John 12:1-11: Leave Her Alone

This story takes place in Bethany — during a meal — as a cup of blessing is shared within their midst.

You noticed that, didn’t you? As the disciples, both women and men, Mary and Martha, Peter, James and Judas, as the disciples gathered into one around a table, at the beginning of this week, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. Mary shares the presence of Christ’s love.

Perhaps you will also recall the beginning of this Gospel, John the Baptist witnessed and baptized, we are told, in Bethany. There in Bethany, John “came as a witness to testify to the light.” He told the crowds, “Among you stands one whom you do not know [whom you do not recognize], the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John witnessed to the light, but even John was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal. But now, again in Bethany (the evangelist is careful to point this out), a woman is worthy to do even more than just untie Jesus’ sandal, she is permitted to anoint his feet, his body with perfume. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Their house, this chapel, our hearts are filled with the luscious fragrance of this witness.

When we think about this gospel, we tend to focus on what Mary does and how much it cost her or on Judas’ judgmental reaction. But here we actually see what Jesus does for Mary. Jesus’ love turns Mary into a witness. Jesus lifts her up, even above all the others, as high as John if not higher! This really should not surprise us. We know that Jesus constantly lifted up the lowly, the outcast, the ostracized, the poor… for theirs is the dominion of God. And now Mary is a preacher… Mary the least in her world is now the first of the disciples. Mary preaches, she testifies to the light of the One among us, at this table, whom we do not recognize. 

In Mary’s act, in this perfume that fills us with its fragrance, in this cup of blessing, in this preaching, in this light we see light. In the simple witness of Mary — the insignificant (and apparently wasteful) act of anointing feet with perfume — the judgment of the world is undone. Judas is silenced. Our agendas are silenced. And we are directed towards Jesus and the poor who are always with us.

Leave her alone, Jesus says. In these words of judgment and grace, Jesus reveals to us the secret of God’s judgment itself… the bruised reed will not be broken, the dimly burning wick will not be quenched. Mercy unties the judgment of Judas. Mercy undoes the judgment of the world. Mercy opens the way to life.