Excerpted from the Council’s 2019 Lenten Reflection Guide for Lectionary Year C.
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.’ (John 12:1-8)
The Gospel of John offers intimate details of life with Jesus—insights on the range of emotions and tensions experienced throughout Jesus’ ministry are shared to humanize the story. A unique aspect of this Gospel are its dichotomies and paradoxes, resulting in multi-layered meanings about Jesus.
This passage is one of those. In these eight verses we see the contrast between true and false discipleship, true and false faith, or even true and false love. The characters, Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and Judas, represent various perspectives about and relationships with Jesus. While an entire relationship can never be understood in one verse, this passage does offer incredible insights.
Lazarus’ presence is a living reminder that faith offers life, symbolic of the difference between life and death. This dinner takes place shortly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The presence of Lazarus symbolizes that Jesus can defeat death, a foreshadowing of his own upcoming defeat of death.
Mary and Martha’s roles are pivotal because their show of faith offers a lived-out expression of discipleship. Martha serves Jesus dinner after witnessing the raising of Lazarus. Mary also serves Jesus by cleaning his feet with her own hair and anointing Jesus with costly perfume. Mary cleans Jesus’ feet not knowing that Jesus would soon do the very same for his own disciples. The perfume can be read as a strong contrast to both Lazarus’ death as well as Jesus’ upcoming crucifixion. We read that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (v. 3). Perfume dominating a space is much different than the smell of death—in all senses—of staleness, decaying, or lackluster energy. The smell of perfume represents the overall liveliness of the presence of Jesus that dominates death.
Many readers are already familiar with Judas Iscariot, but regardless, his cavalier approach to stealing in the story can still surprise us. It is unabashedly deceptive and elementary to steal from shared funds, but all the while it is a reminder that no betrayal was too small for Judas. I also want to humanize Judas because he serves as a great testament of our own self-serving motives. It is important to note that Jesus was not focused on Judas’ intent to steal, but rather on his misdirected energy on time. Jesus understood his death was coming; he wanted the attention on that, not earthly matters like money and valuable perfumes. With this, we can see the comparison of true and false love contrasted through Judas and Mary. As I read this passage, I can imagine being at the dinner table with this group. The Gospel writer offers simple, but helpful, descriptors about this meal. We are given profound insight on the intimacy that Jesus shared with his followers, as well as the betrayal that occurred in his inner-circle. We read about a clear model of service and discipleship. We are given the opportunity to share in this life with Jesus, a life that is full of healing and transparency, not fraught with hidden motives for fleeting treasures such as money, a life rich in eternal virtues like generosity and service. The perfume overcoming the staleness of death anchors the disciples’ perspectives, as they are about to enter despair like no other.