John 12:1-8; 2 Kings 4:1-7
When I first read this passage for today, I wondered what there was to say in response to this quirky scene from the gospels. It is something we certainly don’t understand in modern society! Who would pour oil on a friend’s feet and wipe them with their hair? It seems really strange!
But, there is some interesting science about the human hair. Hair soaks up oil, perhaps better than any other substance we know. The idea for using hair to help clean up oil spills was birthed during the Exxon Valdez disastrous spill in Alaska in 1989. Alabama hair stylist Phil McCory, watching on TV, noticed how hard it was for volunteers to clean oil from otters’ fur, and thought to himself: “If animal fur can trap and hold spilled oil, why can’t human hair?” So he staged a home oil spill to test this theory, pouring a gallon of used motor oil into his son’s paddling pool. He then dunked into the pool a pair of his wife’s pantyhose stuffed with clippings from his salon. Within two minutes it had sucked up all the oil! My children are now donating their hair to clean up oil spills!
So I guess it did make some sense for Mary to clean up the oil with her hair. She may have known something it has taken westerners two thousand years to figure out.
We know about nard as well. Interest in essential oils has boomed over the past few decades, spurred by the popularity of aromatherapy. During the modern, evidence-based approach to medicine, western science lost touch with the broad use of plant-based substances for healing. But as eastern medicinal practices gain popularity in the west, we hear more and more about essential oils. In fact, we have classes in essential oil uses here at Taborspace. They usually use Muir Hall, across from my office, so I am treated to the powerful scents wafting through the building when they are here.
Nard, or Spikenard, is one of those essential oils. I did some calculating for the value of nard in today’s market. Since a 5 ml bottle sells for $55, a pint of nard like Mary used could be sold for $11,000 in today’s market. The poverty line in the US in 2015 for an individual was $11,700 of annual income, so the cost of a pint of spikenard is pretty close to a year’s poverty wage, even in America today. Judas’ comment about the value being a year’s wages, is still pretty accurate.
Nard is well known from ancient times. It is one of the elements of the incense for the Jewish temple. Medicinally, it is particularly known for its quality as a sedative, to fight insomnia, and to assist in childbirth difficulties. While it has its religious uses, it seems likely that Mary would have this essential oil in her possession for its use in childbirth. Perhaps she was a midwife. Perhaps she purchased it in hopes of having a child herself. Perhaps she had suffered miscarriages or difficult births where the child could not survive. This could have been her hope for the birth of a living child – her own or another’s! We don’t know if that is why she had it, but it is a fruitful image for the imagination.
The role of nard in childbirth is rich with meaning as we look at Mary’s choice to bathe Jesus with it. With this in mind, Mary’s anointing was an amazing prophetic and hopeful act! First, Jesus’ response may have been referring to its use as a sleep aid. He says it is for the day of his burial. It would help him to enter death and to sleep at peace. But I would like to propose another option. If it was primarily used as an aid to childbirth, perhaps this anointing was preparing him for his second birth, from the tomb. Perhaps this anointing was easing his way into the new life he would share with all beings, opening the wombs that seem locked forever, the tombs where we lay our dead. No longer are these dead wombs dead. They are, because of Jesus, the birth canal to new life.
Okay, perhaps I am making more of this possibility than is known. But I find that this interpretation of the anointing is so beautiful and encouraging to me. Did Mary know what she was doing as a midwife through death? No, I don’t think so. Only in looking back on the story can we see it. So what was she doing? What compelled her to make this kind of extravagant expression of love?
If we glance back to John chapter 11, we read the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother, from the dead. Many of the Jews, it says, came to visit Mary after the death of her brother. Clearly she was well known, as she is the one specifically mentioned as the purpose of their call. A midwife would have been held in very high esteem in a community, even as the two midwives for the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were heroes, so would have been those who compassionately drew out life from the birthing wombs.
But the resurrection of Lazarus was the first spark of a looming firestorm. Some who were with Mary in Bethany, went to their own spiritual mentors, the Pharisees, and told them about this amazing thing which they had witnessed. They couldn’t make sense of it, so they brought the story to their spiritual guides. The Pharisees couldn’t help them. The Pharisees, in fact, called for more help. They asked for the Great Sanhedrin, the final council for truth of the Jewish people, to be convened. The Sanhedrin was conflicted when they heard this story. They knew Jesus’ message was dangerous, even while some found his words compelling. The leaders believed that if everyone began to live as Jesus suggested, the Romans would come down hard on Jerusalem and all Jewish people. And so, high priest Caiaphas pronounced his judgement – it is better for Jesus, one man, to die than to bring down the violence of Rome and lose the whole people.
