Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

John 12:1-8 

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he hadraised 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.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)


So much of our living is done out of the past. World politics are driven by ancient historical blood feuds dating back to the middle ages and before. 

We struggle in this country with the heritage of inequality, injustice, systemic racism and ethnic cleansing rooted in our founding and built into our government, educational institutions and workplaces. The wounds of our tortured past continue to fester and erupt into violence. This last week we have witnessed the worsening of a conflict born of Russian imperialism and western nationalism, a shameful show of raw racism on the floor of the United States Senate and a flood of new legislation aimed at dehumanizing gay, lesbian and transgender folk. Now, as we stand once again on the brink of what could erupt into yet another world war, I have to wonder whether the human race ever makes any progress on any front. It seems as though we are caught in a retributive vortex of prejudice, resentment and violence that has no end. If, as is often said, the arc of the universe bends toward justice, it is a long arc and the bend is often impossible to discern.

Have you ever been part of something profoundly special that was nearly spoiled by some unkind words? Whether a heartfelt wedding toast interrupted by a crude joke or an important Bible study that is sidetracked by ugly political fighting, words have the power to bless and inspire but also to undermine and injure. As we read in this week’s Gospel, Mary is doing a beautiful thing for Jesus, but then Judas attempts to undermine her actions in order to enrich himself. I pray this week we all side with Jesus and the Gospel writers and not to bother Mary, as she has done a beautiful thing.


I was always a bit curious about that phrase “Well, it’s as plain as the nose on your face” from my childhood; I could never figure out how anyone could see their own nose on their face! And, of course, that’s the point, I suppose; my nose is obvious to you, but not to me. And vice versa.
Isaiah has God asking us, essentially, “Can’t you see the new thing I’m doing? It’s right there—just like a spring in the middle of the desert!” Not quite the same as the nose on our face, but still fairly obvious. But, oblivious humans that we are, we still miss it.

Perhaps we need to be a bit more like the animals—jackals and ostriches and such. They can see it, smell it, feel it. When we are thirsty enough for the righteousness of God, I suppose we will then find the refreshing water God offers.


I can hardly wrap my mind around the things in this text. We have Lazarus, you know the one that had stunk up the joint after dwelling in the tomb for several days just a couple of chapters earlier—could that have been the reason Mary brought a pound of perfume into the room, to wash the feet of Jesus?

Of course, her act is seen both as extravagance and as tenderness. Judas can only see dollar signs, while Jesus sees her devotion. There is the foreshadowing of his impending death and burial—even as we prepare to celebrate resurrection in just two more weeks. The pageantry and the pomp of Easter are calling us—but we must wait—AGAIN —to process through the dark passion of Holy Week.

It seems that so much of the church’s liturgical time is spent in hurry-up-and-wait mode. But, then, perhaps that is precisely because we are such a hurried people living such hurried lives. Are we Judases constantly afraid that we might just be wasting time sitting here at the Lord’s feet?


In an odd sort of way, today is a day of mixed emotions, of conflicted feelings. As the world emerges from the dark and cold of winter into the light and warmth of spring, our religious tradition calls us deeper into the darkness and gloom of Jesus’ suffering and death. Sadness and celebration; darkness and light; the cold of winter and the warmth of spring, the death of Christ and the birth of new hope, all mixed up together in one day.

We see it in our Gospel Lesson. Here we find Jesus at a meal celebrating the raising of Lazarus, a feast in honor of the fact that Lazarus has been returned from the dead. Into the midst of this joyous celebration, Mary came and anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair; a symbolic act preparing him for death and burial, an action that upset the party, disturbed everyone in the room.

Chapter 12 opens with the story of this dinner that took place a few weeks later to celebrate Lazarus’ amazing return from the dead. Make no mistake about it; this was a gala, a fiesta, a banquet. Delmer Chilton compares it to being down south, were they’d have had a pig-picking, a fish-fry, plus a keg party with fireworks. Or maybe a South Carolina Low Country shrimp boil: out on the deck, beach music playing, couples dancing “the shag,” little kids running around under the boardwalk chasing fireflies, old people sitting in corners while talking and watching the young people.

And into the midst of this joyous frivolity, Mary came with a gallon of perfume, expensive stuff, some estimate worth thirty or forty thousand dollars. And she plopped down in front of Jesus and poured this rich and costly perfume all over his feet and then wiped his feet with her hair. 

And the music stopped, and the dancers froze, and the old people hushed talking, and the children stood staring with their fingers in their mouths, while Jesus smiled and lifted Mary up and thanked her for her generosity and her love.

