Mary of Bethany pours out a whole pound of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. This is an extravagant, seemingly wasteful and impulsive act. And why would she pour it on his feet and not on his head, as would have been the normal act of hospitality for anointing? Because, although you would anoint a living man on the head, this is how you would begin to prepare a corpse for burial.
The house immediately fills up with the smell of perfume. I once ordered my wife two bottles of her perfume on-line, since it is hard to find in stores. I ripped opened the paper package and handed it to her, and she went to pull one of the bottles out of the package, but it had one of those decorative plastic tops that pull off. The top held the bottle just long enough to let it be pulled out of the package and then it let go and we had a smashed bottle of perfume on our bathroom floor. I can assure you that the smell of it quickly filled up the room, and this was just a few ounces, not a pound.
So Lazarus’ house, where his sisters live, is now smelling really good. Here’s an interesting connection: remember how in the story of the raising of Lazarus when Jesus approached the tomb, Martha had warned him that there would be a stench, because Lazarus had been dead for four days. (John 11:39)
This time Mary has filled the house with the fragrance of devotion to overcome the stench of death. Fragrance is often used in the Bible as a metaphor for a sacrificial offering. In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, Paul refers to Christians themselves as a fragrance that spreads the knowledge of God. He writes, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.”
So Mary’s act was fragrant as well as flagrant! Then she began to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. What is the significance of this? Jewish women of the time usually wore their hair tied up in public. There would have been only two occasions when their hair would have been loose like this, when undressing for a husband, or as a sign of distraction in mourning. So Mary plays the role of both unabashed lover and soon to be mourner as she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.
But Judas, the treasurer of the disciples, has different thoughts. You might say, “He caused a stink!” Judas criticizes Mary. He says, “What a waste! That perfume was worth a year’s wages. Surely it could have been put to better use. Could it have not been sold and the proceeds given to the poor?” In this case Judas’ condemnation of Mary serves as a reminder that any act of faith will always have someone to criticize it and complain about it.
It is interesting that Judas is a character both at this dinner and at the Last Supper. The Greek word for “dinner” is used in John’s Gospel only in two places: here and at the Last Supper. There is another interesting connection with the Last Supper: the word used to describe Mary’s “wiping” with her hair is the same word used to describe Jesus wiping the disciples feet. There is clearly a close connection between this supper and the Last Supper. What do they share? They are both preparatory to Jesus death. At this dinner, Mary knows that Jesus is about to die and anoints him. At the Last supper, Jesus tries to interpret his coming death to the disciples with a ritual meal.
Judas’s role here is interesting, too. Not only is he in both stories, he lays a similar role. He is described as a thief here, kleptes in the Greek, which is the same word used earlier in John’s Gospel to describe the unreliable hired hand who threatens the flock. Judas is a like the dishonest hireling, a thief and a betrayer. There is a word here for the church, too. When Judas betrays Jesus, he betrays the flock as well. Which is to say that if Mary is the model of the faithful disciple, then Judas is the model of the unfaithful disciple.
But Jesus doesn’t accept Judas’ complaint. He says to Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it (the perfume) 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.” The word “leave” here is the same word in Greek as “forgive” in the Lord’s Prayer. It means let it go.
“Let it go, Judas. Mary is right and you are wrong!” That is what Jesus is saying. That Mary is devoted and true, and Judas is dishonest and false. And it is interesting that in this story, the virtues Jesus praises are the seemingly wasteful and extravagant act of Mary.
What are we to make of this? A few thoughts:
• First, I think we need to be careful not to extract this story out of its context and make a general principle out of extravagance. Jesus is saying, “There’s a time and a place. My time is short, Mary’s devotion to me at the brink of my death is a better thing than business as usual.”
• Secondly, Mary has truly understood both the trajectory of Jesus’ special vocation and the very nature of God. The extravagance of her act mirrors the extravagance of God’s love. We got a glimpse of that extravagance last week in the story of the Prodigal Son. We see it again today. Here is a God who does not know when to stop. Whose love knows no limits. The pouring out of Jesus’ own life later that same week for the sins of the whole world will also be an extravagant act of love. What kind of love is this? This is the love that pours itself out.
• Thirdly, this story is not a repudiation of the church’s ministry to the poor. Yes, the poor are still always with us, but Martha, ever the activist, is not wrong in acting like a good deacon and trying to feed the empty mouths around her. That is the church’s vocation in every generation. But a frenetic activism will soon burn itself out if it doesn’t fathom the extravagant generosity and love of God. The world, not to mention the church, would have a hard time running itself without any Marthas, but without the flagrant and fragrant offering of the Marys, the church runs the risk of understanding God as just the distributor of a calculated justice rather than as the extravagant lover he is. As we saw last week, for Jesus it is all about grace, not about bookkeeping.
So it is no accident that Jesus offers love of God as the first and greatest commandment, and love of neighbor as the one that follows. For it is only when we have known ourselves to be the recipients of divine generosity that we are really able to see the neighbor in need, not as an object of pity or charity, but as a fellow sinner, forgiven and loved by God, and thereby worthy of our compassion.
As we prepare to observe Christ’s coming passion and death, we might ask ourselves “what kinds of service God requires of us?” Where have we been stingy where God has been extravagant? How do we use what God has so generously given us in ways that are truly acts of devotion as well as service. Have we worried too much about holding on to the things that are precious to us? Have we withheld those gifts that might have given both God and us true pleasure in the giving?
And how we might make of ourselves a flagrant and fragrant offering to God?
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “ The allegorical sense of Mary’s great action dawned on me the other day. The precious alabaster box which one must break over the Holy feet is one’s heart. Easier said than done. And the contents become perfume only when it is broken. While they are safe inside, they are more like sewage.”
Sewage comes up in this week’s epistle as well (a better translation of the Greek word that Paul uses than “rubbish”). Paul wrote, “For Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
Sewage! Rubbish! More strong smells. What is it that made these people of faith believe that it is only in extravagant giving that the things we cling to can be transformed into a pleasing fragrant offering to God? Did they recognize that the death of this man, this Jesus, this costly outpouring of life and love, is worth far more than the things we think of as precious.
In these final Lenten days, may we take in the extravagance of that precious love poured out for us by Jesus. “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”