Judas: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Jesus: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
If our scripture lesson for this week were boiled down to just the words spoken, as in the style of a script, what we see above is all we would get. And given what we think we know of the character of Judas and Jesus, if we were to take their words at face-value, we would most likely be getting things wrong! Although very few words are spoken, this passage challenges us to enter into the story at a deeper level, underneath and between the words spoken. There are many intense emotions in the hearts of those gathered that day that could call us into a deeper Lenten journey in our quiet moments, if we allow ourselves to connect our humanity with theirs.
So let us consider the scene of John 12. It is six days before the Passover, and Jesus and his disciples are in Bethany enjoying a meal at the home of their friends Lazarus, and his sisters Martha and Mary. In other words, we are less than a week from Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. Yet, the person who was probably the focus of the evening was Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
I would guess Lazarus was experiencing one of the few quieter moments since finding himself the center of attention as the incarnation of Jesus’ most recent and wondrous work. He was probably finally able to appreciate the ordinary miracles we take for granted so often until we almost lose them, such as the laughter of friends and the aroma and taste of his sister Martha’s cooking.
Martha was expressing her appreciation for those she loved in the way she found most comfortable – by nurturing them through her cooking. We can imagine how grateful she was to Jesus for bringing her brother back, and how much joy she was deriving by setting Lazarus’ favorite foods in front of him. We can glean something of Martha’s temperament from the familiar story from Luke’s gospel where Martha tried to get Jesus to chide Mary for putting the lion’s share of the hosting chores on her. I can imagine Martha having a sense of how her words are not always received in the warmest light, making a conscious decision in this moment to let her cooking do the talking for her.
If we dare allow ourselves to consider what Jesus would be experiencing in this moment, we might wonder whether he was pondering how close he was to his time of trial? He could count on both hands the number of suppers like this one he was yet to experience before the last one, when he would use those hands to give new meaning to the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup.
Were his thoughts more focused on particular aspects of what was to come as the Son of God, or in his humanity, was he in the midst of some life-review as he considered his legacy on earth? Was there any second-guessing in his mind whether his work was truly coming to an end? Did he have any doubt these often seemingly-clueless disciples would be able to carry on without him? Did the human nature of his God-manself question if he would succeed in being fully-obedient, trusting, and reliant on God’s faithfulness?
None of the intensity described above is revealed through any words spoken or actions described during this meal, until Lazarus’ sister Mary does the first remarkable thing described in this passage. John 12:3 recounts how, “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
This time, Judas Iscariot is the one urging Jesus to chide Mary for this seemingly reckless act. Judas’ words – the first words recorded in the passage – seem totally appropriate for a follower of Jesus: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” But instead of agreeing with Judas, Jesus responds, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Instead of rebuking Mary, he defended her using a rationale I would not have expected to come from his mouth. In fact, if the gospel writer had not included a couple snippets of commentary, I would not have been surprised if some later church fathers questioned whether there had been some recording error. But to make sure we get it, our narrator points out: Yes, the Judas Iscariot who is sounding the most righteous of them all is the one who was about to betray Jesus. And, Judas was rebuking Mary not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.
Ironically, although she may not have been able to explain her exuberant gesture with words, what Mary did was right, and Jesus knew it. Conversely, despite his strident denouncement of Mary, could Judas explain to himself what was causing so much turmoil within him?
As we turn the corner into the last weeks of Lent, maybe the power of this passage for us can be found by meditating not just on the words spoken in it, but as much (if not more) on that part of our reality that does not easily boil itself down to words:
- Like Lazarus, let us take time to be quiet, present, and mindful of the many blessings we take so much for granted in our everyday lives.
- Like Martha, let us consider how, instead of words, we might better communicate our love to those around us in ways they can appreciate.
- Let us look at how our words don’t match our actions, and unlike Judas, let us go even further inside ourselves to come to terms with how and why we are quick to speak on what we perceive to be the wrong-doing of others.
- Like Mary, let us be still and allow ourselves to feel the grace, compassion, and love of God so deeply that we are moved to respond in abundance.
- And like Jesus, let us take time to consider our legacies and help others to do the same, trusting God’s promise never to leave or forsake us as we embrace each day God grants us.