And the fragrance    
              filled the house...
John 12:1-8
Text here is from the New King James Version 1984, Thomas Nelson, Inc. 
(normally I use the NRSV,  but thought I'd vary a bit)
 

Prelude 

         In John's gospel, this episode is intimately tied with what precedes it. Chapter 11 tells the story of the raising of Lazarus and, in fact, begins with an allusion to chapter 12: "Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick." (John 11:1-2)  Call it a preview of coming attractions.
        Briefly told, the sisters send word to Jesus of their brother's illness (11:3), but Jesus chooses to take his own time traveling there (11:5-16). More is going on in this scene than the illness of a dear friend. In John's gospel, Jesus is always far ahead of those who follow. His words are very often misunderstood, which is very evident in this chapter, where he heads to Bethany with a larger purpose than healing a loved one. As he nears, Martha meets him outside of town (11:17-27), and shares the news of Lazarus' death. Does she understand when he says, "I am the resurrection and the life..."? She responds with a creed of  lofty titles (Messiah, Son of God, Coming One), but has the impact of him being the "resurrection" and "life" itself flown over her head also?
         Mary then comes to Jesus at Martha's prodding, falling at his feet when she does. "If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died," she says through her tears. She, a friend, also cannot see the bigger picture. The two of them are surrounded by (professional?) mourners, and when he asks about Lazarus' body, these others speak Jesus' own line - "Come and see!"  However, theirs is an invitation to observe death, not life. This is too much, and Jesus weeps in frustration (11:28-37). From there he goes to the tomb and, by his very word, raises Lazarus from the dead (11:38-44) - a foretaste of what lies around the next bend in Jerusalem. The die is cast, his opponents now decide the time has come for this "one man to die that the whole nation not be destroyed" (11:45-57). Passover is near. Thus we arrive at this text.

 

{1} Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany,
                           where Lazarus was who         had been                dead,
                                                         whom He had raised from the dead.
{2}                      There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but
                                     Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him.
{3}        Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard,
                                anointed the feet of Jesus, and
                                wiped    His feet with her hair.
                                                And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
{4}        Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot,
                                                                  Simon's son, who would betray Him, said,
{5}                "Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii
                                                               and given to the poor
?"
{6}                                        This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but
                                                                  because he was a thief, 
                                                                             and had the money box;
                                                                         and he used to take what was put in it.
{7}        But Jesus said,
                      "Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.
{8}                                  For the poor  you      have       with you always,
                                              but  Me    you do not have               always
."
 

Reflection 

         Can you imagine such a meal? A dinner after a funeral provides an opportunity for remembering the deceased and reconnecting ties that have been strained or broken, but what happens when the deceased is no longer dead? What do you talk about? No matter how much time has elapsed between Lazarus' resurrection and this meal (11:54 says that Jesus went to Ephraim and "remained there," but does not indicate how long), the aroma of that event still lingers. Is it a pleasing odor? Recall the "stench" of a body four days in the tomb (11:39), but is that the abiding smell surrounding this meal? Gospel storyteller John purposefully weaves his account in such a way that whatever this "Word made flesh" (1:14), Jesus, says and does shakes the foundations undergirding everyone who encounters him. In fact, his death upon the cross will throw the world into a decisive crisis (see 12:31-32 and 9:39, where "judgment" in Greek is "krisis"). If the aroma of what previously happened in Bethany is too pleasing, then perhaps we have not really smelled it.
         Why did Mary anoint Jesus' feet during this meal? Was it just simple devotion, out of friendship for her beloved rabbi? Was she putting into action something no words could express at such a meal? I personally remember sitting at my own father's feet in his hospital room before he died, seeking to convey something I did not know how to speak. Was Mary aware of Jesus' impending death? Did she, as Jesus said (12:7), consciously buy the perfume for his funeral, or was her purchase only later revealed (even to her) to have been for this purpose? How often do our actions take on new meaning after we have done them? Regardless of her motivations (which we do not know), the fragrance of the costly oil filled the room as she anointed Jesus' feet (soon, in Jerusalem, Jesus would wash the feet of his disciples, 13:1-20).
         The smell was too much for Judas Iscariot. Was it merely Mary's perfumed oil against which he reacted, or was the stench of the tomb earlier still bothering him? Or, as the text says, was it all just a matter of greed on his part? Whether it be for the poor or for his own pocket, money was not the real issue. Of course, 300 denarii have their own aroma, for good or for ill. However, the real fragrance beginning to waft through the room is from the impending crucifixion of Jesus, of which his disciples have caught only a faint sniff. All too soon everything will change. No longer will they sense his physical presence, but as he is lifted up, a time of "krisis" for all, the scent of salvation will pervade the world (3:17).
         From here begins John's telling of the events in Jerusalem. A crowd gathers when they hear of Jesus and Lazarus together (12:9), in response to which the religious elite include Lazarus as a target in their plot to dispense with the Jesus problem (12:10-11). The next day Jesus enters the City of David (12:12-19). [In the Lenten lectionary sequence of year C, in fact, "Palm Sunday" comes the week after this text is a suggested reading].

