daily biblical sermons

Mary of Bethany's life was so transformed by Jesus that she poured out her whole self for him
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Monday, of Holy Week, April 06, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-7, Psalm 26, John 12:1-11


Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted




“Mary [of Bethany] took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was to betray him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’” (John 12:3-5).



Here once again we see Jesus in Bethany in the home of Lazarus and his two sisters Martha and Mary. Mary is the one who on a previous occasion sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to his teaching, while Martha was busy and distracted with much cooking and serving (Luke 10:39-40). Today we see Mary not only sitting at Jesus feet and listening to him but pouring over his feet an incredibly expensive perfume imported from India, a small bottle of which (a pound) cost a year’s wages of an ordinary worker (three hundred denarii, where a denarius per day was the daily wage).



Not only did she pour out this extremely expensive perfume on Jesus feet, but she unbound her hair, something women did not do in public (Andreas J Koestenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker Academic, 2004), page 362) and then proceeded to dry his feet with her hair, again an extreme expression of love, devotion, and gratitude towards Jesus, for women normally consider their hair to be their glory and beauty, and here she is using it as a towel to wipe someone’s feet!



Judas Iscariot says what everyone in the room was probably thinking but didn’t dare say, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5). Probably most people there at least felt that this seemed to be an inappropriate display of Mary’s love and affection, especially when combined with her, as a young single woman, unbinding her hair in public and then wiping Jesus feet with it. This surely must have raised eyebrows among the guests at the banquet. Mary’s action is most unusual and might be criticized by more than just Judas as being imprudent, inappropriate, and a bit overdone.



All this only points out how deeply she felt towards Jesus for all that he had done for her and her family in raising her brother Lazarus from the dead after being buried for four days. She clearly put her faith in him and absorbed his teaching, listening to every word, even to the point of perhaps imprudently allowing her sister Martha on a previous occasion to do all the work of preparing and serving the food.



Nonetheless, Jesus defends her on both occasions. On the previous occasion he told her sister Martha who was complaining about having to do all the cooking and serving herself, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). On this present occasion he defends her, saying, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:7-8).



What can we learn from this gospel reading?



We can learn how important it is to receive Jesus’ saving action, and how grateful a person becomes when he or she receives it. Mary knew who Jesus was, that he came to save us from our sins, as the angel told St. Joseph that his betrothed “will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Mary of Bethany was one of those people whom Jesus had saved from her sins and given a wholly new life.



Her gratitude knew no bounds. She couldn’t restrain herself from expressing her gratitude as a young woman in the best way she knew how. She had some extremely valuable perfume, “which probably she had by her for her own use; but the death and resurrection of her brother had quite weaned her from the use of all such things, and with this she anointed the feet of Jesus, and, as a further token of her reverence for him and negligence of herself, she wiped them with her hair … Those who love Christ truly love him so much better than this world as to be willing to lay out the best they have for him” (Matthew Henry, 1662-1714, emphasis added).



Once Christ has justified us, freed us from our guilt, and transformed our life, everything changes for us. The delights of this world no longer attract us, or at least we do not go running after them and indulging in them. Our life turns around and now we want to find all our delight in the Lord, and we do not want to divide the love of our heart with the unnecessary delights of this world for fear that they will drown out the love of God in our heart.



Therefore we now use all our resources, possessions, skills, talents, and money for the Lord, something which will appear imprudent and extravagant to those who have not fully converted to Christ. Judas expresses the startled reaction of worldly people to the devotion and love that the followers of Christ lavish upon him and his ministry. They take their most valuable possessions, such as a small flask of imported perfume, which costs a year’s wages, and pour it out on Jesus’ feet!



Then “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (John 12:3). The “odour of the ointment may intimate to us, that those who entertain Christ in their heart and houses bring a sweet odour into them; Christ’s presence brings with it an ointment and perfume which rejoices the heart” (Matthew Henry).



Surely many people have experienced this. When we devote ourselves to the Lord, especially early in the morning in contemplation and praying the divine office, followed by celebration of Mass and the reception of Holy Communion, followed by quiet time in thanksgiving after receiving the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ into our bodies and heart, we are often filled with a sweetness that suffuses itself throughout our being, so much so that we don’t want to disturb this sweetness or chase it away.



This is the inner delight and sweetness of the Lord Jesus Christ in our heart when we devote ourselves completely to him and grow in our love for him and then proceed to work and minister in his service, writing sermons or doing whatever other work for him that we have to do. We want to remain in this cloud of sweetness. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (John 12:3), with the fragrance of the Lord’s presence within our hearts and bodies.



We are now in Holy Week, celebrating the saving death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The divine office each day is filled with reflections on the meaning of this mystery of our salvation. Today in the Office of Readings in the patristic reading from St. Augustine we hear these words, “He [Christ] loved us so much, that sinless himself, he suffered for us the punishment we deserved for our sins … He bore the punishment of sinners, though without sin himself” (PLS 2, 545-546). What does this mean? This is the deepest explanation of the meaning of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, the saving mystery of his death and resurrection. It answers the question, “How is it that Christ’s death on the cross saves us from our sins and gives us eternal life?”



Christ’s death saves us from our sins because in his great love for us, he who was sinless was executed as a public criminal for his crimes and sins. What were the crimes and sins that he was punished for? They were our sins. In God’s plan of salvation, he was punished on the cross not for his own sins, of which he had none, but for our sins. “He suffered for us the punishment we deserved for our sins … He bore the punishment of sinners, though without sin himself” (St. Augustine, today’s Office of Readings). Therefore if our sins have been already justly punished in the flesh of Jesus Christ on the cross (Romans 8:3-4), they have been fully paid for. Our death sentence for our sins has been fully served for us by the substitute that God gave us for this purpose, his only Son, Jesus Christ.



Therefore God, the divine Judge, without violating his perfect justice, can now acquit us ungodly sinners of all our sins and declare – and thereby make – us righteous, reckoning to us his own righteousness (Romans 4:5) so that we now shine with the righteousness of God himself, which is much better than only shining with our own man-made righteousness. This is the kind of righteousness that St. Paul longed for, St. Paul who, as a former Pharisee, was perfect in man-made righteousness – “As to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6) – yet he longed for the righteousness that comes from God. He said, I want to “be found in him [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own, based on law [keeping], but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9).



This is what Mary of Bethany was experiencing in an anticipatory way through her faith in, love of, and devotion to Jesus. She was experiencing her sins being forgiven and herself being filled with the righteousness of God through the future merits of Christ’s death on the cross (which was only a few days away). So she pours out her love and devotion to him by anointing his feet with her most precious and enormously expensive perfume and then drying them with her own hair. She is a model for us all of what a justified and redeemed Christian is like.


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