Sunday, March 10, 2013

On Costly Nard and Cheap Hand Lotion

John 12:1-8

The image is still fixed in my mind.

My dad was sick.  We were deep into the long, hot summer after his first surgery and his recovery was, to put it simply, not going well.

Several of us were home to visit.  Daddy sat up in his recliner --- his legs stretched out, swollen still from where they had removed the veins for his heart bypass surgery.  The rest of us were settled in around the room, running out of things to say to fill the silence.  It was impossible to ignore the illness that was ever present among us now.  I expect it was why we had gathered then.

It was in the midst of that long silence that my sister, Martha, suddenly jumped up and left the room. When she returned, she carried a bottle of hand lotion.  She knelt before my dad's outstretched legs, poured the lotion into her hands and warmed it before ever so gently rubbing it into his tortured limbs.

I have never forgotten it --- this gesture of tenderness offered between daughter and father.  I have never forgotten it and it comes to mind whenever I encounter again the story of Mary anointing Jesus in our Gospel lesson now or in any of the Gospel lessons which offer the same image, although we are unclear in the other accounts as to just who it was that poured that pound of costly nard on Jesus.

I imagine even the pungent fragrance of that expensive perfume could not cover up the odor of impending death that was also ever present on that day so long ago.  I know that smell, perhaps you do, too.  Only it appears the others gathered then refused to acknowledge it --- for in the telling we have before us now Judas, perhaps representing the others, is fixating on the cost of that perfume and is speculating on the good it could have done had it been sold.  At this late point in the story, even Judas appears not to recognize what is right in front of him.

The cheap hand lotion my sister used that summer's day had little earthly value, but the gesture was the same: borne of a deep love and courageous acknowledgement of the struggle which permeated our time together then.  I would not venture to guess that she was acknowledging the actual nearing of the end of his life here.  I've never asked.  Still, it was a visual turning point of a reversal of roles in our family.  After that, it was true that nothing was to be quite the same again. Whatever else it was, it was certainly a tender gesture which pointed to the profound value that one life had for all of us.  And in that moment, there seemed nothing else to do.

Perhaps there also was nothing else for Mary to do by then.  Perhaps this was all that was left --- for her to kneel before Jesus, anoint his feet, and then to wipe them with her hair.  Perhaps there was nothing more for her to do but to do as she did: holding herself still in the deep acknowledgement of the gift of the one who was right before her.  Perhaps she sensed his impending death ---- Jesus surely says so.  If that was the case, she was doing then what we all too often wish we had thought to do. She wasn't waiting for him to die to acknowledge the gift he had already been.  She was pouring it all out right then...
  • What do you think compelled Mary to pour out a pound of costly perfume on Jesus?  Was she honoring his life, acknowledging his impending death, or was it some combination of the two?
  • This is the only Gospel account of the anointing of Jesus which identifies the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. What else do you remember about her?  How does her behavior here fit with what you already know of her?   
  • It is only in John's Gospel that Judas is identified as the one voicing his objection to Mary's action.  It is interesting to lay the parallel accounts alongside one another. (See Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and Luke 7:36-50 to compare the differences.) Matthew's account, for instance, has all the disciples speaking up. Why the difference?
  •  What does it mean for you to 'pour it all out' on the feet of Jesus?  How would that be a gesture of trust, of faith, of love?


  1. Thank you for sharing the story of your sister and your father. More than anything else I have read in preparing to preach this passage, yout story makes sense of Mary's gift and her love. Pastor Mike Weber

    1. Pastor Mike,

      You are most welcome. It is a precious memory to me and I'm glad it has been helpful to you.

      Blessings to you as you bring the Good News to God's people this week-end! Pastor Janet