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Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” But, in the Gospel text many of us are encountering this week in worship, it doesn’t seem to work like that.

At the beginning of John 12, the gospel writer narrates the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany. Six days before Passover, Jesus comes to the home of the newly raised Lazarus and they give “a dinner for him.” In part, this is a celebration dinner for Jesus, and for the return of Lazarus.

This celebration is laced with danger. Bethany, according to the text, is two miles from Jerusalem. Jesus took some risk coming to Bethany in order to raise Lazarus in the first place. Due to the raising of Lazarus, the Jewish authorities are now resolute: they have given orders to arrest him, with the likely intent to have him killed.

$15,000, Improper, and Erotic

Mary is the sister of Lazarus, and while Martha served, she covers Jesus’ feet with pure nard. That nard is worth three hundred denarii, or about a year’s worth of wages for a laborer. Let’s translate that into 2019 Illinois minimum wage dollars. That’s at least $15,000. She just used $15,000 worth of perfume to anoint Jesus.

Then, she lets down her hair in order to wipe his feet. Rod Whitacre, in a commentary for Intervarsity Press, suggests that “this is an expression of devotion that would have come across as extremely improper and even somewhat erotic.”

Judas Iscariot brings up a good point. Why wasn’t this nard sold so that they would have money to give to the poor? The text mentions that his real motive was to line his own pockets. He resented the loss of opportunity to skim. But, even so, it is a good point. The other disciples say the same thing in Mark and Matthew.

The story ends with Jesus saying to Judas, “Leave her alone.” She kept that nard for my burial. My arrest and death are imminent. You always have the poor with you, but “you do not always have me.”

“You do not always have me.” Later, in the following chapter, Jesus will wash feet. But here, he is served. Here he is anointed. He is adored, intimately. And, he won’t allow Judas to downplay it.

Why doesn’t Jesus wave Mary off? Why doesn’t he gently take her hands and say, “It is ok, you don’t need to do this”?

The text doesn’t describe the emotions involved, other than saying that Judas does not care about the poor. Contrast that with the narrative of Lazarus’ raising. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister.” “Many of the Jews had come to Mary and Martha to console them.” While Lazarus is dead, Mary “knelt at his feet,” the same feet that she would anoint. Then, of course: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Later, Jesus “cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” Love, consoling, weeping, crying out. But, in this scene, nothing of the sort.

Joy and Vulnerability

The absence of emotional description underscores that Mary’s heart breaks with joy. Karl Barth described joy as “the simplest form of gratitude.” He also mentions that in extraordinary situations, joy becomes “an intensification, strengthening, deepening and elevation of the whole awareness of life.”

Her dead brother was ordered out of a tomb. She’s so grateful that the word grateful won’t do the job. Everything is intensified, elevated. She’s been made vulnerable to life. All of her desires are opening to what’s present. The resurrection of her brother has made her vulnerability to life and to Jesus nearly absolute.

At the same time, Mary is breaking in other ways. She knows that Jesus is in mortal danger. They are looking for Jesus. Jesus’ very presence indicates that Jesus is submitting to that danger. Barth notices that “our capacity for enjoyment shows itself to be also a capacity for suffering.” The vulnerability of her joy at the presence of Jesus is also simultaneously a vulnerability to loss. She is stuffed with joy and anticipating her greatest loss. She’s about to lose again.

Vulnerability and Power

So, why does Jesus accept this extravagant anointing? He’s the Word made flesh. So, maybe he’s just enacting the selfish God routine that the new atheists have complained about recently. Good question. Good point. But, not quite.

Jesus’ power and vulnerability are not two opposing characteristics. It’s not that he’s powerful and also vulnerable, strong and also weak. Instead, the depth of his vulnerability is the greatness of his power. Jesus was vulnerable to the grief of Mary, Martha and their neighbors. He is also going to be vulnerable to their devotion and joy.

A few days ago, I heard Fleming Rutledge say in a public speech that working with people who are deeply ashamed means nurturing them to become willing to accept help. The ashamed have difficulty allowing others to help them. Why? Because, in part, they need to learn that they are worth helping. Slowly, the ashamed can learn to serve and to help because they have been helped. They have learned they have something to offer.

Jesus saves us by allowing us to offer ourselves, even in extravagant ways, to him. He serves us by being served. We need to give ourselves because we have something to offer. We need a place to offer ourselves that will honor what we have, even if what we have is broken. Thus, he won’t allow Judas to shame Mary for her breaking heart. Jesus Christ is vulnerable to us so that we can be vulnerable to him and to one another.

That vulnerability cuts another trail as well. Judas stands there in resentment. He saw Lazarus being raised too, no doubt. Maybe he expected more from Jesus, and so his series of betrayals was a way of getting something out of the disappointment. Not sure, but when he witnesses all of this – from Lazarus to Mary – he’s wondering what he can get out of it.

Being vulnerable to the joy of others means also being vulnerable to the folks who will take advantage of that vulnerability. Pretty much all of us will need, at certain points in our lives, to protect ourselves from that risk. We must. After all, Jesus protects Mary from Judas.

But Jesus is also the one human being who never needed to shield himself from that risk. He could become absolutely vulnerable. He could love Judas, knowing Judas betrays him. He could love us, knowing that we can do the same. He is that vulnerable. That powerful. He does what no one else can do.

Maybe there will be a day when all of us can also be that vulnerable, that powerful. Mary got close. Maybe there’s hope for us all.

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg teaches theology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.


  • Jessica Groen says:

    ” . . . the depth of his vulnerability is the greatness of his power.” Yes. This is what we can recognize about Godwithus–swaddled in the manger, suffocating on the cross, and all the days in between. And every day since resurrection day that he continues to exist as an embodied human. Thank you, Keith.

  • mstair says:

    “He serves us by being served. We need to give ourselves because we have something to offer. “

    Good insight here. I think the payoff for the adoration is taught later in the passage at verse 26:  “Whoever serves me must follow me.” There’s the lesson for Mary, The Twelve, and us.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Magnificent, Keith. Really good, IMnsHO

  • Marge Vander Wagen says:

    Listen to CeCe Winans sing “Alabaster Box”. “She poured her love for the master from her box of alabaster…”
    Thank you.

  • Martin Hughes says:

    This is one of the very few commentaries to see the deeper, very disturbing problem, which is that Jesus’ action seems very questionable and that Mary’s action was indeed erotic and improper. Who would in any culture doubt that a woman’s bringing her hair into significant contact with a man’s body Is a sexually charged act? What would we think of a modern male religious leader who accepted this sort of devotion from a female disciple? We would certainly expect him to tell her ‘you needn’t do this’ and would not change our mind because there were various symbolic points to be made. We might say that Jesus is unique, raised into a transcendent ethical universe by his transcendence of the limitations of humanity, but that is quite disturbing as an idea.

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