Thomas J Parlette
“Prelude to the Passion”
John 12: 1-8
If you were to do a Google search on the word “prelude”, you would find a definition such as “an action or event serving as an introduction to something more important.” Usually we think of a prelude as a piece of music, such as we hear every week here in worship. The prelude gathers us together as God’s people and prepares us for the more important experience of worship and offering our praise and thanksgiving to God.
In like manner, this passage today about Mary anointing Jesus with some expensive oil, serves as a prelude to the more important event coming up in the Gospel of John.
Leading up to this story, Jesus has been healing people and doing miracles in the surrounding areas. Just a short while before this Jesus healed the man who had been born blind. Then he brought his friend Lazarus back to life. All of these miraculous “God-signs”, as Eugene Peterson calls them, has created quite a buzz about Jesus. The priests and the Pharisees were getting increasingly concerned. So they called a meeting of the Jewish ruling body and wondered aloud, “What are we going to do about this? This man Jesus keeps doing things, creating God-signs. If we let him keep doing this, pretty soon, everyone is going to believe in him and the Romans will step in and take away what little power and privilege we still have.”
It was Caiaphas, the designated High Priest for that year, that spoke up and said, “It would be better if one man died for the people rather than our whole nation be destroyed.” There was general agreement on that point, and from that time on they plotted to kill Jesus.
So Jesus no longer went out in public among the Jews, and in fact withdrew to a little town called Ephraim, about 10 miles north of Bethany and Jerusalem, and secluded himself there with the disciples.
The Jewish Passover feast was coming up and lots of people were showing up in Jerusalem and everyone was curious about this man Jesus. They were all wondering – “Do you think he’ll show up at the Feast or not?” Meanwhile, the High Priest and the Pharisees put out the word that anyone getting wind of Jesus should tell them. They were all set to arrest him.
That brings us to our story for today. It is six days before Passover, and once again, Jesus is in Bethany with Lazarus, Mary and Martha. They are enjoying dinner together after a long trip from Ephrain where they’ve been hiding out. Martha, as usual, is busy serving the meal, while Lazarus sat with Jesus and the disciples. Mary comes into the room with a jar of very expensive oil. She anoints Jesus, something usually reserved for a King or as preparation for burial. She then massaged his feet and wiped them with her hair,
What we see here is a prelude to the Passion. In this anointing we get a prelude to Jesus as The King of Creation. But this is a new kind of King. Jesus is a King who will suffer and die for the people. So we also see this as a prelude to the Passion and resurrection.
But it’s the reactions to Mary’s anointing that are most interesting.
First, there’s Judas Iscariot, the one getting ready to betray Jesus. He seems to try to turn Jesus’ preaching back on him when he says, perhaps a little sarcastically – “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for 300 denarii’s and the money given to the poor.” John quickly tells us why Judas says this – he isn’t really concerned about the poor, he just wants the money put into the common purse so he can steal it later. But Judas raises a good point. Isn’t this wasteful? We often experience this tension when, as a faith community, we go through our budgeting process and balance our financial resources between things that seem extravagant and programs to help people in need. We strive to be good stewards and do as much good as we can in our community and in the world. We try to avoid waste – and yet, here is an act of extravagance that seems wasteful. But is it? Or does it show us something about God’s love and grace?
About 10 years ago, Holy Name Cathedral, a Catholic church in Chicago, had a fire that damaged its roof. Two days later, Neil Steinberg, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist with a famously hard-boiled reputation, walked into the church to see the damage for himself. He saw it, but he also saw the greater part of the church that wasn’t damaged. He went back to his office and wrote a column about his visit, which he headlined, “Cathedral Can Inspire Cynic.” In it, he said, “Repair of Holy Name is a cause worth supporting. I’m a hardened, godless cynic, but to walk into Holy Name and see that ceiling soar toward heaven, well, I hate to imagine a person so emotionally numb as not to be affected. God may not move you, but God moved the people who built this, and this moves you.”
Steinberg went on to invite readers to donate to the Holy Name Cathedral repair fund. Then he concluded by saying that he had given $50 himself, which, he said, “seemed a painless, minimal sum for a Jewish agnostic wishing to speed the repairs along.”(1)
This seemingly wasteful act shows us that God is just as extravagant in pouring out Divine love on us in Jesus’ life, death and coming resurrection, a gift that moves us to build cathedrals in praise of God. It is not a waste, but an act of love and gratitude while Jesus is still with them.
The other response here is Jesus’ when he reprimands Judas and says “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.”
It’s easy to misunderstand Jesus here. It’s easy to come away wondering – “is Jesus saying the poor aren’t important, that they are not a priority?”
But that is not what Jesus means here. His words do not mean that the poor are not important. Jesus is pointing out that it will always be possible to serve the poor, there will always be those in need. On the contrary, Jesus establishes a parallel between himself and the poor. Now- he is present, and Mary rightly feels the need to be extravagant. When he is no longer around, at least not in the flesh – well, the poor will still be there, to be served with the same extravagance.(2)
Dorothy Day has been called an American saint. She took her Christian faith right into the most dreadful slums of New York City. There she established the first Catholic Worker House, a place of radical Christian discipleship.
That house became a place of hospitality for the down and out – for men Day later described as “grey men, the color of lifeless trees and bushes and winter soil, who had in them as yet none of the green of hope, the rising sap of faith.” Not long after, the Catholic Worker House began welcoming women and children as well.
One day, a wealthy socialite pulled up to the house, in a big car. She received the obligatory tour of the mission from Day herself. When she was about to leave, the woman impulsively pulled a diamond ring off her finger and handed it to Day.
The staff was ecstatic when they heard about this act of generosity. They ring, they realized, could be sold for a huge sum – enough money to take some pressure off the budget, at least for a little while.
A day or two later, though, one of them noticed the diamond ring on the finger of a homeless woman who was leaving the mission. Immediately, the staff members confronted Day. Why, in heaven’s name, would she just give away a valuable piece of jewelry like that?
Day responded: “That woman was admiring the ring. She thought it was so beautiful. So I gave it to her. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”(3)
An extravagant gift, that on the surface seems wasteful. But looking deeper, such a gift was a reminder of extravagant love for us poured out in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
In this prelude to the passion, we see the grace of God poured out, we see Jesus extravagant sacrifice for us. And we see our proper response to such a gift – an extravagant sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the love of God poured out upon us in Jesus Christ.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. HomeliticsOnline, retrieved March 20th, 2019.
2. Justo Gonzalez, Christian Century, March 13th, 2019, p19.
3. HomeliticsOnline, retrieved March 20th, 2019.