Photo: Prateek Pratyal (Unsplash.com)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
John 12:1-11 (NRSVA)
This family – re-united miraculously after death – knows that no welcome is too lavish for their most honoured guest. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus seem to understand that Jesus is only passing through. He has fixed his eye on Jerusalem.
Yet, they will always owe him everything.
Perhaps they sense that it is a last opportunity. A final opportunity to show their undying loyalty before Jesus’ coming passion. In a matter of days these brave women will sit in the dust under the cross. There will certainly be no generously prepared meal there.
Mary’s breaking the jar then would seem too late. How could such beauty find its place on Golgotha Hill? After his death could they guarantee a dignified burial? Will there ever be a another opportunity?
Like every one of us, Mary may only have now. This woman has saved, purchased, and nervously waited. Mary has seen, heard, and secretly acted upon Jesus’ open prediction of his coming suffering and death. Others have not yet even figured out what this plain talk means.
And then, Mary seizes the jar and breaks it over Jesus’ feet. Her longed-for moment has arrived. It is here.
And almost as quickly the realisation dawns that there is nothing to wipe away the excess. She stoops. Is embarrassed at the gap in her plan. Mary begins to mop the mess with her hair.
It all amounts to a blindingly intense, fragrant, and beautiful point in time. As an artist, I love that Mary has found the tension between planning and spontaneity, and created an unforgettable moment. This woman’s action gives flight to the hidden, buried, or perhaps denied, truth that Jesus will not be among them much longer.
Not everyone can see beauty. Judas’ greed plays down this act of generosity and symbol. Three hundred denarii is close to the cost-of-living for a family for an entire year. Before him is pure extravagance.
Yet Judas sees only missed opportunity. His willingness to publicly put a price on the perfume drastically under-values Mary and her act. It plays down her plans. Belittles her kindness and insight.
Yet Judas can describe it only as thoughtless and wasteful. His are hurtful and hateful words transparently motivated by the hollow hope of gain. For this public shaming is not about the poor. It is about an insatiable greed that has blinded, stolen, and will soon betray.
Something precious is lost when beauty is met with such shallow criticism.
And, wonderfully, heaven knows it. Expressions of love leave the bravest among us vulnerable. Jesus’ covering of her indicates that he sees her courage and foresight as honourable and exemplary. They are the very essence of beauty in the eyes of God. Jesus will not this critique to snatch this pearl away. Mary’s act is defended as an artistic, creative, and moving display of love for the Jesus she has discovered to be friend and healer.
And her timing is perfect.
For in a moment a crowd will surround both Jesus and her brother. Lazarus is a drawcard as well. He also a threat. The very man that Jesus raised from the dead is also inspiring irrational, murderous, plans.
And later, even after the unlikely securing of Jesus’ dead body, a burial in a new tomb, and the collection of an extravagant load of exotic spices, there will still not be another opportunity to anoint these feet. By the time the mourners arrive it will be too late.
For by then the stone will already be rolled and this body resurrected.
Why do you think Mary is able to hear Jesus’ prediction of his coming suffering and death when everyone else found this so hard?
How do you think you would have responded to seeing Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet? Do you relate to her act? Do you relate more to Judas’ response?
When have you waited too long for the right opportunity to act with extravagance? What held – or holds – you back from embracing beauty?
Why do you think this story is recorded in this account of the Gospel? What is John trying to teach about ourselves, God, and the gospel?