Judas willfully misinterprets as waste Mary’s extravagant act of anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. Jesus recognizes that her lavish gift is both an expression of love and an anticipation of his burial.
1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
“First she loosens her hair in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does. Then she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which is also not done. The head, maybe–people do that to anoint kings–but not the feet. Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends. Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair–totally inexplicable–the bizarre end to an all around bizarre act.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)
I like to think the prophets before her gave her a standing ovation in the communion of the saints around the throne in heaven. Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Isaiah, specifically, each had their own bizarre acts that pointed towards God’s action, mercy, or judgement. Like the time Ezekiel ate the scroll of the Lord or Jeremiah started smashing clay jars to show God’s judgment on Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 19), or Isaiah walking around naked and barefoot as an oracle against the nations (Isaiah 20). Prophets did things like that. And those weren’t even the most bizarre.
I believe Mary got people’s attention, for better or worse. Jesus Christ means Jesus the Anointed one. The chosen one. People were already paying attention to him, but Mary anoints Jesus in a peculiar way – not in the way of kings and royalty, anointing their head. In the way that those who are baptized are anointed on the head. She anoints his feet. The only men who get their feet anointed with perfumed oil are dead men. Jesus has foreshadowed his death and Mary believes him.
Jesus has tried to tell the disciples that he will die, and they’ve just argued with him each time it’s brought up. Mary, the one who sat at Jesus feet, listening intently to her rabbi while Martha was complaining in the kitchen. Mary of Bethany whose weeping over her brother Lazarus moves Jesus to tears. Mary of Bethany witnesses Jesus bringing her brother out of the tomb.
Mary heard him. Mary believed him. And now, in an act of love, she shows him that she understands what he’s taught her, and she understands where all of this is leading. And she understands, perhaps better than anyone, after witnessing her brother emerging from his tomb, that this death Jesus predicts will not be the end of the story. God is doing a new thing – not just through this death, but everything that will happen after it and because of it.
It borders on sensual. Nothing in the description John gives leads that way, save perhaps, a woman with her hair unbound. But the description is definitely a lot more physical than we’re used to in church. We’re not used to a whole lot of body positivity in the church. But Bodies matter to God. God’s only begotten Son became flesh, had a body, had pain, and body hair, and skin, and suffered death with that body.
This is not abstract theological musing, or systematic organization of Christology – this gospel is the very embodiment of worship, love, and offering. Mary’s intimate act of anointing is done wordlessly – but speaks volumes. Judas can’t see the forest for the trees though, and gets caught up in what she could have done with that money, instead of being a holy witness to this love. We aren’t told what the reactions were among the other disciples. What would our reaction be?
A congregation council is tasked with financial administration of the church. We try to be responsible in church, accounting for each line item in the church budget. We don’t like to spend money wastefully, but. Use what has been entrusted to us wisely. And yet, Mary’s witness and extravagance points us to a deeper reality, a new reality for God’s people.
We may want to be Marys but often we are more like Martha or even like Judas. I want to be the disciple that sits at Jesus’ feet, but I have such a hard time sitting still and there is so much work to be done. I want to be the disciple who lavishes attention on Jesus and soaks up every word, but there are always bills to pay and mouths to feed and other matters to attend to. But the example of Holy Week and Easter in the church might help us understand.
Our church works hard to serve people and be responsible for what we have been entrusted with. We are surrounded by great need and give to organizations regularly, like Lutheran Disaster Response to care for refugees and those displaced by war. But next week we will spend money on flowers and palms – and decorate. We will attend to the altar and lovingly put away all tangible symbols of our worship, stripping our chancel of the signs we hold dear, nearly like preparing a body for burial.
We will spend our time learning and practicing music and give our time above and beyond what some may see as necessary or prudent. Those called to serve the worship of our church will spend weeks preparing for this one week. We lavish our attention and resources on this worship, on this experience, on these moments together in worship – not because we have to, but because we get to. I will wash your feet and sing and pray and kneel with you, because in our gathered worship, the body of Christ is present. And bodies are important to God.
Mary lavishes her attention on Jesus’ body – because of her love for him, because she knows what he has done for her. And as she did for her brother Lazarus when he died, she will do for Jesus now – while he can still see and smell and feel the care she is taking. As Lazarus looks on, Jesus reminds Judas and likely the rest of the confused and scandalized disciples, that this is the care we show for those we love.
In his last meal with his disciples, which we remember on Maundy Thursday, Jesus not only cares for his disciples’ physical needs by feeding them, he washes their feet. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Perhaps Mary of Bethany gave him the idea.