If you were to ask a room full of Christians to define worship or to describe what it should look like, you’d likely hear a variety of answers and opinions. People have pretty strong ideas about the subject. If you’ve been attending church or reading the Bible for any length of time then I suspect you may even have a few favorite passages that portray or describe worship in some way. Miriam and Moses leading the people in song after being delivered from the Egyptians in Exodus 15; Isaiah chapter 6 and the prophet’s cry from God’s throne room, “woe is me! for I am undone!“; Jesus and the theologically astute Samaritan woman in John chapter 4 discussing, among other things, the topic of worship; or John’s vision of heaven in the book of Revelation, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, Who was and Who is and Who is to come!”
As a worship pastor I enjoy digging into these types of passages because I’m convinced that there’s always more to learn and glean about the art and practice of worshiping God, and helping others to do the same. I suspect that part of the reason for the array of perspectives and opinions about worship is that even though it’s simple, it’s also interactive, creative, intentionally diverse, deeply moving and can be extremely profound. One of the more intriguing worship-related passages is the account of a woman who anoints Jesus with oil. All four of the gospels have some variation of this story, which kind of makes me think we should sit up and take particular notice. Here we’ll be looking specifically at the version found in chapter 12 of John’s gospel.
John places this event in Bethany, the village where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived, which is located in what we know today as the West Bank, on the eastern slope of the Mt. of Olives just outside Jerusalem. According to John the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is Mary. We see her on three different occasions in the gospels and every time, regardless of the circumstances, she is at the feet of Jesus. First as a disciple, sitting among the other disciples and learning from Jesus (make note of that… she wasn’t daydreaming or swooning here, she was in training as a student alongside the men, which was unheard of in her day and time; and tragically in some circles still disapproved of in ours. Jesus unapologetically affirms women in roles and positions that culture and society frequently forbid them to occupy. Jesus is a liberator and as such treats women as equal to men, restoring God’s original intent and design). The second occasion of Mary at the feet of Jesus is following the death of her brother Lazarus, in anguish that Jesus didn’t get there in time to save him. She doesn’t quite get it yet. Then the third time is after Lazarus is raised from the dead in the passage we’re looking at here. As we’ll see, after witnessing Jesus raise her brother from the grave, she finally connects the dots – and probably has a better understanding of Jesus’ identity and his purpose than any of the other disciples do at this point. And this realization causes her to actively respond with passionate, extravagant devotion. Before we take a closer look at Mary, let’s zoom out a bit and see who the other characters are and what they’re up to, and place the anointing of Jesus in its context within the narrative. Along the way, I want to challenge you to find yourself in this story. Ask yourself how do I respond to Jesus?
Chapter 11 of John presents to us the account of Lazarus’ death and his subsequent raising from the dead by Jesus. We won’t delve into that part of the story, but you can read it here if you’d like. Suffice it to say that this episode serves as a pivot-point and catalyst for the remainder of John’s gospel account. Starting in verse 45 of chapter 11 we’re told that there are some Jews and that many of them “believed in him” following this miraculous event. But we’re told that others “went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done”. So right away we see some typical responses to Jesus…some people believe, and others are, for whatever reason, ambivalent at best, and possibly antagonistic. The text presents the crowd as a nameless, faceless group and no doubt their motives and responses varied.
If you’re familiar at all with the gospels, then you know that for the most part the Jewish religious leaders were wary of Jesus. And at times they were outright angry with him. Why? Was he threatening their power and clout? Were they concerned he would upset the proverbial applecart politically speaking? Are they worried about the welfare of the people they are tasked with overseeing? A combination of factors is likely and again, dependent on the individual. It helps to remember that the Jews at this point in their history are colonized and under Roman rule and occupation. Their understandable concern, which we read in the text around verse 48, is that if Jesus continues to perform such amazing miracles and more people see him as their king, then the Romans will forcibly act against them. “What are we going to do?” they asked each other. “For this man certainly does miracles. If we let him alone the whole nation will follow him—and then the Roman army will come and kill us and take over the Jewish government.” This has happened to them before. Exile and occupation are burned into their national consciousness. They lost the original temple, Solomon’s temple, in 586 BCE when it was destroyed by the Babylonians. The temple in Jesus’ day was the second (much smaller and less extravagant) temple, completed around 516 BCE after the Persian king allows them to return home and rebuild (see Ezra-Nehemiah). To their way of thinking it’s where God dwells and it’s where and how they can worship. It’s also part of their national identity. They seem to have lost hope in God’s promises, are attempting to maintain the status quo, want to retain what little power they have left, and are desperate to avoid conflict with the Roman government. Once they learn of the miracle of Lazarus being raised from the dead, they’ve had enough, and they convene to actively begin to discuss and plot Jesus’ death. “And one of them, Caiaphas, who was High Priest that year, said, “…let this one man die for the people—why should the whole nation perish?” Jewish tradition held that the office of High Priest included the gift of prophecy, making Caiaphas’ statement, considering his ignorance of what was really happening, even more ironic. Word gets around and chapter 11 closes with the Jews preparing for the coming Passover amid lots of rumor and speculation about whether Jesus will show up in Jerusalem and what will happen next.
