Today, the day before the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, he stayed with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus (who he had raised from the dead) at their home in Bethany on the east side of the Mt. of Olives. That evening, as Martha served dinner and Jesus, the disciples and Lazarus ate, Mary brought a pound of very expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet with it. You can read the story in John 12:1-8.
This meal at Lazarus’ house is being eaten by friends and family. Jesus’ visit should be a joyful occasion. Yet, we sense a lot of tension around the table. There is a confrontation between Judas and Mary. But before that consider these words from verse 2 and 3: “Martha served…then Mary took about a pint of [perfume]…”
We first meet these sisters and their then-dead brother, Lazarus, in John 11 and Luke 10. As in Luke, Martha has prepared a dinner for Jesus and his followers. Then Mary had stolen the spotlight from Martha and now she does it again. This time she doesn’t simply sit at Jesus’ feet. No, she makes the apparently outrageous gesture of anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and wiping them dry with her hair. To dry his feet she would have had to let down her hair. In the 1st century Jewish home, that was never done in public. Where was her respect for the other guests?
Imagine how Martha felt. She may have thought Mary had completely lost all sense of propriety this time, but it was Judas who actually voices this disgust. John makes it quite clear that while Judas is the one who complains, it is not really because he wanted to sell the perfume and give the money to the poor, but because he is a thief who was the keeper of the group’s moneybag and freely helped himself to it.
In the midst of Mary’s extravagance, Judas’ outburst, and Jesus’ strange response, the disciples who are looking on in the midst of this tension might be wishing they had skipped dinner.
Jesus’ response to Judas’ outburst is confusing. He suggests that Mary was keeping this expensive perfume to anoint his body after his death. That she is doing it now before his death seems to be prophetic as he will be executed within the next week, and his burial will have to take place very quickly because of the beginning of the Sabbath the evening of Good Friday. There will not be time time that evening for proper anointing so it seems Mary is taking care of anointing Jesus’ body for burial now.
So did Mary have any idea of Jesus’ imminent death? The Bible doesn’t say. Jesus does seem to be saying that Mary should now keep whatever’s left in the bottle for his burial and that this purpose is even more important than selling it and giving the money to the poor. So even if she hadn’t poured it out just now, Mary was still right in using it to worship her Lord.
That seems odd since Jesus taught a lot about the importance of caring for the poor. Jesus must have believed that his coming death and resurrection would provide for more than just the poor in Bethany who would have been provided for by the perfume’s sale. Jesus must have believed that his death and resurrection would transform the whole world, rescuing the poor and the rich, redeeming all creation. The continuing presence of poverty and other evils on this side of Jesus’ death is a reality check for us. Are the priorities of the Church and all of us who are its members, in line with those of Jesus?
So where are you in this story? Are you with Mary, shamelessly worshiping Jesus, risking the wrath of a sister, the contempt of the men who think she is acting shamefully, and the disdain of the cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing?
Or are you the prudent and reliable Judas, which is how he must have seemed to his fellow disciples? He looks after the meager resources of the group and seems to earnestly care for the needs of the disciples and giving any surplus to the poor. When he left the Last Supper to betray Jesus, the other disciples probably assumed that Judas was going out to give to the poor, a common thing to do during Passover. Don’t distance yourself from Judas. After all, up to the betrayal at Gethsemane none of the disciples expected him of treachery. Do you get a glimpse of him when you look in the mirror?
Or are you at work in the kitchen with Martha? If you are, what are you thinking and feeling about Mary and Judas? After hearing Jesus’ response to them, how do you feel about him?