April 1st, 2001
Wesley, Doncaster East
© John M. Connan
On the sheet in front of you, you have what may or may not be four versions of the one story.
The first is in the second column, Mark 14:3-9. The setting is toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, in Bethany. Jesus is at the table of Simon the Leper. An unnamed woman pours an alabaster jar of nard over his head. It’s said to be worth 300 denarii – equivalent to a year’s wages. Some indignantly ask, “Why this waste of perfume?” Jesus explains that it’s a preparation for his burial, and that wherever his story is told; this part of his story will be remembered. Then in verses 10 and 11, which you don’t have, Judas Iscariot goes off to betray Jesus to the Jewish religious authorities.
Matthew 26:6-13 tells the same story, still in Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper. The notable difference is that in Matthew’s story, it’s the disciples why complain about the waste of money.
Luke’s story in 7:36-50 is rather different. The anointing takes place in an unnamed town in the home of an unnamed Pharisee. An unnamed woman – a notorious sinner in that particular town - wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and pours perfume rather than nard over his feet. The complaint is not about waste but about Jesus not recognising what sort of woman it is who is embarrassing everyone as much by her presence as by her actions.
John’s story is set in Bethany but in the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. If we had looked back to 11:2, we’d find that Mary was identified as “the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.” So it seems John intended this to be heard as a different story.
Are they the same story? In the end it’s hard to say, though scholars have their opinion.
But there’s one thing we should remember about anything John writes. He is not afraid of history. His story about Jesus was “written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” You also need to realise that John frequently writes on two levels. He’s like the director of a film whose work contains subtle references to pervious director’s work – or a novelist who includes subtle references to other famous works – or like Lewis Carole’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass, supposedly children’s books, but capable of being read by adults for their ingenious references to literary movements and authors of his day. When you’re reading John, look under the surface for subtleties.
Let’s begin with verse one. One week to go! The week begins with Lazarus raised from death: it ends with Jesus rising from death.
Verse two: A dinner given to honour the One who had brought Lazarus back from the dead. Yet there are already flickering lights overshadowing the joy of this occasion.
Martha, the stay-at-home sister, scurries around. Martha, the more outspoken, emotionally open, and activist sister, has something else to do.
Verse 3. Do you know what “nard” is? I didn’t. It was an expensive import from India. As we’ll discover in verse 5, it was worth 300 denarii, a year’s wages for a worker. Was it an investment, a lifetime of savings, the family treasure, the equivalent of superannuation, now to be poured as a uniquely extravagant expression of love, gratitude and devotion?
Why pour it over Jesus’ feet, rather than over his head as was sometimes done? Was Mary thinking of the story of the Shunammite woman and Elisha? Her only child died. She set off to plead with Elisha. When she met him, she grasped his feet in pleading. Her son brought back to life, she fell at his feet in thanksgiving. Maybe she was thinking of the verse in Isaiah: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim shalom [wholeness, well-being, and peace].”
Why did she use her hair to “wipe his feet”? A woman’s hair was unbound by prostitutes: hence the presumption that Mary had a doubtful background and was the “sinner” known by the men of the village. But even respectable women unbound their hair in mourning. Was John suggesting Mary knew something – that she had unusual insight and a touch of the prophetic? Remember it was Mary to whom Jesus had said, “I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe [in me]?”
Was the fragrance flooding the house symbolically overcoming the stench of death?
Verse 4. Who knows why Judas did what he did! Many who were attracted by Jesus quit – lack of interest, bewildered, the excitement had gone, the moral demands and the invitation to commitment too high? Judas stayed. Was it merely to serve his own purposes – by treachery, if need be? Was Jesus merely the ladder to Judas’ ambitions? John believes he knew why: Judas hefted the moneybag and lifted the money.
Verse 5. These words in the mouths of “some of those present,” or the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner, or the disciples, John puts in the mouth of Judas. Maybe it’s unfair, but Judas has been described as “patron saint of politicians, who announce crying needs in the hope of profiting from them.”
Verse 7. “Leave her alone.” It’s not easy to understand what Jesus’ following words are meant to mean. There are a variety of translations. The one that makes most sense to me: Let her keep her the credit [of this perfume] with God – for her total giving and total commitment.
 20: 31.
 11: 20.
 11: 20-28.
 2 Kings 4: 8-37.
 Isaiah 52: 7.
 John 11: 25-27.
 Grayston, Kenneth, The Gospel of John. Epworth Press: London. 1990. p.96.