She cannot pay him back

Holy Monday Isaiah 42:1-7, Psalm 26(27):1-3,13-14, John 12:1-11

There is nothing she could possibly give that would pay him back for what he had done for her.

Mary’s brother Lazarus was dead. Four days in the tomb dead. Stinking corpse dead. The funeral has already happened dead. Lazarus was dead. But Jesus raised him to life again.

What gift could equal the gift he had given her?

He met her in her grief. He met his friend who knew that he was a great healer and teacher, who cried out in anguish at his feet “if only you were here, my brother would not have died”. He wept with her. And with the voice that had once ignited the burning sun and every twinkling star in the sky, that kept oceans in their place and governed the movements of the mountains, he speaks into the tomb “Lazarus! Come out!”

Not all the money she could make in a year, a lifetime, could thank him for this gift. Her brother returned to her from the place that threatens to steal us away for ever. Now a walking witness that this man, this teacher of Nazareth, this Jesus has no equal – even the power of the grave.

And yet on this the sixth day before the Passover, the true Passover that would make salvation available for all the world, she offers a token of worship. She anoints the feet she once wept on. The intimacy of this moment a strange display in a crowded house full of Jesus’ disciples, the cloying perfume arresting the senses of those who were sitting eating dinner, an embarrassing interruption to their evening. She gets close enough to him that she can wipe his feet with her hair, the heady fragrance of this intimate worship now hers as much as his.

A token truly, for no gift could ever pay him back for what he had done for her.

A cold and cruel word interrupts this scene.

“Why”, says Judas, “wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?”

A common thief, as John tells us, knows the value of something only in its price tag. Judas took one look at this perfume and saw in it about a year’s worth of wages. Perhaps he had also planned how he would spend it. Judas does not see worship. He sees profit. From Mary’s joy at receiving her brother back from the dead he imagines what her gratitude could gain him.

So often worship looks like a waste. A waste of space in a growing city. A waste of time in a full schedule. A waste of money in a cost of living crisis. A waste of education in a world blighted by ignorance. A waste of effort when prayers seem unheard. Reasonable people think of more pragmatic ways to help others. Normal people don’t debase themselves with these sorts of displays of religion.

But to think this way is to admit that we really have not comprehended who Jesus is or what he has done. For it is the romance of the heart that moves the worshipper, not the calculations of the practical person. The philosopher Blaise Pascal said it well: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know” and yet even pouring out her worship Mary prophesies the truth about Jesus.

He interrupts the miserly complaint of Judas:

“Leave her alone; she had to keep this scent for the day of my burial. You have the poor with you always, you will not always have me.”

Mary has poured out her love, her thanksgiving, her worship. And in so doing she has announced that Jesus’ time has grown short. And though on the day of his suffering, he will be hastily interred in a borrowed grave under the shadow of shame and disgrace, here Mary treats his body with a devotion approaching what is fitting for the Son of God, the Messiah King of not only Israel but the whole world.

Such a scene is too intimate, too inappropriate for those who do not know him. It is embarrassing, this woman so close to him, close enough that her hair can wipe his feet in this moment at once worship, embalming, and enthronement. John is careful to record that this perfume is not frankincense or myrrh, but nard. And Mary here takes the place of the Bride in the ancient nuptial poem known as the Song of Solomon. Though she says nothing in this Gospel the Bride in the poem speaks for her:

“While the King rests in his own room my nard yields its perfume.” (Song of Songs 1:12)

There is nothing she could give that could pay him back for all that he had done for her. Much less would he ask. Instead she shows us what we are all to do, she worships him for all that he is: The King who will lay down his life for us, the Saviour of the world.

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