“Look, your king is coming!” Not on a magnificent white horse, in a full suit of Roman armor. But on the back of a donkey, and a little one at that. At the height of his popularity, having now apparently topped even his own magnificent record of miracles by raising Lazarus from the dead (a chapter before we picked up the story this morning)… With huge crowds welcoming him to Jerusalem, tossing their cloaks at his feet, shouting their hosannas…With the full weight of the crowd’s expectations of what their hero was coming into town to do, Jesus takes special pains to make it clear: I’m not the kind of king you have in mind.
The confusion of the crowd was perfectly understandable, of course. Even today, with the rest of the story at our fingertips, it’s hard to really get it. After all, kingship is all about power, and glory, and honor. Jesus had all of those qualities in abundance. Just not in the usual ways.
So I am always grateful for lines like verse 16: “his disciples did not understand these things at first.” In other words, we don’t have to worry that it’s just us. I mean, imagine being there at the time. What would we have thought? Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead. On the one hand it gets him this amazing parade through the streets of Jerusalem. Palm branches waving and “Hosannas” sung and shouted along the way. On the other hand, that same miraculous act throws the authorities into such a panic that they plot to kill him. Actually both men get death threats – Jesus and Lazarus (like poor Lazarus hadn’t been through enough by that point.)
But did you notice that John paints a strikingly different picture for us in the earlier verses of chapter 12? The way he sets up the story here, the immediate prequel to Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a far more intimate scene.
For here we find him in the company of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. All three siblings dear friends of Jesus. Each of the three clearly renowned in the early church. It’s on Martha’s lips that we hear that great statement of faith: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” (John 11:27) Lazarus was presumably introduced not only here in John 12:1 but everywhere he went as the one whom Jesus had raised from the dead. And then there’s Mary, whose act of devotion here in chapter 12 is so extravagant, so memorable that the gospel author had actually jumped the gun a bit back in chapter 11, identifying Lazarus as Mary’s brother with these words: “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.” (John 11:2) That was before John even got around to telling us the perfume story itself here in chapter 12. The expectation being that everyone would surely have heard about this Mary, so widespread was her fame.
Jesus’ visit is on one level a familiar enough scene. We may even feel we know this family home a little, from Luke’s gospel account of Mary and Martha and their different ways of welcoming Jesus. So it’s easy to hear the sound of pots and pans and the crackle of the kitchen fire as Martha prepares the meal, the pleasant murmurs of conversation in the living room, interrupted from time to time by laughter shared among friends. We can see the table set, and the family gathered. And we wish we could taste whatever it is that Martha’s been working on so feverishly in the kitchen.
But notice it’s the sense of smell that’s highlighted in John’s account of the visit, as the whole house becomes filled with the fragrance of this costly perfume that Mary uses to anoint Jesus’ feet. Another smell concerned this family just a chapter ago—that of a dead man in his grave. So few smells are on record in the New Testament that we really ought to notice the contrast here. “A fragrant smell and grateful love now fill a house that had [only just] been filled with mourning and the smell of death’s decay.”
But of course there is also more to this story than the fragrance of costly perfume. If the smell factor points us back to the previous chapter and the raising of Lazarus, the foot factor invites us to look ahead to the next chapter where we will find Jesus himself washing his disciples’ feet at that last Passover meal they share together. Mary’s “self-effacing gesture of anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her own hair anticipates a similar humbling gesture on the part of Jesus, . . . when he disrobes, then washes and wipes the feet of his disciples as a sign of his impending death on their behalf. What she has done for him, and he [will do] for them, he will [then] instruct his disciples to do for one another. Mary has modeled what it means to be a disciple—before instruction in this matter is explicitly given.”
