What a difference friendship makes! This Sunday—the fifth in Lent—we have the anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious ointment. It’s a sign of burial preparation. It’s a gesture of love. It’s a controversial moment of physical intimacy between Jesus and a woman named Mary. But, unlike the synoptic versions, which involves either an unidentified woman or, as Luke puts it, a prostitute, this lesson—John’s version—portrays that love between two friends.
Until today, I hadn’t realized that the anointing appears in all four canonical gospels. Matthew and Mark, predictably, give us very similar expressions of the same story: Jesus goes to Simon’s house and a woman anoints him on the head with costly perfume. Luke characteristically takes the story a step further and gives us a “woman of the city, a sinner” who pours the ointment on his feet but only after bathing them with her tears and hair—a really exaggerated gesture that makes even 21st-century dinner guests uncomfortable. Then John, as he so often does, takes a narrative and weaves it into his own story seemingly to suit his own unique purpose.
Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. Jesus has come to his friends’ house. Lazarus is sitting at the table with Jesus and his companions. Martha is serving the dinner guests, and Mary takes a jar of costly perfume, breaks it open, anoints Jesus’ feet with it, wiping them with her hair, and allowing the fragrance to fill the whole house. John recalls for us the tension between Judas Iscariot and Jesus: “Why was not this perfume sold…and the money given to the poor?” And Jesus states plainly why this was important: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” That’s a little confusing—Jesus isn’t dead yet—but we see the connection well enough. Jesus is on his way to the capital city, where he will be killed soon enough.
But back to friendship. John is the only one who puts Mary of Bethany on the administering end of the anointing. She is the sister of Lazarus—the man at whose tomb Jesus wept, deeply disturbed by his death. In fact, when John introduces that scene in chapter 11, he starts by calling Mary the one who anointed his feet—a foretelling of what happens in this Sunday’s gospel. Mary is the one who ran out to see Jesus while her brother’s dead body lay in the tomb. She is the one who fell at his feet, weeping and crying out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Unlike her sister, however, Mary hasn’t had a moment where she says aloud, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ.” Maybe this is her moment. Maybe the anointing is her way of acknowledging in public her faith in the Christ. Or maybe it’s a way of showing that, like Jesus, she is overcome with emotion at the thought of her friend’s upcoming death. Maybe the costly perfume is the only way for two people who love each other deeply to acknowledge that love while still remaining friends.
I think this gospel lesson is about friendship. Or maybe I just want it to be about friendship. Jesus goes to Bethany—the place where his friends live. He stops there on his way to Jerusalem to receive the ministrations of his closest friends and to be anointed for burial. Mary plays her part—the friend who gives all that she has to the one she loves. Is there a similar role for us to play as we prepare for Jesus’ passion?