Where does the oil come from? – John 12:1-8, Isaiah 61
It is challenging to preach on a passage as well-known as this one – Mary anointing Jesus. An event recorded by all the gospel writers, all in different ways, though in every account there are consistent elements; Jesus is anointed by a woman, to the consternation of those present, and there is mention of this precious oil or perfume.
It is challenging to preach on a passage as beautiful as this one. Here is an already lovely image of Jesus, the disciples, Lazarus, and Martha, coming together for a special meal, and in comes Mary with this extraordinary perfume, perfume worth three hundred denarii, “made of pure nard”, and she doesn’t just pour it – she anoints, the passage says, like a priest – Jesus’ feet and wipes the perfume into his feet with her hair. It is an extraordinarily physical, tactile act. It is a shockingly intimate act. It is a powerful, prophetic and heartbroken act. (Matthew, Mark and John all include Jesus saying this has been done to prepare his body for burial.) And it is an incredibly fragrant, an incredibly savourous act. “The house was filled,” verse 5 says, “with the fragrance of the perfume.”
It’s also challenging to preach on a passage that has been so misquoted and misunderstood as this one. Jesus saying, “You always have the poor with you…” has been justification for all kinds of greed, hand in hand with making no real attempt to dismantle poverty. Poverty is not an accident. Wealth is not an accident. Wealth is created by keeping people poor, by having a cheap labour force forced to work in dangerous conditions. (Last night’s story ABC new story on Uber Eats drivers was just one example.) According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, 1 percent of the world’s population own 45.8 percent of the world’s wealth, and 55.0 percent hold just 1.3 percent of global wealth. In saying, “You always have the poor with you,” Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” It is a command to continue being generous and compassionate – not to critique the generosity and compassion of others, as Judas does.
But, despite all those challenges, the amazing thing about the Word of God in Scripture and among us and within us, is that it continues to speak to us, and for me, as I read these verses this week, it was the question of where this precious oil, this costly perfume, came from?
As I’ve mentioned before it was very valuable. If we trust Judas’ calculations it was the equivalent of a labourer’s yearly salary. It was made of pure nard or spikenard, an essential oil from a flowering plant in the honeysuckle family grown in the Himalayas of Nepal, China and India. And while oil was used for many practical purposes – cooking and heat – in the Bible, special oils, such as this, were used as perfumes or medicine, or to disguise the smell of decay and prepare a body for burial, as Jesus mentions here, or for religious or ceremonial purposes. Exodus 30 includes the recipe for the ceremonial temple oil: “the finest spices: of liquid myrrh 500 shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much….and 250 of aromatic cane, and 500 of cassia…and a hin (about 5 ½ litres) of olive oil blended as by the perfumer…” According to one site I looked at, there are over 600 references to essential oils and the plants they came from in the Bible.
And at prayers this week we read a story containing one of these references. In 2 Kings 4 the wife of one of the prophets, a kind of prophet-disciple of the prophet Elisha, comes to tell him that her husband has died, and they have nothing. A creditor is coming to take her two children away as slaves. Elisha asks what she has left in the house, and she tells him. “Nothing at all – except a jar of oil.” And he tells her to go and borrow from her neighbours as many empty containers as she possibly can, and then to go into her house, with her children, and to begin filling the containers from the jar of oil. She does this and the oil flows for as long as there are containers to fill. And then she returns to Elisha who tells her to sell the oil, to pay the creditors and to live on the rest.
It is a wonderful story with so many wonderful details. This one jar of oil could be cooking oil, but it sounds as though this widow is far more desperate than that. All she had left in the house was this final valuable – this oil kept for her burial, what was left, perhaps, after she had prepared her husband’s body for burial. And it is from this jar of precious oil, one that had been set aside for death, that God works to bring life to her and to her children and to generation after generation.
There is a tradition in the Talmud that the temple oil, described in those verses from Exodus, remained miraculously intact and was used by future generations without replacement or that it multiplied (like the 2 Kings story) or was added to over time – thus continuing the original oil for all time.
In the same way, it seems to me, there is a connection between the 2 Kings story of precious oil and even more precious salvation, and our gospel story of, again, precious perfume and even more precious salvation. This is where Mary’s oil comes from! It is her expression of thankfulness for the life she has been given; the life of her brother, Lazarus, and, even more, the life of Jesus; this life he is prepared to risk (these eight verses are bookended by threats to Jesus’ life) to bring that life to others.
This perfume, Mary is saying, was set aside for death, but I will use it to bring life! In the same way, Jesus, you have been set aside for death, but you will bring life! It is a prophetic message, echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah, about the oil of gladness replacing the oil of mourning when the Lord’s anointed comes to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted and to proclaim liberty to the captives.
Are we part of this tradition? Do we have precious oil to bring to Jesus, to express our thankfulness for the gift of life we have been given? Is this store of the oil of gladness remaining miraculously intact in us or being multiplied or added to over time in our lives? What are the stories of salvation – of thankfulness for salvation – that we can tell and pour out before God and before others?
When I think over my life there are several times when I have been aware of the oil of gladness. One in particular was just after Miriam was born – when in addition to all the emotions I felt about being a new mother – was this absolutely incredible sense of thankfulness that this child had been born into a world which, yes, was terrifying, and yes, was beautiful, but most of all was permeated with the love of a God who would come and face all the terror and experience all the beauty to share that love with us – and with my new baby daughter. It was an awareness that brought me to the feet of Jesus in adoration and thankfulness and the pouring out of my life and gifts to God. This is one of the moments, among others, where I have been aware of where my precious oil comes from.
The Christian writer and speaker Chuck Swindoll describes a crisis moment in his life. He was speaking at a pastor’s conference, and, by any measure, his contribution was being received well. Those participants begged him to speak longer and were very engaged, but alone in his room, at the end of each day, he felt an emptiness and a frustration.
Having the maturity in his faith to sense that God wanted to do something, he called four of his trusted friends, “I want you to listen to my life story and see if anything stands out to you,” he said. And the four friends listened and starting with some of his earliest memories, Swindoll told them his life story.
At the end they asked a few questions and then one friend said, “Chuck, I want you to put your head on the table and close your eyes.” Chuck put his head on the table and closed his eyes. “Now I want you to imagine your father is holding you. What do you feel?”
And almost instantly Chuck began to cry. For thirty minutes he cried. His father had died when he was seven months old, but when he had closed his eyes what he had felt was pure unconditional love.
And he realized that while he had preached many times about God’s great love, he had never made it a part of his life. With his head on the table he felt, for the first time, that God loved him deeply, richly and unconditionally. And he was overwhelmed by the oil of gladness.
We are about to gather for a special meal – in the same way that Jesus, the disciples, Lazarus, Martha and Mary gathered. We come to remember – as Mary foretold – that Jesus who was set aside for death has come to bring us life, that we who would not have known this life and salvation, can now know this life and salvation; that we bring the empty containers of our lives and have them filled so they can be poured out for others to know life and salvation; that this is how the oil of gladness works generation after generation.
As we prepare for this special meal, after the next hymn, we are going to take a few moments to reflect on what God has done for us, what God has done for others in this room, where our oil of gladness comes from…I am going to ask all of you to cup your hands as you think about that oil you are holding, but because I promised a olfactory experience today, during the hymn, before the time of silence, there are two hand creams here – one is coconut, the other is bergamot and magnolia, and some of you might like to come during the hymn and place some on your hands before this time of reflection together.