John 12:1-8, Feet and Perfume
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
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Before the talk, John 12:1–8 was read.
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On my notes, I’ve called this morning’s message Smelly Feet and Perfume. There’s no suggestion that Jesus had smelly feet but, as you know, I used to lead a church youth club, which sometimes involved arranging sporting activities in the church hall. In my working life as a careers adviser, I would often have to leave my very comfy, warm office in order to find a miscreant child who had not turned up for their obligatory careers interview, and invariably for the boys at least.
I would find them just as they were darting into the changing room to change for PE. Some would be very grateful that I picked them up, and others would be very annoyed that they would be missing their chance to be active. The common theme between these two scenarios is what I would smell. I remember the aroma of Lynx antiperspirant spray, mixed with how much of it all teenage boys would try to put on themselves in order to try to be attractive to the opposite sex. Or to try to disguise how awful they might smell after running around for a little while.
If you have ever worked with young people you will recall in an instant that whiff of being outside the school changing rooms, or the church hall after you finish the game of dodge-ball. That mixture of sweat, body-spray and teenager. Probably not quite the liked lovely happy tones that you were hoping to imagine.
The sense of smell can evoke all sorts of memories. Good and romantic memories perhaps. The clean smell of freshly- laundered bed linen. T hat breath that you inhale on the first day of spring when you leave the house early in the morning and you can just about feel the warmth of the sun for the first time for six months. That memory of how wonderful that meal was on your first date. Perhaps those are a bit more delicate than the stench of teenage boy.
Why am I talking about the sense of smell? Here in John chapter 12, we are on the edge of the end of Jesus ministry as a wandering preacher, and we have come to the day before Palm Sunday. We find ourselves in Bethany, just a couple of miles away from Jerusalem, where the next day according to John, Jesus will be triumphantly riding into the Holy City, announcing his kingship. The next day the crowd would be laying down palm branches on the ground for the donkey to walk upon and they would be shouting, “Blessed is the King of Israel, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is the day before, this is the day where Jesus is the guest of honour at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha.
Perhaps this day the Lazarus family, let’s call them the Lazarus family, Lazarus himself, Mary and Martha wanted to thank, perhaps, Jesus for raising Lazarus from the dead, in that previous chapter, in chapter 11. Perhaps this day was a day for celebrating life. We know from other bits of the Bible that these three siblings were very important to Jesus. He had eaten with them before. You may recall the time when Martha had been busy preparing food, and Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to her masters’ teachings. You may remember that on that one occasion, Martha was pretty cheesed -off with her sister for not helping her. Jesus steps in, and says that what Mary had chosen on that occasion was the better thing. We assume that Jesus would stay with Lazarus’ family when He was in the vicinity. He will have met Lazarus and Mary and Martha before.
This particular story is mentioned in every gospel. Although there are small tweaks in each recollection and even though Luke puts it towards the start of his account. We see quite a few similarities in each story. John, however, puts his account of Mary anointing Jesus ’ feet just before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. John seems very deliberate in putting this action directly between the raising of Lazarus and, as we read a little bit later on in this chapter, in the chief priests wanting to kill both Jesus and Lazarus for fear of so many Jews believing in Jesus. John uses this particular narrative as a link between the end of Jesus itinerant ministry, and the start of His final treacherous week of life.
Half of Johns’ gospel talks about the final week, talked about the Holy Week, here onwards John sets his gospel in Jerusalem in Holy Week. We look at this passage of scripture today as it prepares us to think about Palm Sunday next week. The Bible readings which follow the passing of the church calendar puts this reading here for a purpose. The Christian season of Lent prepares us for the passion of Christ, that final week of Jesus life. This story prepares us for Palm Sunday.
A rereading of the symbolic actions of Mary in this story reminds us of things Jesus had to go through in His final hours. His trial, crucifixion, death and ultimate resurrection. Mary takes up this familiar position near Jesus’ feet. In the times we see her in the gospels, this is always her posture, except this time according to Luke, it’s a sinful woman. Just take a detour if I may for a moment, a sinful woman approaches Jesus. Surely at a meal time in those days for a woman to approach a man whilst he was eating at a table, might be against protocol, perhaps even if it was a friend, but for a sinful woman, Jesus certainly shouldn’t be having friends of those people around Him.
But wait, let’s look again where Jesus is, He is at Lazarus’ house isn’t he? Not according to Mark’s account, in Mark 14 we find this occasion is out the home of Simon the Leper. Now, lepers should be certain outcasts, shouldn’t they? They should be poor and penniless and away from society for purely practical reasons, so the rest of the town doesn’t get leprosy. That horrible skin disease that ends up with people becoming disfigured. And Jesus and His friends in Mark 14 are eating with a leper, really? The reason for this detour is that, not for the first time, Jesus seems to surround Himself with the poor, the outcasts, the oppressed. He actively goes to seek and save that nobody else wants to be with, the lepers and the sinful women. Even Lazarus, his dead body would have been unclean. Maybe even Judas, who we find out here is a snitch, a thief, someone who seems to care not about the poor.
