The Cost of Presence

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “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.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

-John 12


Lent Sermon, Week 5 Year C

So Jesus and his friends have come to Bethany on their way into Jerusalem. They will celebrate the Passover in 6 days. The time is drawing near. When they arrive in Bethany, Jesus and his friends go to the house of Lazarus, Mary and Martha for dinner. As far as we know, it’s the first time they have all been together since Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, which didn’t happen very long ago. Around the dining table are the disciples, Jesus, and a recently raised-from-the-dead Lazarus. Martha was serving, which means she probably was doing what my grandmother does when she hosts people for dinner- shuttling between kitchen and table, doing anything but sitting. It’s unclear whether they are still at the dinner table or they have moved to sitting around the room, but at some point Mary goes to retrieve this bottle of perfumed oil, and, sitting at the feet of Jesus as she’s been known to do, she opens the vial and pours the oil onto Jesus’ feet.  I imagine her having thick, black hair that was swept up out of her face, and I imagine her unclasping the clip and letting her hair cascade down onto Jesus’ feet, wiping up the excess oil into her hair.  And the smell began to waft through the house. The house, John says, fills with its fragrance.

I wonder what the smell triggered for people. Smells do that, you know. We smell things and can remember the times we have smelled them before. Was it a common fragrance? Was it one associated with special occasions, or solemn ones like the death of a loved one?

We know at least what it made Judas think about. That oil for Judas smelled only of money. Judas, who I envision as one of those overly serious, scowl-prone kinds of people, you know, the kind that always ruins a good dinner party, pipes up and says, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold so that the money could be given to the poor?”  Which, we have to admit, is a perfectly fair question. If Jesus has been about anything at all, he’s been about caring for the poor.

But John inserts his own little comment about this (because clearly he had to sit next to Judas at a dinner party and he’s still pretty upset about it) and he says, “By the way, dear reader, in case you don’t know Judas, don’t buy into what he’s saying for one second. He didn’t really care about the poor. He stole from the common purse all the time, and probably he’s just mad that he didn’t get a cut from this expensive oil.” This moment isn’t to be sidetracked by Judas’ manipulations. And it doesn’t remove Jesus’ deep and abiding concern for the poor, either. It’s just that this moment- this one, precious moment, this utterly unique moment when Jesus is about to enter into Jerusalem and face down the worst of everything humanity can throw at him- this moment isn’t about poverty but about being present.

So Jesus responds to Judas and says, “Leave her alone!  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

But…this isn’t the day of his burial. If that’s what she bought it for, why is she using it now?

And the bittersweet truth of the matter is that she is not keeping it for the day of his burial. She is anointing him for burial. She is preparing him for burial. Of course, that’s not a thing. You anoint people AT their burial, but never before. But then again, none of what Mary does in this exchange is normal. There’s no ritual precedence for pouring oil all over someone’s feet. Someone’s head, maybe, but never the feet. And I highly doubt it was normal for a woman to take her hair down like that in mixed company, much less use the hair to wipe off the oil she had just poured all over his feet. But this is a unique moment- an unrepeated, unrepeatable moment- and it calls for a unique response. Mary is anointing Jesus for his burial. She is, with deep love and compassion, preparing him for what is to come.

In this moment Mary is a hospice nurse to Jesus, taking up the holy duty of caring for one who will not be with us much longer.  And all there is left to do is to give as much beauty to those final days as possible. They are days for extravagance.

I don’t know if Mary knew this was what she was doing. I don’t know what caused her to get up and get the jar of oil and pour it out. Maybe she only understood what her instincts already knew much later. Although if I were to place my bets, I’d say she came with oil in hand because she saw the truth in Jesus’ face, could sense that the clouds were gathering. As many times as Jesus had tried to tell his disciples that he would die, as many times as he attempted to prepare them for what was to come, they never seemed to understand what he was saying. But Mary did, without so much as a word. Of course she couldn’t have known all that would happen. But I bet she could feel that the tide was changing.

I imagine Mary to be a contemplative, though they didn’t have that word back then.  Mary was probably one of those people you like to be around, because she always made you want to be a better person- not in a condemning sort of way but an inspiring sort of way.  She probably wasn’t the most reliable person- she obviously wasn’t very domestic.  So she might be late when you meet her for lunch, but when she got there, you would have her full attention, and you would leave feeling like it was a conversation that fed your soul. And I imagine she is a contemplative because she seems able to see what others miss, observe not just what’s going on but what it means. So perhaps as she watched her brother Lazarus and her sister Martha and the disciples and Jesus all gathered in her house that night, she felt it- felt it like when your hair on your arms stands on end and you get goosebumps. Maybe she saw it in Jesus’ face, too. The time was drawing near.

