John 12: 1-8
By Stuart Pike
It used to be that I thought faith was about belief. A faithful person was someone who believed the Bible, or believed certain things about Christ. It was as if faith was an intellectual agreement with certain principles or doctrines or dogmas. Faith was belief.
The problem with understanding faith to be primarily about belief, is that it is mostly an intellectual exercise. It is mostly about the head, and has very little to do with the heart. And yet, when I experienced the grace of God most deeply, it usually had far more to do with the heart than with the head.
Faith isn’t about logic – it isn’t cerebral. Faith is embodied, it is something which burns within us. I realize now that faith has more to do with a relationship than it has to do with belief. And it has more to do with the heart, than it does with the head.
Today’s story from the Gospel isn’t something to be understood logically. It is something to be imagined or experienced, it was something sensuous.
In the time of Jesus and his disciples, perfumed oil was ceremonially used mainly in three ways: to anoint the head of a king; as a healing oil for those who were sick, usually applied to the forehead of the sick person along with the laying on of hands; or to anoint the body of the deceased, including the feet, before burial. The anointing of someone with perfumed oil was an action of the heart and not the head. It engaged the two most intimate of the senses: the sense of smell, and the sense of touch.
The Gospel lesson tells the story of Mary who breaks open a jar of perfumed oil worth a year’s salary to anoint Jesus’ feet and then she wipes his feet with her hair. This is perhaps the most sensuous scene in all of the Gospels. What an incredibly intimate moment. And yet this moment, stolen in the week before Jesus’ crucifixion is done before witnesses: the other disciples.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ, Superstar" has this scene presented in a very sensuous way.
Webber understands the fundamental characteristic of the Christian faith as relationship and he fleshes out the relationship between Mary, Jesus and Judas.
Try not to be worried/ Try not to hold on to/ problems that upset you/ oh/ you know everything's all right/ yes Everything's fine/ Its cool and the ointment's sweet/ for the fire in your head and feet/ close your eyes/ close your eyes and relax/ think of nothing tonight/ everything's all right.
The words here point not only to the honour which Mary is giving to Jesus, but also to show us that this was an act of healing, wanting to soothe this man whom she loved during this incredibly stressful time.
This scene is also between two deaths: the death of Lazarus, whom Jesus has just raised from the dead, and Jesus own death which is only days away
Jesus knows his days are numbered now. Everything is coming to a head. If the temple authorities might have found him a nuisance before, after raising a man from death, he has become downright dangerous. Passover was just days away and so the Roman authorities would be looking their way. Today’s Gospel refers to the temple authority’s decision to put both Jesus and Lazarus to death.
The smell of death is in the air, but in the midst of it, Mary breaks open her perfume.
The depth of Mary's love for Jesus is so great that words are not enough for her to express them. Mary uses the extremely sensual, and deeply spiritual act of anointing Jesus' feet with the oil that could be used for a burial.
Imagine the scene as the Disciples watched Mary do this act of love and devotion to Jesus. Keep in mind that in those days it was not proper for a woman to have her hair loose. Mary is beyond all that. Beyond words, beyond social customs. Only she, at this point, truly understands Jesus, and what he is to risk.
The disciples might have thought that Mary’s actions were scandalous, perhaps obscene. How personal a moment. They might have thought - how can she dare to have a more personal relationship to Jesus than we have. I think Judas might just have been grasping for some excuse to stop the scene when he complained about the money. He might really have been jealous that Mary seemed to have a greater spiritual insight than he and the rest of the disciples had. In Jesus Christ Superstar he says:
Woman/ your fine ointment/ brand new and expensive/ should have been saved for the poor/ why has it been wasted/ we could have raised / 300 silver pieces or more/people who are hungry/ people who are starving/ they matter more than your feet and hair.
And Jesus responds
Surely you're not saying/ we have the resources/to save the poor from their lot/there will always be the poor/pathetically struggling/look at the good things you've got/think while you still have me/move while you still see me/you'll be lost/you'll be sorry when I'm gone.
"You will always have poor people with you. But you will not always have me."
This reminds me of Jesus telling his disciples the story of the King of heaven “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The implication here is that "you should honour me while I'm with you in this flesh, and then honour me just as much when you meet me later in the homeless person or the sick or the suffering.”
It is important to remember that Mary's anointing of Jesus' feet is only days before Jesus, in the upper room, will take a towel and bowl of water and will stoop down to wash the feet of his disciples. I think the connection of these two foot washings is quite intentional in John's gospel.
Imagine what it must have felt like for Jesus to realize that at least one person out of everyone he cared about finally understood what he was facing, understood his vulnerability at even being in Bethany, understood that the price he had to pay for his faithfulness to God would be death.
It is in the strength of our relationship with God and Jesus Christ that we are empowered to live our faith in the world and both to do Jesus’ work and to serve Jesus as we see him in the face of the poor, the sick and the outcast. And this is one of the reasons why we will use holy oil today in our service of anointing and healing.
The Christian faith is relationship. Relationship to God and relationship to Jesus - however we meet Jesus in our lives today. Amen.