Why is it that Jesus enables and invites us to emulate His own way of living? As ever, we need to see past riches to see the concerns of those who are in need. This meal wherever it takes place, and for John it’s around the table at the Lazarus’ and amongst friends. Mary unbraids her hair. This sinful woman who’s active shaking free her womanliness, which many commentators see as an act of prostitution, then wipes clean Jesus feet with her hair, and an inordinate amount of the most expensive perfume oil, nard. How sad it is that those around the table see this beautiful act of submission and love, and honour to Jesus as a good waste of money. Which would serve many people. Spikenard, the Indian plant which into making the perfume, would have been worth about a year’s wages. Now, my own research seems to suggest that the average wage earner in the UK earns just over 27,000 pounds a year. Half a litre is around a pint in old money. You can imagine the shock, the horror, the dumbfoundedness of those around Jesus when they see this woman drench Jesus’ feet with pure, unadulterated perfume. Jesus knows what they’re thinking, and what they’re saying, but He recognizes what Mary is doing. She is anointing Jesus. She sees Him as king. She knows before time that Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem the next day will be as king, and so she is anointing Him as such. In the Old Testament, kings become kings and our queen became queen once they had been anointed with a dab of oil. Here, Mary is soaking Jesus’ feet.
Actually, to look at the other versions of this meal, Matthew and Mark recall that the oil or the perfume was anointed to Jesus’ head, whereas Luke and John refer to Jesus’ feet being anointed. Who was right? Let me suggest that they might both be right. Having a pint of oil or a pint of perfume might take a while to pour. Here’s about half a litre. It might take quite some while for all of this, just water, to come out. You can imagine all of this rich stuff being poured out by Mary. Wonder if I’m going to have enough room. There’s still more in the bottle. It takes a while.
Having a pint of perfume would take a while to pour. In his commentary, Bruce Milne suggests that the amount of nod used was considerable. Hence, the anointing was likely to have extended beyond either the head or the feet. Perhaps Jesus was immersed in this stuff, like a sweet-smelling baptism of kingliness, instead of being dabbed king, as with kings of old. Mary knew who Jesus was. She knew who He really, really was and bathed Him in kingliness. How about that, Judas? Isn’t Jesus worth more than a year’s wages worth of posh smelling stuff?
Feet, anointed as king by a sinful woman. Yet, a close friend of Jesus. Feet of the disciples that King Jesus would very soon wash on His last night, symbolizing His servanthood. Feet, those very same which had been washed by that servant king only hours before, would soon be running away from Him as He is sentenced to execution alone. Mary gets who Jesus really is. Once again, Mary gets the praise for seeing through the societal evils, through to what Jesus is all about. The last time she had been at His feet, she was learning from the master. Jesus praises her for not helping Martha in the kitchen because she had chosen the better thing.
This time, Jesus chastises Judas for not seeing what Mary did, that he would not always be with his loved ones, and so that this act would be a solemn, awesome, soul-stopping experience. This whole scene drips with symbolism, evoking every sense. The sweet smelling fragrance, richly filling the whole house, coupled with the disciples seeing with their own eyes how Jesus treats this potentially outcast woman who is embarrassing herself by cleaning up this mess of perfume with her hair. Then hearing those harsh words of Judas, who we now learn was the treasurer of the disciple group, and cared not about poor people, but wanted to make a stand against Mary in this scene.
That cringey feeling that you get when there’s sharp criticism aimed at somebody else in the room that makes the others want to squirm and crawl away. I wonder if you can feel the tension in the air between Jesus and the disciples. Mary here gets who Jesus is. Judas, for one, does not. The other disciples? Well, who knows. They’re still following Him, but things are getting more and more confusing the closer and closer to Jerusalem they get. Here, in this room, now filled with sweet perfume, and a Jesus who probably smells as sweet, having been anointed by Mary as her king. We have Jesus’ closest friends all confused about what’s just occurred.
So what does that have to do with me, with us? As we draw towards our Lenten journey, a step closer to Palm Sunday, so what? What do we learn? The path to every disciple of Jesus is to sit at His feet. It is always to be close to Jesus. As we do this, we begin to attune with Jesus’ mind and discern how and where and in what ways we can serve Him. In this scene, we see how Mary’s act of devotion served Jesus. Mary’s heart was so soft that she knew the heart of Jesus, that He was and is the king of kings, and so her actions showed. How is it that we know the heart of Jesus? How soft is your heart towards one another? Because this soft-heartedness of yours shows the heart of Jesus to me and to one another.
The Bible is full of people who are hard-hearted. The writer of Hebrews in chapter four, verse seven, implores their readers not to become like that. So it is for us, as we have received the body and blood of Jesus through the elements of bread and wine today. Let us let the soft-heartedness of Jesus live in and through us. Let us be aware of His spirit living and working through us. Let us celebrate. Let the celebration of Jesus as the guest of honour at the table be a symbol of how we live our lives, with Jesus at the centre, with the aroma of Christ filling the people and places where we go. Let us sit at the feet of Jesus, and let our own feet be swift to respond, to do as He asks, using the gifts and strength He gives us each day.
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