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First Impressions: John 12:1-8

March 16, 2010

I’m the kind of guy who will stay off the accelerator for three miles while I coast to a stop sign to save on gas, eat leftovers that have more mold than the entire city of New Orleans after Katrina, and put even the tiniest scraps of paper into the recycle bin.  So you know I’m going to be conflicted this week as I prepare to preach.  I’m with Judas on this one.  I think a few teaspoons of nard would have done the trick.  Plus, since many of my church members are children of the Great Depression, they can understand.  That may be the hook to get us into this text.  Despite myself, however, I think it is one of our most beautiful scriptures.

We preachers should be careful with this text.  The anointing has similar parallels in the synoptics, and clergy and parishioners alike tend to confuse the details.  Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock have a helpful chart that compares and contrasts the various versions.  See The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), page 160.  Mary and Martha also appear as sisters in Luke 10:38-42, though that gospel connects the anointing of Jesus with an unnamed woman “who was a sinner” (7:36-50).

12:1-3 The scene in John’s gospel is the home of the newly undead Lazarus.  The dinner was in Jesus’ honor, and, in an echo of Luke’s story, “Martha served.”

I wonder, in my childish glee, if Mary didn’t bring out the fragrance because her brother still stunk from his days in the grave, and this was as much motivation as her care for Jesus.  Her act made the whole house smell of the nard that she wiped on Jesus’ feet with her hair.  I wonder–though the detail probably isn’t important–if this was a sickly, “too sweet” smell, or if it was a scent heartily enjoyed by all at the party.

2:4-6 Though Judas’ motivation was not pure, his point has merit.  As a well established miser myself, I think it is important to add that element to our consciousness.  When we choose one action (or purchase) we clearly prevent the possibility of alternative actions.  It is not clear where attention to detail and beauty crosses the line toward waste and extravagance.

I also think that simply dismissing Judas because of his betrayal is unhelpful.  It also means we will simply accept Jesus’ response without thought, and I have some qualms about his words in verse 8.  It is worthwhile to discuss such questions.  I don’t think our wrestling over these matters bothers God too much, though at my age, I can’t really afford to have many more body parts put out of joint.

2:7-8 Jesus directly connects Mary’s action with knowledge of his coming death, and puts the anointing in the context of his burial.  This contrasts John’s version (as well as with Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9) with that of Luke, who put the anointing in the context of a loving response by a sinful woman to her feeling of being forgiven.  Does this mean that you couldn’t preach a sermon about the value of an extravagant act of great beauty and love?  No.  In fact, in the sense of love as great concern for the well being of another, Mary is exercising love for Jesus.  Maybe she is also saying “thank you” for her brother’s life.  Or, perhaps, Jesus just had stinky feet.

Verse 8 bothers me.  It seems callous.  Jesus may be pointing to Mary’s behavior as her choice to seize the moment and take advantage of an opportunity that may never come again.  Jesus seems to ask his followers to act boldly, and Mary did that.  Often, in our careful way of living, we let such opportunities pass us by.  There is definitely a sermon in that.

I will probably preach something about the value of senseless beauty in this world, along with a reflection about our own thinking as we compare and contrast beauty and utility in our lives.  I may finish with a discussion about how it is that we live beautifully.  I think it is a worthy goal.

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