Peter will protest loudly on that later occasion, as Judas does here. Peter finds foot washing much too undignified for Jesus; Judas finds Mary’s act far too wasteful. Neither protest diminishes the act, of course, but only reaffirms its extravagance. This is gospel economics, after all, and if it doesn’t make sense to good financial planners, that may be precisely the point. In the divine economy, it’s perfectly reasonable for a woman to tear apart her whole house to find a lost quarter, and then invite all her friends to celebrate with her when she finds it (Luke 15:8-10). In gospel economics, it makes sense for a shepherd to leave 99% of his flock alone in wilderness to go out in search of the one he’s lost (Luke 15:1-7), or for a father to “plow ten grand into a welcome home party for a prodigal.” (Luke 15:11-32)
So why shouldn’t Mary blow a year’s wages on an aromatherapeutic foot massage for Jesus? After all, she had her brother back. “Hosanna!” the crowds would shout a few verses later: “Save us!” But Mary and her family had already experienced salvation at Jesus’ hands. She was overwhelmed with gratitude.
Not only that but, as Jesus himself acknowledges, Mary performs “a prophetic act as well as a grateful one by anointing his body for burial in the face of his imminent death.” As commentator Gail O’Day reminds us, “Mary’s declaration for Jesus is not deferred until after his death, but is offered … while he lives.” Not for her that all too common regret: “if only I’d told him how much I loved him while he was still here.”
Remember, too, that the biblical term ‘anointing’ doesn’t always refer to preparing a body for burial. John 12 can also be read against the backdrop of other accounts of a woman who anoints Jesus. One version or another of the story exists in all four gospels, and they’re evenly divided on the question of which part of Jesus’ body is anointed. While Luke and John both speak of the woman wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, Matthew and Mark say she poured the ointment over his head, a clear reference to the anointing of a king. Granted, this would be no ordinary way to anoint a king—especially since in those accounts it’s an unnamed woman who crashes a dinner party to offer her gift to Jesus—and we can count on the disciples to raise a stink in every case. But again, this is no ordinary king.
This, after all, is the kind of king who himself gives extravagant gifts to his subjects – like turning that vast quantity of water into wine back at the wedding in Cana. This is the kind of king who regularly causes a scandal himself, by keeping company with outsiders, and sinners, and marginalized foreign females like the Samaritan woman at the well. This king is all too well aware of his own imminent death, even as he works a miracle to raise another man from the grave. In fact, everywhere we look Jesus unsettles our expectations of what kings are supposed to be and do.
So how do we honor this kind of a king?
Well, I suppose if brother Lazarus is any indication, our most magnificent witness could happen in spite of ourselves. There may be times when all we need do is stand back and allow God to work wonders in or for us. And then share how God has surpassed our expectations, defying the limits of what we thought was possible.
And if we look to sister Martha’s example, we find a model of quiet action, dependably working behind the scenes while others are out front enjoying the spotlight of this king’s royal court. Pouring herself into practical acts of service as a way to honor her king.
And then there’s sister Mary. Dramatic to a fault, you might say. I imagine she drove Martha crazy at times, and worried more than just her sister with her sitting around at Jesus’ feet—just like a male disciple—and soaking in his every word. Not to mention all of this horribly intimate foot-touching and hair-swishing. No wonder word got around!
Yet Jesus defends Mary’s dramatic demonstrations, saying she’s gotten something right, something profoundly right, that all the rest, with their apparently well-intentioned concerns for soup kitchens and their own kitchens, may have missed. Why such an unusual demonstration to honor her king? Because Mary knew that nothing short of wild extravagance would do Jesus any justice. And so, as Mark and Matthew’s gospel accounts rightly predicted, “wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done [is indeed] told in memory of her.” (Mk 14:9, Mt 26:13)
These three friends of Jesus, along with the crowds on the street in Jerusalem, invite us to find our place alongside them today, considering how we too might honor this king who was like no other.
Serving him quietly, behind the scenes… or joining the parade, waving palm branches and shouting our hosannas to welcome him to Jerusalem. . . or letting our hair down, and filling the whole world with the fragrance of God’s love. Amen.
 Frances Taylor Gench, “Women and the Word: Studies in the Gospel of John,” 2000-2001 Horizons Bible Study, PC(USA), p. 41
 Gail O’Day, Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 299
 O’Day, p. 299
 William H. Willimon, “The Messiness of Ministry,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin, vol. XIV, no. 3 (1993), p. 231.
 Gench, p. 41
 O’Day, p. 299
 cf. Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and Luke 7:36-50.