New Creation Project
Don’t you love the smell of a great home-cooked meal? Growing up, I vividly remember coming into our home after church and smelling the rich aroma of roast beef in the oven. Makes me hungry just thinking about it.
When we open John 12, we find Jesus at a dinner party with his closest friends: Mary, Martha and Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead only a few weeks before. What a magnificent evening that should have been!
Only it wasn’t. Why? First, there was the ominous threat of Jesus’ arrest. “Now the chief priest … had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (11:57).
You’d think everyone would be delighted when Lazarus was raised from the dead, and of course many were. But many were not. The religious leaders had finally had enough. If not checked, they were certain Jesus would incite a rebellion and upset the tenuous truce between themselves and their Roman rulers. Jesus was a wanted man.
As a result, Jesus had gone into hiding. Bethany, where this dinner party occurred, was only two miles from Jerusalem. It was not safe for Jesus to be there. No doubt, everyone was nervous. But it was about to get worse.
The tension reached the boiling point when Lazarus’ sister, Mary, performed a surprising and risqué act. She entered the room with an expensive jar of perfume. Without regard for propriety, she broke the jar and let her hair down. She then began to anoint Jesus’ feet with the perfume, drying them with her hair.
Needless to say, this was an awkward moment for everyone. In the first place, this was very expensive perfume. Why was it wasted in this way? In the second place, if she were to anoint him, it should have been on his head, not on his feet.
But most troubling was this: Why was she, a respectable woman, letting down her hair in the presence of all these men? It simply was not done – except by women of ill repute. Why did she do it? Why did Jesus allow her?
Yes, what was already a tense dinner gathering had become downright unseemly. No one knew what to say – except Judas. He said what everyone was thinking: “Master, isn’t this wasteful?” And underneath the surface: “What is the matter with this woman? What is the matter with you?”
Jesus, as usual, gave an unexpected (and cryptic) response: “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.”
It is a key turning point in John’s narrative. From this time on, the shadow of death will hang over everything that happens. We are startled by this turn of events, for until now, Jesus’ ministry has been filled with what we might call “Signs of Life."
Take a walk down memory lane and notice the “signs” along the way. He turns water into wine (2:11). He heals a nobleman’s son (4:54). He restores a lame man by a pool (ch 5). He feeds 5000 with a lucky boy’s lunch (6:14). He walks on water (6:19). He heals a blind man (9:16). He brings Lazarus back to life (ch. 11; see 12:17-18).
John calls them “signs,” and like the seven days of creation alluded to in the opening words of the book (1:1-4), there are seven of them. Where have these signs been pointing? Now we see. There is going to be a cosmic showdown between the religious and political powers of the world — and it will not go as we might have expected.
Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, will display his glory (1:14) in the most shocking way imaginable: He will be lifted high on a cross and buried deep in the ground (12:23-33). As buried seed sprouts new life, his death will bring new life to all who place their trust in him (3:16). It is the ultimate revelation of God’s glory: self-giving, life-giving, sacrificial love.
Yes, just as Jesus predicted, Mary was anointing him for his burial. I doubt she understood it when she did it. But it didn’t matter. She knew in her bones that Jesus was worthy of the most lavish devotion she could offer.
She didn’t care what anyone else thought or did. She simply had to show her gratitude to the one who had saved her brother’s life, and to the one who would, whether she realized it or not, soon save her life, too.
John, who witnessed this scene and wrote this gospel, was deeply impacted by this lavish display of of devotion. He remembered it like it was yesterday: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."
Indeed. Even at this great distance, I can still smell its fragrant aroma.