There are a couple of reasons for the stunned reaction on the part of the group, one that is spoken of in the text and one that is not. In the text, Judas said what everyone else was thinking, “My God, woman, what are you doing? You could have sold that and given the money to the poor.” Jesus reply here is very important. Many times people have used his words, “the poor you always have with you,” as an excuse for not helping the poor. That is definitely not what Jesus meant.

Jesus meant that Mary understood his immediate present and near future better than any of them. She bought the perfume, the nard, for a specific purpose; to anoint his body when he died, and she more than anyone else, knows that Jesus was soon to die.

Her anointing his body at this time showed that she recognized that by coming to Jerusalem and raising her brother from the dead, he had angered the people who run things and they intended to kill him. She knew, even if the others didn’t, that by coming here to this place, at this time, and working this miracle, he had sealed his fate, he had signed his own execution order. In giving Lazarus life he had assured his own death. Mary poured out both her gratitude and her grief when she poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet.

And when Jesus reminded them that they would always have the poor with them, he was reminding them, and us, of our ongoing call and duty to serve the needs of what he called elsewhere “the least of these my brothers and sisters.” 

What he said elsewhere is that when we serve “the least of these,” we are personally and directly serving Christ. Rather than being the end of our duty to the poor, this moment with Mary at his feet is really the beginning of a higher call and a wider duty for all of us.

The second reason people reacted with shock and dismay is not spoken of in this text, but is easily understood. Jesus was a single man and a rabbi. “Decent women,” and “decent rabbis” just didn’t touch each other like that. But in her gratitude and her sorrow, Mary had thrown caution to the wind and gave vent to her deepest and most honest feelings about Jesus, her savior and her Lord. This text calls us to do the same. It calls us to a deep, deep grief for the death of Jesus; a profound and abiding sorrow for our faults and failures, our evil deeds and atrocious acts; in a word, our sins, that put him on the cross to bleed and die to save us from ourselves. It also calls us to a full and rich and sober joy and gratitude for the new life that Christ won for us there.

Martin Luther called it a “sacred exchange,” a “divine trade.” On the cross Jesus took on our sins and gave us his holiness. Upon the cross Jesus died our death and gave us his life. There on that tree, Jesus accepted our fate and gave us his future. And in response to that loving act, we are called to weep for our sins, and for his death, and then to pour out our lives in the service of Christ through service to the poor and needy of this world.


We need to remember that Jesus knows this family very well. 

  • He returned Lazarus to life. 
  • He welcomed Mary as his disciple and stopped teaching the disciples at his feet to give Martha a private lesson on discipleship. 

It’s not difficult to see why Jesus loves this family. I follow the many interpreters who understand that Martha, along with her siblings, ran a combination poorhouse and hospital from their home. The name “Bethany,” according to theologian Jerome and the Syriac Bibles, means “House of the Poor.” The Qumran documents tell of three towns, just east of Jerusalem—exactly where Bethany is located—that were to be a residence for people with leprosy (11Q Temple 46:16-47:5).

A combination poorhouse and hospital is exactly where we would expect to find a rabbi from Galilee whose ministry was about healing the sick and preaching good news to the poor. We would expect Jesus to enjoy residing with Martha, the master of the hospital, and her two younger siblings. When Jesus told his disciples that the poor will always be with them, Martha, Mary and Lazarus already knew that. The women had probably foregone marriages and families to take care of all who needed them. They were living out the full verse from Deuteronomy that Jesus quoted: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (15:11). This family had dedicated their lives to fully opening their hands to the needy and the poor.

It’s in the context of this dedication that Mary had kept a Roman pound of perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet. Was this a gift from one of the wealthy donors to the hospice? Did Mary scrimp and save to purchase the perfume herself? We simply don’t know. But we do know that when Jesus was about to die, one of his disciples and good friends, who dedicated her life to serving the same people Jesus served, did something beautiful for him. She made Jesus’ body smell good before he would smell of death. She touched him tenderly and with the softness of her hair before he would be beaten and nailed to a rough Roman cross. 

Judas sought to undermine her gift and question if she was really dedicated to serving the poor. But his hypocrisy could never tarnish her gift.

Maybe more than any of the 12, I think Mary of Bethany understood what Jesus was about to go through, and she did the best she could to comfort him in advance. Loving and caring for the suffering, poor and dying is how she spent her life, after all. And when her rabbi was about to suffer and die, she did what she could to love and care for him through it. May we follow her example.