Dinner celebrations: They are among the highlights of our lives. Whether it’s your 7yr old’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, the black tie wedding dinner you’re invited to, or the Thanksgiving feast you make at home…many of us love dinner celebrations.
Our Savior also seemed to enjoy dinner celebrations. After all, his first miracle in public ministry happened at a wedding feast in Cana (Jn 2:1-11). I can’t tell you how many more dinner parties or lunch dates our Savior attended during the next three years of his ministry, but there must have been a lot of them. And I think you can assume that because, after a time, our Savior’s enemies leveled this charge against him: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).
John the apostle informs us that now it was “six days before the Passover” (John 12:1), or the Friday just before Palm Sunday. Jesus was going to eat with sinners once more. Tonight we consider how . . .His Final Steps Led to a Dinner Celebration. But this dinner was somewhat out of the ordinary, because it was . . . A dinner that celebrated Jesus’ limitless power and signaled Jesus’ coming sacrifice.
The event we study this evening is recorded by John, Matthew and Mark. Matthew and Mark add that this dinner party was held in the home of “Simon the leper” (Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3). That’s interesting! You remember Jesus and the 10 Lepers? Their disease segregated them from society. They had to be separate, out in their own communities – crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!” to ward people off. So if this dinner party was held in Simon the leper’s home—and he was there—he must have been healed. He must have gone to the priests—the public health inspectors—and they must have pronounced Simon clean. We don’t know for sure, but some scholars believe Simon was healed by Jesus. Perhaps then he hosted this dinner party as a thank you to the Savior who gave him his life back!
No matter, Simon wasn’t the center of attention at this particular dinner party. It was another guest: Lazarus. That’s where John puts the spotlight in his inspired record, carefully reminding us that Bethany was the home of “Lazarus, who had died, the one Jesus raised from the dead” (John 12:1). John also makes sure we know that Lazarus was one of the guests “reclining at the table with [Jesus]” (John 12:2).
Now do we begin to understand why “they gave a dinner for him there” (John 12:2)? This was a dinner that celebrated Jesus’ limitless power! And the “they” who planned this dinner most likely included Simon the leper, who gladly opened his home and hosted the party; Martha, consummate caterer; and Mary, who was, as always, close by and hanging on Jesus’ every word.
Soon the house was overflowing with “a large crowd of the Jews” who came to this unique dinner party. “They came not only because of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead” (John 12:9). Now, I don’t know how the dinner conversation would have gone exactly on that day – what with a healed leper hosting and a once-dead man reclining alive and hungry next to Jesus… “Lazarus, what was it like to be dead but alive again – did you have a vision of heaven?” “How have you washed off the stench of death since?” “Simon, didn’t one of your ears fall off in that whole leprosy thing?” I don’t know… But this much I can confidently say right now: Lazarus had become a celebrity, and because of him Jesus was gaining more and more converts. So many that “the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus too, because it was on account of him that many of the Jews were leaving them and believing in Jesus” (John 12:10,11).
The guests at that dinner party at Bethany celebrated Jesus’ limitless power. Do we? Do we place our complete trust in the Lord who healed untouchable lepers like Simon? the one whom we address in our prayers as the Great Physician of body and soul?
As we struggle with the loss of our loved ones—and we do struggle—do we also find our peace, confidence, and unwavering hope in the fact that Lazarus, though dead in the grave for four days and already stinking and rotting, was later reclining at a dinner celebration, enjoying family and friends in perfect health? As we move closer to our own graves, do we keep a spring in our step because we know that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11)?
Doesn’t this dinner celebration at Bethany shout to us that Jesus’ words have been proven as fact?! “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even if he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never perish” (John 11:25,26).
But what about those moments when we fall prey—yet again—to doubt, to gloom-and-doom pessimism, to worry or fear about our future, to wallowing in self-pity or crushing loneliness? Then we need yet again to step back and watch Jesus take his final steps to a dinner celebration in Bethany. Once there, by faith we can sit off in the corner, as if a church mouse, silently watching everything that takes place in the home of Simon the leper. And there we will witness a dinner that signaled Jesus’ coming sacrifice.
We know from the gospels that Jesus loved to visit this family. And we also know, from the familiar story recorded in Luke chapter 10, that while Martha played host, Mary loved to sit at Jesus’ feet and soak in every word he said. And when the day came that Lazarus was raised from his grave by Jesus’ simple shout, “Lazarus, come out!” You can bet Mary watched closely and pondered everything that had happened.
Between her careful listening and watching, Mary had put two and two together. Mary knew Jesus was taking his final steps. His sacrifice on the cross was coming soon. So she brought out a “pint of pure nard” (John 12:3) – worth a year’s salary (today, like $63K). The other gospel writers inform us that the 12 ounces of this perfume were in an alabaster jar. That jar itself could cost a king’s ransom, a fitting container for such precious cargo. After all, this perfume came from the high pasturelands of the Himalayas, between Tibet and India, and was transported by camel caravan through miles and miles of mountain passes.
The scent of nard is overpowering, which is why merchants risked bandits, treacherous mountain passes, and natural catastrophes to haul this precious cargo thousands of miles to the Middle East. Despite costing a king’s ransom, customers were still lining up and waiting for it. This perfume with its overpowering scent was in high demand in the funeral industry. It is more than likely that Mary and Martha had used another such jar for the anointing of Lazarus’ body. Its strong smell would help counteract the stench that would otherwise pour from their brother’s tomb.
At this dinner, John records the event vividly: “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). For Mary took the alabaster jar and opened it by breaking off the top—no turning back now! And then, as the other gospel writers explain, Mary took that precious perfume and poured it over Jesus’ head. It ran down his body. But she wasn’t finished yet. John makes it clear that she also anointed Jesus’ feet. There was plenty, and she intended to use it all. Then she let her hair down, something frowned upon for a woman to do in front of men in that culture, and she used her hair to dry Jesus’ feet. It was a vivid display, indeed.
The disciples didn’t quite get Mary’s devotion. Judas objected, “ ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ He did not say this because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief. He held the money box and used to steal what was put into it” (John 12:5,6). Matthew and Mark tell us the rest of the disciples also complained, “Why this waste?” (Matthew 26:8; Mark 14:4). Maybe if the disciples had all been listening to our Lord a little better, they also would have put two and two together and would have been ready for what Jesus told them next: “Leave her alone. She intended to keep this for the day of my burial. Indeed, the poor you always have with you, but you are not always going to have me” (John 12:7,8).
Mary knew what we must know. Jesus’ ministry was at the end. She was witnessing his final steps. The crowds that were flocking to Simon the leper’s house to see Jesus and Lazarus raised from the dead—might be these same crowds would cement the Sanhedrin’s decision to murder our Lord. Mary’s anointing of our Savior helped make this a dinner that signaled Jesus’ coming sacrifice. For when Mary anointed our Savior from head to toe, it was as if she were getting a head start on the work that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus would do in haste late on a Friday afternoon one week later when “they took Jesus’ body and bound it with linen strips along with the spices, in accord with Jewish burial customs” (John 19:40). And it would signal the greatest truth, that “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
In all his limitless power, Jesus our Savior gave himself up as the sacrifice for our sins – pleasing to God, so that, by faith in him, pleasing to God we might also be. During these midweek Lenten services, we will continue to listen closely and watch carefully as our Savior takes his final steps. Every step forward followed his Father’s plan to the letter. Every step was taken for you and me. Every step proved and still proves his selfless love. Amen.