As we transition into chapter 12 the scene narrows to a home in the city of Bethany where a dinner is being given in Jesus’ honor. The text states that it is six days before the Passover. This meal is taking place the evening before Jesus enters Jerusalem on what we now refer to as Palm Sunday. We don’t know how many people are there, but we are told that Martha is serving, Lazarus is present and reclining at the table and Judas Iscariot is also there. And then of course there’s Mary. Mary the disciple of Jesus. Mary the friend of Jesus. Mary the servant. Mary the student. Mary the worshiper.
Mary took a jar of costly perfume made from essence of nard, and anointed Jesus’ feet with it and wiped them with her hair. And the house was filled with fragrance.
Read that verse again and linger over it for a moment. This is an intimate, self-less act and extravagant gift of service and worship. Foot-washings weren’t uncommon in their culture, though would have been performed by the lowliest of slaves; but washing with fragrant oil was uncommon. Ok so two questions. What is nard? Why mention that her act of worship was fragrant? For one, it’s reminiscent of the love poem Song of Solomon. The Song references fragrance a lot, and the Hebrew word equivalent to the word translated here as nard is found no where else in the Old Testament except in the Song of Solomon. We know also that the temple contained an altar of incense, and aromatic spices and other fragrant sources were integral to Jewish worship practices. Generally, with the exception of Song of Solomon, fragrance in the Old Testament is associated with death and sacrifice. So with references in our verse to fragrance and the use of nard, we see two things being alluded to here: death/sacrifice and love/intimacy.
The ointment Mary offered was expensive, equivalent to an average worker’s annual income. It was pure. It was genuine. It was not a cheap imitation. And it was of the variety used in burials. Her hair was unbound, again indicating both intimacy and grief. The particular Greek verb used for “wiping” here is used by John in only one other verse – in chapter 13 when he describes Jesus’ act of washing and wiping the disciples’ feet. John seems to be pointing out that Mary is, without being asked or instructed, demonstrating the sort of humble service that Jesus will soon explicitly teach his other disciples in how they are to care for and serve one another. This is just one of several elements in this passage that foreshadow the Last Supper scene in the next chapter.
Mary doesn’t say anything that we know of, and I think perhaps it’s because she is so thoroughly focused on Jesus. It’s easy to imagine though that she is crying and vocalizing her love and devotion, with no apparent concern for what the others might be thinking or saying about her as they look on. What we do hear is a brief exchange between Jesus and Judas.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples — the one who would betray him — said, "That perfume was worth a fortune. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor." Not that he cared for the poor, but he was in charge of the disciples’ funds and often dipped into them for his own use!
Judas’ question seems valid. Right? I mean, what’s wrong with caring for the poor? Is Mary being negligent and wasteful? Let’s be clear, the gospel message is very much about caring for the poor and marginalized, Jesus was all about that. He came to love and serve and free the lost, the poor, the forgotten. The problem here is that Judas (officially a disciple and leader!) wasn’t concerned about anyone but himself. Side note: this type of behavior continues to plague the Church to this day. Don’t blindly follow someone just because they hold a position as pastor, deacon, elder, teacher, etc. You follow Jesus, not men. Which is precisely what we see Mary doing. And Jesus defends both her character and her actions. Not only that but he reveals a particular purpose behind this specific act of worship, that she is preparing for his burial. What?! Remember when I said that Mary had connected the dots? She loved and trusted Jesus fiercely – and she had been paying attention. Jesus had been telling them what would happen, but they weren’t getting it. The Twelve don’t get it until sometime after the resurrection. But many of the women we read about stayed with Jesus throughout the upcoming ordeal, women were consistently the first to comprehend what was going on throughout his ministry, and women were the first to be commissioned by Jesus to preach the good news. The passage concludes by zooming back out a bit and letting the reader know that a crowd had discovered where Jesus was and had gathered there. And that they were also hoping to see Lazarus, because he had been raised form the dead. This solidifies the chief priests’ intentions and even expands it to include killing Lazarus! …”For on account of him (Lazarus) many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.”
Whew! There is so much to be mined from this text! We started out by identifying it as one that might give us some insights about worship, which it certainly does! But as we saw it reveals so much more. From Mary’s example we learn that in responding to Jesus for who he is and what he does, worship…
submits to God’s will
is pleasing to God
is integral to discipleship
ministers to Jesus
sets an example for others
is beautiful and ‘fragrant’
may be socially unacceptable
may make other people angry or uncomfortable
may irritate self-important religious leaders
This list isn’t exhaustive. Are there any other observations you take away from the text? Earlier I had challenged you to find yourself in this story. Can you identify parts of yourself within the various characters and their actions and reactions? Take some time to pray and record your thoughts in a journal or on your phone, whichever works best for you. Honest self-reflection can be haaaarrrd. But it’s important and with the Spirit’s help can move us forward and grow us in our relationship with God.
How do you respond to Jesus?