Commentary Excerpt by Tom Boomershine
For congregations following the lectionary, John's story of Mary anointing Jesus at Bethany is told on the last Sunday of Lent before Palm Sunday. It is a story of the preparations for Jesus' passion, death, and burial. This is a passionate story. I want to talk about that aspect because it has often either been eliminated or minimized in the telling and interpretation of this story.
The ointment that Mary uses to anoint Jesus is described with a phrase that is also present in Mark's story of the anointing. In Mark the Greek phrase is, muru nardu pistacase palotaloose. John picks up that same phrase, muru nardu pistacase palotamu. It is a luxuriously liquid sound that conveys through the sound of the words the character of the ointment. The storytellers loved this phrase. You have to hear it in Greek. The closest we can get in English is "luxurious and luscious."
It is unfortunately translated as "perfume." Perfume comes in a little bottle and is used on a woman's body. You apply it in tiny drops behind the ear or on the wrist in order to have a nice fragrance. Perfume can be expensive, but often is not.
In contrast, the ointment in our story was used by both men and women. It was imported from India and was the most expensive ointment available in Israel in Jesus' day. A pound of this ointment would not have been a pound of "perfume." A pound of ointment would come in a jar that's about 3 inches high and 5-6 inches in diameter. That is a big jar of ointment! The fragrance from this substance that Mary used to anoint Jesus' feet was the most precious thing one could imagine, and as the story says, it would fill the whole house.
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