Scripture – John 12:1-8
Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, April 3, 2022

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Intimate friends of Jesus – Mary, Martha, and their brother, Lazarus – lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem. In today’s passage, we learn that Jesus has come to their home for dinner. However, the gospel writer calls our attention to the fact that this is not simply a day when Jesus dropped by for a meal. It is the day before he will ride into Jerusalem with a crowd of supporters shouting and waving palm branches.

This dinner is more than a dinner. It is surely a strategy session. I suspect they were discussing final preparations to insure that Jesus’ entrance into the Holy City will be a memorable event – a moment designed to garner attention and create a buzz.

Further, these close friends of Jesus are not naïve. Cognizant of the fact that Jesus is about to ride into hostile territory – where Pilate has amassed troops as he did every year at Passover and where the staunchest critics of Jesus hold sway – they know how dangerous his action is.

I suspect that at this late hour, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have lost hope that his opponents will recognize him for who he is. Also, I suspect they have given up trying to talk Jesus out of what appears to be a suicide mission.

In first century Palestine, it was customary for a servant to wash the feet of a guest when he arrived for dinner. After walking on sandy, pebble-filled paths in nothing more than sandals, feet were dirty and it was a sign of hospitality to freshen the feet of your guest. A few days after this dinner, Jesus will wash the feet of his disciples when they gather for their final meal. It will be a dramatic moment when their master will assume the role of a servant to drive home his teachings of humility and service.

Today’s passage describes a similar riveting moment, except that Mary does not simply wash the feet of her master. What does she do? She pulls out a bottle of perfume that is outrageously expensive. Did you catch the detail regarding the value of this fragrant ointment? It is worth a year’s wages. This is well beyond anything Channel ever imagined.

Normally a host would take a few drops of perfume and anoint the head of a guest. However, Mary pours a full pint of pricey perfume on Jesus.

At this point, our narrator switches to a wide angle lens and we realize this is not simply a dinner party for four; other disciples are present. And when Judas sees Mary’s extravagant gesture, he protests. He says, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”

A colleague buys his wine at a store near his home that’s known for its vast selection and helpful staff. Most of their wine is priced for the average customer like himself, but they also carry wines for connoisseurs and collectors. He checked their website and found they had a unique French wine that sells for thousands of dollars. He wonders how his wife would react if he purchased a bottle of that wine then drank it with a friend who only had a week to live.

His wife is a good and gracious person, but she would respond like any normal human being. “Are you kidding me? You did what?”1

And isn’t that the response of Judas? He cannot believe that Mary has poured out a bottle of expensive perfume on Jesus. It could have been sold and the money distributed among the poor.

Our narrator adds commentary at this point. While Judas’ statement makes sense, it was a ruse. Judas was the keeper of the disciples’ money bag. He wasn’t looking out for the destitute, he would skim some of that money for himself.

As I mentioned, a host might anoint the head of a guest with a couple of drops of perfume, but where does Mary pour her costly ointment? Not on his head, but on his feet. Why? You do not anoint the feet of a living person. That is what you do to a corpse. She is performing the ritual that follows one’s death. And, indeed, Jesus says that this perfume was to be saved for the day of his burial.

Have you ever been with someone in the final days of their life? You wonder what you can do to squeeze the most out of those precious hours? You yearn to do something powerful – something that will touch the person’s soul. One gift you can offer is to reminisce about wonderful memories – like replaying the greatest hits of the person’s life. Such moments can be beautiful as laughter and tears intermingle. But such a moment is not entirely satisfying, because you want to communicate deep love and joy, but you cannot find words or actions large enough for the moment.

So, what do you do? Nothing? You do what you can.

Jesus said this perfume was intended for his burial, but Mary could see no point in waiting. Day in and day out for three years she had seen Jesus pour out love on friends and strangers alike. She had seen such an extravagant outpouring of love that she could not stop herself. Jesus had opened a whole new universe for her. He had shown her the path to a life that is rich and beautiful and hopeful. She wanted to express her deep, deep love for Jesus and so she did the only thing she knew to do in that moment. She broke open the expensive perfume and soaked him in it.

The passage leaves us asking what we can do to follow the lead of Mary’s extravagant act? How can I express my love for what Jesus means to me?

Tom is a pastor in a church in the Midwest. He remembers a day when their Session gathered in the church parlor to receive new members. On this particular day a man and his teenage daughter were joining. The strange thing is that they had never been to this church before. This was before livestream and websites. They had not even checked out the church. They just walked in and asked to join their first Sunday. It was an awkward situation. And what made it more awkward was that the teenager had a haircut that was unforgettable. One side of her head was shaved to the skin. The other side was moussed up in spikes that jumped off her head five or six inches. This was in 1988, long before hair like that was cool. And this clean-cut, suburban, khaki pants congregation had never seen anything like it.

Her hair made members of the Session feel uncomfortable but they remembered they were in church and that they are to welcome whomever Jesus sends in the door. But then Wallace walked across the room right for the man and his daughter. Wallace was on the building and grounds committee because they wanted to keep him away from people.

Wallace said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you here before? The man responded, “No, it’s our first time.”

Wallace said, “It’s kind of strange to join a church you’ve never been to.”

The man said, “Well, some friends told us this was a good church.”

Wallace said, “Have you ever heard our preacher? You might want to give him a test drive. You might not like him.”

The father said, “We just need a church right now.”

Wallace said, “Well you aren’t going to know where to sit. Everyone has their place. It’s easy to get in someone else’s place.”

At this point the pastor is ready to stuff a communion cloth in Wallace’s mouth. But then an amazing thing happened. Wallace looked at the teenage girl and said, “Our daughter is off at school. We miss her more than you could imagine. It would mean the world to my wife and me if you would sit with us in church.”2

I don’t know this for a fact but I suspect that teenage girl felt as if someone had just anointed her with expensive perfume.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been violent and deadly. News of attacks and death counts pour forth day after day and week after week. However, in the midst of this horrific war, there have been beautiful moments. Ukrainian women and children have fled into Poland with nothing but a suitcase. They had no idea where they would go or what they would do, but Polish citizens have been welcoming them and taking total strangers into their homes. They reach out and say, “Come live with us. We will take care of you.”

I believe these refugees may feel as if they have been anointed with expensive perfume.

How can you and I express our love for what Jesus means to us? Does anyone have any perfume?


  1. Dan Clendenin, “She Did What She Could,” journeywithjesus.net, March 17, 2013.
  2. Tom Are, “Will We Ever Get Out of Here?” January 16, 2022.