 

 

Parallels

            While all four gospels tell a version of this story, there are significant differences. Matthew and Mark seem cut out of nearly the same fabric, with an anonymous "woman" anointing Jesus' head with oil as he sits at table in the house of Simon the leper. John's account takes place in Bethany, like Matthew and Luke, but in the home of Lazarus, Martha, and "Mary"  - who is this "woman." These three gospels agree (with variation) on the reaction of the onlookers. Their revulsion to this act revolves around the cost of the oil and the wastefulness of such extravagance. Only in John is Judas Iscariot identified as the one questioning the expenditure, and his motives in turn are questioned. In all three, Jesus links the oil with his upcoming death - a preparation, noting that the poor (as potential recipients of money saved by not anointing) are a continuing part of the physical landscape, while he (himself) will not be. Matthew and Mark agree fully on the final statement about how this woman will be remembered by future generations.
             In all four stories, there is a "Simon." In Matthew and Mark, this episode takes place at the house of "Simon the leper" (some have speculated - juxtaposing Matthew, Mark, and John - that he might have been the husband of Martha, or father of her and her two siblings, but there is scant evidence for this). In John, "Simon" is mentioned as the father of Judas Iscariot. The events in Luke take place in the home of a Pharisee named "Simon." It is doubtful these three Simons are the same person, but the common name serves as a bridge between these texts.
             Luke's story is an altogether different version, though it shares some common elements. Is it the same story?  The woman is still anonymous, though she is identified as "a sinner" "in the city," someone not to be "touched." In fact, that is the issue in Luke - she is "unclean" (a sinner), and thus ritually pollutes Jesus by physical contact with him. Jesus' response (through parable and direct statement) to those who question this woman's act, involves God's forgiveness. Hospitality rather than anointing for impending death is what drives Luke's telling. In both John and Luke, it is the feet of Jesus which are anointed, not his head (as in Matthew and Mark).  Overall, it is the fragrance of not only the oil, but the deed as well, which is the aroma common to all four gospels.

Parallels (in NRSV) are highlighted in this way:
in all four (yellow), in three of four (green), in two of four (blue)

Matthew 26:6-13

Mark 14:3-9

Luke 7:36-50

John 12:1-8

{6} And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, {3} And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, {36} Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee's house, and sat down to eat. {1} Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. {2} There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. 
{7} a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. {37} And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, {38} and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil {3} Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
{8} But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, "Why this waste? {9} "For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor." {4} But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, "Why was this fragrant oil wasted? {5} "For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor." And they criticized her sharply. {39} Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, "This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner." {4} Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, who would betray Him, said, {5} "Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" {6} This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.
{10} But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. {11} "For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. {12} "For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial.
{6} But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. {7} "For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. {8} "She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial.          {7} But Jesus said, "Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. {8} "For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always."
{13} "Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her." {9} "Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her."             
          {40} And Jesus answered and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." So he said, "Teacher, say it." {41} "There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. {42} "And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?" {43} Simon answered and said, "I suppose the one whom he forgave more." And He said to him, "You have rightly judged." {44} Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. {45} "You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. {46} "You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. {47} "Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little." {48} Then He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." {49} And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" {50} Then He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."      

 


Other resources on this passage can be found at  "The Text this Week."

comments 2001 Peter L. Haynes

sermons on this text

return to texts online

return to main sermon page

On "commentary" from an Anabaptist perspective

On keeping scripture God's living Word