Reading: John 12:1-11
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this 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.)
Jesus said, “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.”
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Reflection: This well-known reading contrasts the loving devotion of Mary with the self-serving hypocrisy of Judas. All four of the gospels record a version of this story (Matthew 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-9, and (with significant differences) Luke 7.36-50) but John draws the picture most sharply. In Matthew and Mark the concern for the poor on the part of the disciples may well be genuine. (In Luke, Jesus draws a different contrast between the love shown by the woman who anoints him and the disapproving moralism of the Pharisee who despises her.) However, here in John the expression of ‘care’ for the poor is explicitly the work of a hypocrite and a thief.
In this cycle of Holy Week readings there is no room for a balanced discussion of means and ends, of working through the relative importance of religious devotion on the one hand and works of mercy on the other. Now it is all about Jesus, and a sense of death begins to pervade the story.
Of all the seasons of Christian life, there is none that focusses so exclusively on the person and character of Jesus Christ as Holy Week. At other times we might engage with his preaching about the kingdom of God, or about good news to the poor, or about hope for the human future – but now the focus is entirely on Jesus the man and his fate. This week is all about what will happen to Jesus, his actions in the face of profound threat and danger, how he loves and forgives in the face of hatred and harm. It is one thing to preach warm words of love to an appreciative crowd, and quite another to practice love when one is framed and tortured by that same crowd and their leaders.
Jesus is ‘on trial’ not just on Good Friday but every day of this challenging week and it is all, ALL about him. Not about issues, not about social justice, not about goodness and morality, but simply about who he is and whether there is room in the world for a person like him.
The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (vs 3b) John is the only gospel that includes this little detail. In the other gospels various people saw it (what the woman did) and disapproved, but in John’s gospel we smell it! That fragrance fills not only the house, but all of Holy Week. That woman’s faithfulness fills our nostrils still, as we wonder at the love and sacrifice of Jesus and prepare to accompany him the through the last days of his life.