Two things stand out as classic teaching points for those who follow or are interested in the Christian Faith in this week’s passage from John 12. First, when Mary washes Jesus’ feet, everyone knows it. It isn’t something that she hides, but rather, it is out in the open, for the fragrance of the perfume fills the room. The amount of perfume is so ridiculous that everyone has to know about it. Just as Noah sacrificed an offering as he went out of the ark and a pleasing aroma went up to God, so too, here, we can sense the sacrifice made. We can picture the pleasing aroma of the perfume bringing great pleasure and meaning to Jesus. It is a sacrifice, and Jesus is getting ready to become God’s sacrifice for the world.
The second teaching point comes with respect to extravagant gifts. Many of us, like Judas Iscariot, try to put a dollar value on extravagant gifts. We think about what that money could have been used for, or we make some judgment call on the need of a certain gift. Jesus implies that we should always be helping the poor as prescribed in Deuteronomy, but there is also a time to do something extravagant because of our faith. We don’t need to offer to God or others something that costs us nothing, but rather, we should be about giving sacrificially and abundantly.
Anointing, with oil or extravagance in another form, can serve more than one function. You can commission a person as a witness, you can convey the Holy Spirit, and you can even pray for healing. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, said, “The Gospel of Christ knows of no Religion, but Social; no Holiness but Social Holiness.” He went on to say, “You cannot be holy except as you are engaged in making the world a better place. You do not become holy by keeping yourself pure and clean from the world but by plunging into ministry on behalf of the world’s hurting ones.”
I would like to take a brief look at the main people in this week’s scripture reading from John 12. The setting is rather simple: Lazarus’s sisters are hosting a dinner for Jesus.
The only thing we know about Martha is found in verse 2. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served. Poor Martha. It may speak volumes that when her sister pours the equivalent of a year’s wages onto Jesus’s feet, Martha doesn’t say a word. And Martha not speaking may reveal to us just how far she has grown since their last interaction. For Martha, literally serving Jesus, her family, and their friends is how she lived her life as an offering.
Lazarus is identified with what Jesus has done for him. Let’s pause here for a moment. What would our lives look like if we, like Lazarus, were identified first with what Jesus has done for us? Lazarus is “one of those at the table with him [Jesus].” We hear in scripture that Lazarus died and Jesus raised him from the dead. Aside from walking out of the tomb, we never hear Lazarus do anything more from scripture.
In all of scripture, he never says a word, never talks about what death looked like, or what it was like to be raised from the dead. What we do know is that Jesus loved him and that Lazarus welcomed him for dinner when he was in Bethany. We also know that after Jesus had dinner with Lazarus’s family, the Jewish leaders plotted to kill Lazarus because his life was a living reminder of the power of Jesus. Lazarus’s greatest service to the gospel message was simply being loved by Jesus and living. He may not have done or said anything profound. . . but God used his life in amazing ways.
In our communities, we have people who battle addictions of all sorts. Some of these people rely upon the support they get from Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and many other like support groups. Many of their lives serve as a living reminder of the grace of God. Choosing life and facing your demons/problems each day can be viewed as a testament to God’s faithfulness and love. And that, for some of us, is an incredible expression of service.
Mary served in a most unusual and personal way. While Jesus reclined at the table, as we have indicated she poured costly ointment on his feet, and then wiped them with her hair. Scripture says that the house was filled with the aroma of perfume. When was the last time that you experienced the love and power of God in such a real way that you reeked from it? What would our lives “look like” if we bore the aroma of the Holy Spirit? What if grace and love and compassion poured out of us in an intoxicating way?