Caiaphas was just being practical. War tribunals make the same judgment today. Better are targeted strikes by drones, better is the accuracy of a sniper, than the massive deaths of all-out war. So often we see Caiaphas as uniquely evil in this story. But he was simply following the ancient rules of self-preservation. He did not perceive the truth at work in Jesus. He did not perceive that Jesus was simply restoring the ways handed down to the Jewish people since the time of Moses. With so many interpreters, over so many years, the heart of the gospel in the Hebrew scriptures was veiled, or lost. Instead, he followed cultural wisdom and pronounced the verdict of the high court. Jesus must die.
I would like to offer two take-aways from this passage. First, Jesus represents Jubilee. When Jesus preached his first sermon in Nazareth, he chose a text of Jubilee – of the release of debt captives and healing of bodies. The whole give-and-take between Jesus and Judas at the dinner has the year of Jubilee as the backdrop. Modern Christianity has often heard Jesus’ statement here as a concession that the poor will always be here, so we should not be over-wrought about the vast disparity between rich and poor. But, that would be to completely misunderstand Jesus.
Like any rabbi, when Jesus quotes a small clip of the Torah, he means the whole context. And Jesus here quotes Deuteronomy 15:11. I encourage you to go home and read this whole chapter. This week, in the daily lectionary, we read its parallel in Leviticus 25. When Jesus says that there will always be poor people in the land, he implies what follows: therefore you must be open-handed and generous. And, he does not just mean that we should cultivate an attitude of generous charity; rather, the theology of Jubilee implies a radical equality of all God’s people. We should set up our society so that there are no poor among us. Deut. 15:4 specifically says that there need be no poor among God’s people, for God has provided enough for all. But if someone falls on hard times, be generous and treat them as if this misfortune had been your own.
You see, in the promised land, no one was permitted to own land. The tribes had possession of it for the good of the people. The only thing which could be bought or sold was the number of crops between today and the year of jubilee. The only terms of service, were the number of years to pay off a debt or the year of jubilee, whichever came first. The land was always God’s, given to provide generously for the people. And when it did not provide for some, then those who had more good fortune were to steward these gifts for those who had less. Jesus wasn’t saying, “okay, we concede to the poverty of some.” No! He was referring back to the year of jubilee, and our responsibility to be open-handed because it is not ours in the first place.
It could just be that John misunderstood this, in his aside comment about Judas being a thief. Judas may have simply been asking Jesus a good question: “If you are teaching us, Jesus, to be open-handed with our resources because they are for all people, then why do you allow this extravagance?” A very good question! Which leads me to the second take-away.
Mary, too, represents Jubilee. Mary is handing to the poor the resources in her hands, with complete generosity. And the poor, in this case, is Jesus. Remember that Jesus had no home. He and his disciples were dependent on the people of the land, and a group of generous women (Luke 7) for every meal and all their sheltered nights. He is one of the poor.
But still, how does this extravagance, using the supplies for who knows how many births, or distraught people needing rest for one anointing, make any sense? Perhaps the year of Jubilee has two meanings held together. It is certainly about releasing debt prisoners and equalizing the resources of the land for all the people. And it is also about extravagant love. This is how, I think, Mary represents Jubilee. She gets it! The heart of Jubilee. This image of the kingdom of God is given such a beautiful name – Jubilee. I think, because it is only in beauty, joy, and love that one can live with abandon into God’s ideal.
Mary lives at this moment in extravagant love which foreshadows the extravagant love Jesus will live through during the next, and last, week of his life. Life isn’t just about living day to day. It is about abundance – just look at God’s abundance for God’s people – water from a rock, manna in the desert, oil pouring endlessly! Just look at all the ways Jesus showed God’s extravagance in his ministry – feeding 5,000 with a few loaves and fish, gallons and gallons of fine wine, healing for neighbor and stranger alike, a net so full of fish is nearly broke the net, a heart so full of love that it broke on the cross when the human body no longer had the strength to contain it.
When we say one’s heart is broken, we don’t mean the love is broken; a love strong enough to break a heart can never be broken. Rather, we mean that the love itself has become the life, since the heart can no longer love on its own.
This is the kind of jubilee Mary expressed. She likely had no idea what she was doing, it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was a heart moved by love. She was compelled by love to give everything she had, with no thought for tomorrow.
Jesus saw her heart and said, it is good.
– Pastor Carley Friesen