Read John 12:1-8 here
My second favorite word . . . is. . . . . . penultimate.
Our gospel reading today from John is the penultimate supper.
The Last Supper but one. It’s not that they didn’t eat in between, it’s just that the gospels don’t tell us about those.
It’s not the Last Supper. That will be coming in a few days.
- The Last Supper is when Jesus takes the bread and the cup and says, “This is my body and my blood broken and shed for you,” referring to what will happen on the cross the next day.
- The Last Supper happens on the night that Judas tells the soldiers where Jesus is and they arrest him.
- The Last Supper is when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and tells them to be servants also.
- We’ll celebrate the Last Supper today, and at a special worship service on Maundy Thursday.
That’s the Last Supper. What we read about today is the penultimate supper.
It’s not the day before, it’s a few days before. It’s not in Jerusalem, but in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem.
It’s the night before Jesus will ride into Jerusalem on a donkey as people wave branches and shout “Hosanna,” the event we’ll celebrate next Sunday on Palm Sunday.
The penultimate supper is the not the last one, but for Mary and Martha and Lazarus, it might be the last time they get to spend with Jesus, and their last opportunity to say thank you to Jesus for giving them the amazing gift of bringing Lazarus back to life.
They know that raising Lazarus has stirred people up even more than they already were about Jesus, and they know that those who have been wanting to kill Jesus now also want to kill Lazarus.
They know what Jesus himself has told them. He said, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead.” (Mark 9:31)
Even if they don’t truly know what that means, they know that things are tense and dangerous and uncertain.
So here at the penultimate supper, they’re making the most of the time they have together on this night. Lazarus has made sure to be there. Martha has prepared a nice meal. Mary, as always, is listening devotedly to the teacher, sitting at his feet, knowing this may be the last time she’ll be able to. Not long ago she was weeping over her lost brother, and now he sits with them at dinner, fully alive. How can she say goodbye to this amazing man, the Messiah, the Son of God, who’s brought them life?
So she brings out the large jar of expensive perfume made of pure spikenard, and she lovingly anoints Jesus head, and bows down at his feet and anoints them too, wiping them with her hair and her tears. It’s a dramatic action that’s full of symbolism.
- She pours out her love and gratitude upon Jesus, foreshadowing the way Jesus will pour out his blood for us all.
- She washes his feet, foreshadowing the way Jesus will wash the disciple’s feet in a few days.
- She anoints Jesus with perfume that’s normally used to anoint a dead body in preparation for burial, foreshadowing the death and burial of Jesus that is coming.
It’s an intimate act of devotion. She’s crying, not caring who sees her cry. She’s taken her hair down, something women were only supposed to do in private.
Maybe Judas was embarrassed by the way Mary was acting. Public displays of affection make us uncomfortable sometimes, too.
This isn’t the first time someone has been upset about Mary’s actions. Her sister Martha had complained to Jesus that Mary wasn’t helping her in the kitchen. Jesus defended Mary that time, too, saying, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42) We don’t know how Martha responded that day, but later when Jesus came to raise Lazarus, she was the one who said, “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.” (John 11:27)
Now, at this penultimate supper, it’s Judas who is upset about Mary’s actions, and he complains about the expense of the oil that Mary is pouring all over Jesus, saying, “That could have been sold for $300 denarii and the money given to the poor.” (John 12:5) $300 denarii is the equivalent of a year’s wages. Spikenard was expensive then, and it’s expensive now. Today, to buy the amount Mary used would could cost as much as $5000.
Jesus was compassionate and knew about feeding people. He had asked the disciples to feed the crowd that day when there were five thousand people, just counting the men. Jesus asked Phillip where they could get enough food. Phillip says, “Even if we worked for months, we couldn’t afford to feed all these people.” (John 6:7) But then Phillip’s brother Andrew told them about the boy with the five barley loaves and the two fish, and Jesus used that to feed the whole crowd. Mary’s spikenard was probably worth enough to have fed them all as well.
All week, as I’ve been pondering this story about the penultimate supper (and that might be the penultimate time I say penultimate) and Mary’s act of devotion and worship, two scriptures keep coming to mind. One of them is our memory verse for this week:
“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who are in Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
The other is Philippians 2:15 “Do everything without grumbling or complaining.”
Ok, if I’m being truly honest, the one that’s come up the most has been the Philippians verse, because I’ve caught myself several times doing what it says NOT to do. When things aren’t going the way we want them to, it’s hard not to grumble and complain.