The crowds were already gathering in search of Lazarus. Word had spread, as you can imagine, about his being raised from the dead, and John tells us the chief priests were planning to kill Lazarus, too. Maybe when Jesus said to that room, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” it confirmed what she already worried was true. This room, just freed from the stench and sadness of death, wasn’t clear of it yet. Intermingled with the joy of Lazarus’ resurrected life and the fellowship of all of these dear friends being together and feasting together, a crowd plots just outside the door. The time is drawing near.

And Mary, like all good prophets, responds in a completely new and unexpected way. She puts a visual to the reality of the moment, awakens us not only to what is happening but to what it means. She pours the oil, and herself, out onto the feet of Jesus- as nurse, as friend, as follower. She is preparing everyone, including herself, for what is to come. And the fragrance of the oil fills the house.

The poet Rilke says, “Love . . .consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” And I’m struck by these two solitudes: Mary, overshadowed by her sister, underestimated by everyone, and Jesus, who, in the weeks to come will be always surrounded but utterly alone; in this moment, they know one another’s solitudes. They commune with one another’s solitudes. Jesus sees that Mary is already bracing for the very thing she least wants to happen, pouring out her love because she knows full well she cannot stop what is coming. And Mary sees something that even Jesus’ closest disciples didn’t notice. Jesus is preparing to die, and it isn’t easy.

You see, the real cost here is not the oil. It is the cost of being present to one another in times of need. It is the most costly thing. So in this season of Lent we must ask ourselves: what will it cost us to be present?

When I worked at Meadow Lakes, the retirement community in New Jersey, there was a woman with Alzheimer’s who had twin sons. They lived upstate and came to visit often, but they weren’t able to come and see her on a weekly basis. So every week, they sent her flowers. They took turns, week after week, sending her a beautiful bouquet that all but covered up her dresser in her small shared room. I’m not talking about carnations and baby breath, either. They were roses and tulips and Gerber daisies and lilies. Really nice flowers. Most days, she did not know why they were there, or who sent them. I would come in to see her and I would say, “Oh look at the lovely flowers!” And she would smile and say, “Yes, I don’t know who would go to the trouble to send them to me. But aren’t they beautiful?!”

I remember asking my chaplain friend Robin how long they had been sending her flowers like that, and she said, “Oh, for years now. At least 4 years.” And I thought how expensive it must be for each son to send a big, beautiful bouquet twice a month for 4 years straight. And I suppose we could be justified in asking why this money was not given instead to the poor. My friend could not usually remember that her sons were sending her flowers. Sometimes the details were lost on her. But the sentiment wasn’t. The intention wasn’t. Because every time she got flowers, she couldn’t believe her luck. Week after week, Monday after Monday, her eyes lit up as she saw the nurse bring in this beautiful bouquet and place it on her dresser. She would say, “Well, who would do such a nice thing? I can’t imagine who it’s from!” And the nurse would say, “Your sons sent it to you. They love you so much!” And for a moment she would smile, and she would feel absolutely loved and cherished and honored.

The flowers, you see, were to remind her that she wasn’t alone, even when her sons weren’t with her.

Jesus was making his way into Jerusalem for the last time. And who is to say that Mary’s act of worship did not serve to feed Jesus’ very soul in the days ahead when his most devoted followers and even his Father would forsake him?  Perhaps he would remember this moment and find the strength and hope to go on.  Perhaps the smell of the oils so invaded his nostrils that it became pressed into his memory.

When Jesus hung upon the cross, abandoned by even his closest disciples, humiliated by a crowd of faces, taunted and beaten by soldiers, who is to say that he did not close his eyes and beckon forth the recollection of that smell as it wafted over his feet and through the house that evening, and find consolation that he was not alone?

It’s an odd thing- Mary pouring herself out for Jesus, so that Jesus could pour himself out for us. Mary, reminding Jesus that he is not alone in his time of need, so that Jesus could face death and enter into resurrection so that we too might know we are not alone in our time of need. Mary, in this extravagant way, showing Jesus that she would still be with him, no matter what may come, so that Jesus, in this extravagant way, can show us that he will always be with us, forever be with us, no matter what may come.

What will it cost us to be present? Sometimes the price is high. But the reward is beyond measure. For if there is one thing we were made to do, made to be, it is present to each other. May God help us become people who do not count the cost. Amen.


  1. Marita MeyerMarch 11, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    Dear Danielle
    Beautiful words! Please tell me who made the painting of Mary and Jesus?

  2. Thanks Marita! There was supposed to be a link to the art credit at the bottom. It’s “Anointing His Feet” by Wayne Forte, oil and acrylic on canvas.

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