Scripture (John 12:1-8) can be found here.
The bible has all these stories about feet. Even the story of the prodigal son has a moment when someone is finding shoes for the lost and found boy. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating… but feet come up in scripture more than you might think.
For most of us, feet are awkward. We don’t live in a place or a time where most people go about sandaled 12 months out of the year, and I am yet to meet someone who says, “I just love my feet!” And that makes sense. Like the heart, the feet are the body’s workhorses, and bear a lot of responsibility, often a heavy load. When there are problems, it can throw everything off. Balance. Safety. Basic wellness. I’ve noticed that we become even more deeply uncomfortable about our feet as we age. In fact, feet might be the distillation of all we dread about aging. Their shape changes, in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. They might require more attention from doctors. And for women, they give pretty strong signals that we’d better knock it off with shoes that are purely decorative, and clothe them instead in something sensible, that gives actual support to our arches and our backs.
People are shy about their feet. I'd go as far as to say, people seem to really dislike exposing them to anyone, for nearly any reason.
So, here we are in Lent, and looming ahead, coming on Maundy Thursday to a church near you, is a story that is an essential part of our identity: Jesus washing his disciples' feet. All over the world, churches re-enact this story, and the people of God endure this discomfort in the name of remembering something Jesus told us to do.
But before that, this year, we have another story, today’s story, a story having to do with Jesus' feet.
The motivating question in the passage seems to be: What do you get the man who has raised your brother from the dead? I mean, what is an appropriate thank you gift?
That part of the story takes place in chapter 11 of John’s gospel. The brother in question is Lazarus. His sisters, Mary and Martha, sent for Jesus when Lazarus was sick, but Jesus delayed coming until after Lazarus had died.
Jesus did that deliberately, and he tells us why.
He says, “[Lazarus’] illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).
Now, it may appear that Jesus means that raising Lazarus from the dead will give him glory.
And, that is true... except, it’s important to understand what Jesus means, in the gospel of John, when he uses that word: "glory."
He means, his death. He means, his crucifixion, that moment when he will be raised up on the cross, arms outstretched, and gathering all the world to himself. For Jesus, that is the moment of the Son of God being glorified.
Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead will reveal who he is: the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ. It will also be a provocation to people who are threatened by his power, and that includes the Roman officials, who brook no competition for “most powerful.” This will provoke them to call for Jesus' death.
Jesus knows this, and Jesus does this intentionally.
And the sisters of Lazarus are aware of the danger hovering over all this. But still, they are so grateful! How can they possibly thank him?
Seriously, what do you offer in thanksgiving for life?
Do you simply say "Thank you?" (I feel confident that has already happened. Most likely, many times.)
Do you throw him a dinner party? Sounds like a good idea—and, yes, that happens to be the exact setting for our story today. It takes place in Bethany, in the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. There is a dinner there, in Jesus’ honor.
But what else? How to say “Thank you?” Isn’t there some kind of grand gesture that would get this level of gratitude across?
Mary of Bethany knows just the thing. She brings into the room a pound of nard, a thick, aromatic oil distilled from the plant, spikenard. She takes it, anoints Jesus’ feet with it, and then wipes his feet with her hair.
This is a startling, if not outright scandalous action, for a number of reasons.
First, the perfume. Spikenard is rare. The plant only grows at altitudes between 9,800 and 16,400 feet, which means, it can be found only in the Himalayas of China, Nepal, and India. It was highly prized in ancient times for its sweet, earthy fragrance. It was used as incense, it was used as perfume. And it was expensive. The cost of this amount of the perfume, 300 denarii? That was enough to pay 300 day-laborers for a year. In addition, the scent of the nard would certainly have filled this room, clung to the clothing of all there. The lingering scent of the perfume would remain, for a long time.
But the other part of Mary’s action was equally stunning: she wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. Some have suggested that, in ancient times, a woman’s hair was considered the most magnificent part of her body, her crown. In wiping Jesus’ feet, Mary shows the ultimate humility: tending to the part of his body that was literally the lowest, with that part of her that was the most lovely and regal.
In every way, Mary’s anointing of Jesus was an extravagant act of love and gratitude.
Of course, not everyone sees it in this way. Judas, who, here, is tagged for us as a troublemaker, accuses Mary of wastefulness, complains about the extravagance of the gesture. “We could have fed the poor,” he grumbles. And, of course, he’s right.
“You always have the poor with you,” Jesus responds, “You will not always have me.”
Jesus’ response has been misunderstood. Here is what Jesus is not saying:
He is not saying, There’s no use worrying about the poor, since anything we do is just a drop in the bucket. He’s not saying, this is an unsolvable problem, and anyway, I’m more important than that.
This is Jesus, who, another gospel says,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor…” (Luke 4:18)
This is Jesus, who has singled out the poor for God’s special care and blessing (Luke 6:20).
This is Jesus, who feeds the poor and hungry, sometimes, thousands at a time.
And this is Jesus, whose disciples, it appears, make a habit of giving to the poor. (Otherwise, why would Judas suggest it?)
Jesus is not saying “Don’t worry, be happy.” What he is most likely doing, is quoting Deuteronomy:
Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.
~Deut. 15:11, Common English Bible
Jesus can do both. He can say, “Care for the poor in your midst,” and “Allow this extravagant gesture,” at the same moment. He can do both.
But let’s not forget what it is like in that room, right in this moment. The perfume thick in the air; Jesus, his feet tenderly anointed, and Mary, her hair now carrying the rich fragrance. The guests sitting around, momentarily made quiet by the extraordinary display.
And the first thing Jesus says is: “Leave her alone; she was keeping this for the day of my burial.”
Lazarus’ death and rising again to new life is the backdrop for this moment, but Jesus’ own death— in the gospel, only about a week away—keeps pushing its way back into the room. Jesus is here because he knows the moment of his glory, God’s glory, is approaching. The moment when the Son of God will be raised up on the cross. The moment when his arms, outstretched in an embrace that transcends time and place, will signal God’s radical welcome for all.
The end of Jesus’ path is drawing near. This is the path he has been walking, faithfully, resolutely, on these very same feet, which are now anointed, of which the prophets say,
“How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” ~Isaiah 52:7
The Jesus we meet in John’s gospel has been clear from the beginning, like that formula we learn in high school, for writing an essay: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them; then, tell them; then, tell them what you told them.” From the moment he appears in the gospel of John, Jesus is identified as the “Lamb of God,” a vivid, even disturbing image that places Jesus at the center of the saving work of God in the Passover feast. From his first miracle—the changing of water into wine—he signified who he was, and what was his mission, and how it would be accomplished. And now, we have witnessed the anointing of the Messiah, the Christ—words that mean, “Anointed.”
His feet will take him there, those workhorses of even his body, the body of One whom we believe is and was, somehow, at one with God. These feet will walk that path, the feet of Christ, the anointed one; blessed by Mary, who sought to answer the question: what do you offer in thanksgiving for life itself? And who concluded, only the most extravagant offering of her love would do.
Thanks be to God. Amen.