And it’s exactly what Judas is doing. He’s complaining about Mary’s use of the expensive perfume. He’s complaining about the lost income. And John makes sure we know that Judas isn’t thinking compassionately about poor people, he’s thinking greedily about how he could use the money for himself.
Jesus defends Mary to Judas, just like he did before to Martha. He says, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:7-8)
John doesn’t tell us how Judas responds, but we know it’s not long before Judas goes to the high priests and asks, “How much will you pay me to betray Jesus to you?” (Matthew 26:14-15)
It’s not hard to see why Judas was ready to betray Jesus. Jesus has allowed Mary to give him an extravagant gift, in Judas’ eyes a huge waste of money that could have been put to better use. Jesus has allowed Mary to be extravagant with her devotion, in Judas’ eyes a ridiculous display of improper behavior. Jesus has reprimanded Judas in front of everyone. And now the whole house reeked of this unpleasantness.
Let’s talk about that smell a bit. Imagine what it’s like when the whole house smells. You come home and open the door and immediately you know what’s been happening inside. Which of these do you like to come home to?
- On a cleaning day, the house smells like cleaner. (Raise your hand if you like the smell of cleaner.)
- On a dessert-baking day, when the house smells like warm sugar, vanilla and cinnamon.
- On bread-making day, when the smell of yeast fills the air.
Growing up, every Thursday was spaghetti day at my house. My mom would start the spaghetti sauce in the morning, chopping up the tomatoes, onions, garlic, celery, and chicken. She’d put that in a big pot with some oregano and other spices, put the lid on top, and leave it simmering on the stove all day. When I got home from school, I would open the door and be greeted by the smell of garlic and oregano. Even now, those smells make me feel at home, and I love opening the door to the smell of dinner that my husband Rob is preparing.
If we’d walked into that house where Jesus was having dinner with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and the disciples, we would have immediately smelled the sweet, pungent scent of nard. Mary used a whole pound of it to anoint Jesus, putting it on his head and his feet. I have never smelled spikenard, but it’s described as a musky sweet pine smell. It permeated the house, and it would have gone with Jesus on into the rest of his week, since it was in his hair and on his clothes.
Judas was upset that she had used this perfume on Jesus instead of selling it for the money, and probably even more upset that Jesus didn’t agree with him about that. I wonder if Judas was angry every time he smelled Jesus over the next several days?
I wonder if Jesus found comfort in the smell, knowing that it had been the outpouring of love and gratitude? I wonder if it helped him through those agonizing prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was asking God if he could avoid the suffering that was to come? I wonder if he smelled it while he was hanging on the cross?
Sometimes actions speak so much louder than words. Mary’s action has spoken so loudly of her love of Jesus that it has echoed down through the ages. Jesus’ act of dying for us has spoken the most loudly of all, and changed the world. The most selfless act anyone can do is to lay down their life.
That’s the difference between those two scriptures that I mentioned earlier. Grumbling and complaining happens when we’re thinking about ourselves. Gratitude happens when we’re thinking about others. God gives us grace for our grumbling, thankfully, but his will for us is gratitude.
Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for us who belong to Jesus Christ.
It’s God’s will for us because God knows how good it is for us. It changes us.
There’s a professor at UC Davis who has devoted his life to studying the effects of gratitude. Dr. Robert Emmons noticed how religions and philosophies tout the benefits of gratitude, so he’s designed studies to see if they’re right, and he’s found that gratitude affects our both our physical and emotional health. In his studies, he’s found that people who take time to be intentionally grateful have a stronger sense of well-being than those who don’t, they are less materialistic, and have a higher capacity for empathy. Emmons’ research found that gratitude doesn’t require religious faith, but faith enhances our ability to be grateful.
In Emmon’s studies, he followed groups who kept gratitude journals and those who didn’t. People who spent time every week writing down five things for which they were grateful were measurably better off than those who didn’t. Just five things once a week.
What five things can you be thankful for today?
I’m thankful for you, and that we’re gathered here today in this room to give thanks to God. And I hope that worshiping God together blesses you as much as it blesses me.
I know that worship changes us, especially when we pour out our hearts to God, holding nothing back. That’s extravagant gratitude.
God is glorified in our giving our hearts to him and in our giving thanks.
Thanks be to God.
 Krabbe paraphrase of Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20
 Burge, NIV Application Commentary: John