Only human beings can take a text like “the poor will always be with you” and turn it into a hammer text. The first time I heard that some people thought that John 12:1-8 was about Jesus commanding us to keep people poor in this text, my jaw dropped.

Not only does this turn something that Jesus simple stated as a fact into a weapon image.png

but it completely misses the point of the text.

This text is ultimately about value. Here is Jesus with his best friends Mary, Martha & Lazarus, and Mary is being her impulsive self and spends time washing Jesus’ feet in expensive perfume. I wonder if this is where Jesus got the idea to wash his disciples’ feet at the last supper on Maundy Thursday? Especially considering the fact that Judas was there for both of those. It also makes me wonder who else was “at the table” with Jesus? Who else saw Mary washing the feet of Jesus.

I also feel with Jesus, here he is, relaxing at a dinner given for him. One where he is not (formally) teaching, preaching or healing. One where he is being appreciated for the work he did by raising Lazarus. This is a rare event of Jesus relaxing. There’s something so human about Jesus wanting to relax by taking a bath.

This very touching, human and relational moment, was no doubt valued by all those who were there, except Judas.

You can almost taste the bitterness in the mouth of Judas. Judas, who feels this entire thing has been a waste. Was Judas hoping to be rich and powerful? Did he find Jesus too human for his taste? Was he hoping for a violent overthrow of the Caesar? Did Judas feel left out of the vision? When Jesus is preaching about who’s in and out, does Judas feel like he’s not in the inner circle? Does he feel like the other poor stumbling disciples understand more than they do?

Whatever is causing this bitterness, Judas hates waste. John argues that Judas was actually a thief. True or not, (I can’t help but wonder if that’s a we should have known moment for John, if that was a suspicion that after the betrayal the disciples felt must have been true, but that’s another story). Either way, Judas hates waste.

Either way Judas tries to weaponize the perfume. He sneers at the waste of time, the waste of a meal together, a waste of the money. Maybe he thinks that spending time with a woman is not worth it. This is not a political visit, it’s a social one. Jesus realigns the values, validating Mary, her perfume, the relationship, and her actions.

Jesus points out that it is not a waste to spend time, money, emotion or energy on Jesus. The same God who commanded Sabbath, the same God who created the sparrows and the lilies of the fields who neither sow nor spin, that guy thinks that bathing the feet of Jesus in expensive perfume is not a waste.

Death, waste and poverty. This is not a light passage to take on, for all of its beauty. Jesus once again ends by warning of his imminent demise, he calls says Mary bought it for that purpose. Was Mary aware of this? Had Mary bought it for Lazarus, who had begun to smell when Jesus arrived? Did she overhear this conversation? I would think so because Jesus says “Leave her alone.”

He says that he will not always be with us, but the poor will be. (NL is doing Matthew 25 so read that if you want another perspective on the poor and Jesus). I wonder if that means that when we no longer have the poor, we will get Jesus back? It’s worth pondering.

What direction are you taking this sermon is? Are you at all reflecting on the fact that Judas demeans a woman, and Jesus affirms and empowers her? Are you reflecting on the poor who we always have? Are you meditating on death and perfume? Let us know where your scriptural meditations are going this week.


Katy Stenta is a solo pastor at a tiny church that is bigger on the inside in Albany, NY for over eight years and blogs at She is also the co-founder of the fledgling TrailPraisers inclusive Worship. When she is not dreaming up projects and ideas, some of which creep into the church, she plays with her three boys-boys or goes and visits her husband at the library, while he works, to read.

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3 thoughts on “RCL: Perfume and Poor

  1. After debating whether to go with Isaiah (God’s New Thing) or John (A Dinner Party), I’ve decided on John. A few thoughts: this story appears in all four gospels. Matthew and Mark place it at the home of Simon the leper, Luke at the home of a Pharisee, and John at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. John very specifically puts it on the night before Jesus rides that famous donkey into Jerusalem (two paragraphs later). So this would be probably a dinner after sunset at the close of the Sabbath, if I’ve got that right — perhaps in celebration of Lazarus being raised from the dead and a thank-you to Jesus for doing it. John’s account of this anointing has a lot of detail in it…a lot to work with here. So here I go with John!


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