No media available

A Selfless Love

Image: Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer, between circa 1654-1656, National Galleries of Scotland


Fifth Sunday in Lent, John 12:1-8 

by Rev Diane Lee


Memories fade with time, yet our sensory system may reactivate an old memory of a special event. Look at old photographs of your home, family or friends. Read an old letter, personal journal, or newspaper article. Listen to an old song that you or someone in your family loved. Cook a meal your mother or father used to make for you. Smell something that may jog your memory. Details of significant experience from decades ago may still be available if you can coax them out of your memory.

As I was preparing for this week’s sermon about Mary anointing Jesus, I meditated on women in faith, not only those portrayed in the Scripture but also those in my own life journey who strengthened my faith. And I was triggered with memories about my old church friend and many more.

It was twelve years ago when my friend and I went shopping at Costco. She picked a pocketbook from a bookstand and tossed it in to my shopping cart. At the check-out, I handed that book over to her as I didn’t plan to buy it, but she forced me to buy and read it. Well, I didn’t want to argue with my friend at the store. Also, I knew no one could win over my stubborn friend. I paid for the book to get out of the line as quickly as possible. Since I bought it, I thought I’d better read it.

It was a novel by an Indian-Canadian author Shilpi Somaya Gowda, Secret Daughter (2010). The story poignantly explores the emotional terrain of motherhood, loss, and identity. In this story, a woman in India makes a heartbreaking choice to leave her newborn daughter at an orphanage. She had to do this without her plan to be found out by her husband in order to save this child from what they call mercy killing practiced in an impoverished village where it does not make economic sense to keep a girl in the family. The couple is so poor that raising a girl would be the equivalent of financial suicide. This child is adopted by an American couple who are doctors. The author portrays the child as a conduit that connects the lives of two families – one in India and the other in America, weaving her unique destiny indelibly.

Coupled with themes around reconciliation, self-discovery, identity formation, motherhood, this story evokes many thoughts about social inequality that prevails in many places around the world. Female infanticide is still happening in a culture where male children are valued over female children. Some parts of the world allow sex-selective abortion. Even with the moral judgement put aside, unbalanced gender ratios cause social controversies around sex trafficking and dowry, as well.


The social status of women has been frequently debated in society.

There are many women in the Bible who played critical roles in spreading the Gospel. In the Book of Acts, Lydia, for instance, a successful business woman in the Roman city of Philippi was convinced of the truth of the Christian gospel. While living in a pantheon world, she bore witness to her entire household and with her, they were all baptized. Moreover, her wealth as well as her willingness to serve enabled her to nurture the early church as the apostles stayed on with her for a while.

Among women who provided a significant presence that strengthened the early Christian churches was Pricilla who worked together with her husband Aquila, travelling with Apostle Paul, inviting Apollos to the home to explain Jesus’ baptism to this important Jewish-Christian evangelist.

We have a beautiful church building where we worship freely today, but the earliest Christian communities did not have physical church buildings like ours for quite some time, and they met in people’s houses and welcomed new believers into the fellowship of faith in their homes.

The roles of women in the first century Church were more than providing hospitalities. The biblical reports provide credible evidence of women apostles active in the earliest work of spreading the Gospel. There were times when women, children, gentiles, and an under-represented group of people such as those with physical and mental challenges were less valued in society, but the Church is to be formed by all God’s people.

Regardless of gender and social status, humans mirror God's divinity in their ability to actualize the unique qualities with which they have been endowed and which make them different than all other creatures. The image of God, imago Dei, implies complete centeredness in the likeness of God, the capacity for spiritual and moral reflection and growth, and the human capacity for free decision-making to participate in a sacred reality.

As the Fall of Adam and Eve exemplifies, however, humans can, in their freedom, choose to deny or repress their spiritual and moral likeness to God. If one desires to love one’s self and others and put other human pursuits before God, God can become neglected and even opposed.

It is up to you what to choose and what not to choose. Thus, striving to bring about the imago Dei in one’s life is the quest for wholeness, as pointed to in Christ’s life and teachings. As people of faith, our focus should be on our act of faith shown before the One who created us and watches over us. To say that humans are in the image of God is to recognize the special qualities of human nature which allow God to be made manifest in humans.


Today, we read a short Gospel passage from John 12 about Jesus being anointed at Bethany. Almost one-half of John’s Gospel is given to this last week, seven days of Jesus’ entire life. The Gospeler John gave a time marker, telling us that this was the last week before the death and burial of Jesus, closing up the period of a week before the Passover when Jesus visits the home of Lazarus whom he had raised from the death.

In the midst of the supper, Mary gave a remarkable gift to Jesus. Judas believed that the oil Mary poured on to Jesus’ feet was worth a year’s wages for a working person, and he condemned Mary’s wasteful behaviour.

But, more than giving up her expensive oil, Mary’s action denotes great humility as well as great devotion because to attend to the feet was the task of the most lowly servant. Though it is rather a striking behaviour that a Jewish lady unbinds her hair in public and uses it as a towel to wipe a man’s feet, Mary does not think of public reaction. We learn so much from Mary.

We remember her sitting at Jesus’ feel and being attentive to learn (Lk 10:39); also when her brother Lazarus was dead, she fell at Jesus’ feet and surrendered, saying, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:32); and here again, she anoints Jesus’ feet to honour Him.

Though some people have allergic reactions to a perfume, aromatherapy is used as a healing treatment because a splash of fragrance is cherished for a wealth of emotions that can lift spirits or enrich a happy feeling. Imagine Mary pouring a pint of a perfume. The whole house must have been filled with the fragrance of the oil, leaving a long-lasting memory.

Mary gave everything for Jesus, while Judas, blinded in self-interest, objected to her act of dedication, a powerful display of selfless love for Jesus. The darkness of Judas’ heart is contrasted here against Mary’s devotion, the spirit of the Lord.

It may be easy to echo with the reasoning Judas proposes here: Why waste the expensive resource? But, why should anyone object if the perfume which would otherwise have been used to anoint Jesus’ dead body in due course was poured over Him while He was still alive?


“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (Jn 12:8). This remark can be misunderstood if taken out of context. Jesus’ comment is not, at all, meant to brush aside the idea of caring for the poor. The point is about the uniqueness of this moment. There will still be opportunities to feed the poor, but Jesus will not be there anymore physically.

Wouldn’t you want to buy a lovely bouquet to your beloved and treat them as best as you can, while they are still alive and close to you? Wouldn’t you want to make long lasting memories with your beloved and all people living and cherish the moments with them, filled with the aroma of love and peace?

Nothing is too good for Jesus. Mary had understood what none of the disciples had fully taken in that Jesus must die for our sins. None but Jesus Himself understood her action.

The Lord has done great things for you (cf. Ps 126), giving you a new heart and putting a new spirit within you (Ex 36:26). May your house be filled with the fragrance of the perfume out of joy, with which Mary anointed Jesus Christ, the Saviour.