning that Jesus attaches to the anointment of his feet is significant: “Leave her alone,” He says, “she has kept it for the day of my burial.”

In the understanding of Jesus Mary did not anoint Him as king, she prepared Him for his death. She honored Him before He died. She started to care for his corpse, while He was still alive. For – and this both she and He knew – she was grateful to Him and she loved Him very much, fighting against the laws of society to be his disciple instead of one of the woman who cooked Him a meal every once in a while. Every time we read of Mary in the presence of Jesus, we find her at his feet. He truly saw her and treated her with dignity, defended her when it came to it, consoled her when she was grieving – being moved so much by her tears that He called her brother back to life.

And on her part, Mary did not stand back in giving Jesus the honor that He deserved. She was prepared to put her reputation as a “good woman” on the line in her act of endless kindness towards Him. She gave all that she had – the ointment probably being her most expensive possession, and her hair being a part of her body that should be kept for the person closest to her. No one was closer to her than Jesus.

The intimacy is too much to bear for the disciples who immediately do the math in their minds. The calculations do not make sense. It does not add up – a moment on the feet and the smell of it an hour in the nose does not equal all the hungry mouths to be fed. True all-encompassing love often does not make sense, it might often seem like a waste to onlookers who do not understand, but didn’t Jesus display the same radical love, even more of it, a week or two later when He died on the cross? Not only for Mary or the Mary’s in the world, but also for the rest? Even for the Judas’s… What a waste, we might often say. Never a waste, Jesus would reply. Never a waste, rather a choice of selfless love and giving.

That is also what happens in the christening – God so loves Nathan Peter Rosenstein, that He selflessly gave his son, and Jesus so loves Nathan that He selflessly gave his life for him… and for each and every one of us. What would we give if we had/have the chance?

Mother Teresa walked through the streets of Calcutta. She saw a man – dirty and diseased on the side of the road. She walked toward him, knelt down beside him, touched his body, touched his feet, starting to clean him (we could also say anoint – perhaps for live but probably at that stage for death – I do not know since I don’t know the outcome of the story), and a proper, strong, well-kept man looked on from the other side of the road and called to her: “I would not do that for a million dollars!”

“Neither would I,” she replied…

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