The first thing that must be said about this text is that it appears in some form in John, Mark (14:3-9), and Luke (7:36-50). My commentary here will focus primarily on the unique elements of John’s version of the story, and I recommend a critical comparison of the three texts. If you’re drawn particularly to the Mark text, you can find a sermon I’ve written on it here.
At this point in John’s gospel, it is clear that Jesus is in significant peril. He is just about to enter Jerusalem, where he will die. In this context, the account of the anointing at Bethany can be see as a strange foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. We are told that the perfume that Mary use to anoint Jesus is pure nard, which was used in at least some occasions in antiquity to anoint a body before burial (see chapter 18 of Homer’s Iliad, in which the body of Patroclus is anointed with nard to prevent stench). As such, the use of this costly nard in the anointing sets up an obvious contrast. As John sets the event in the home of Lazarus (and explicitly recalls the resurrection of Lazarus in this reading), we see immediately the juxtaposition of the foul odor of death which once hung in the home (John 11:39), and the now perfumed smell of nard that Mary applies to the feet of Jesus. It was Lazarus, whom no one reached in time to prevent death, who smelled of death but ultimately lived. It will be Jesus, whom Mary reaches in the days before he dies, who smells of perfume but will ultimately die. In both cases, there is a sense that God’s plan is being fulfilled, and no amount of intervention or absence on anyone’s part will change the course of events.
The perfume of nard that Mary possessed was apparently extremely expensive, a detail highlighted by Judas’ protest. The perfume could have been sold for an incredible amount of money (three hundred denarii, around one year’s wages), and that money used to benefit the poor. Though John casts obvious aspersion at Judas’ motives, Judas’ protest does seem to be worth thinking about. It would seem reasonable that a better use of this perfume would be to benefit those living in poverty rather than waste it in the anointing of a living person. However, we must also consider the intended use of this perfume. If Mary had indeed planned to use it to anoint a dead body, particularly the dead body of Jesus, would we question its use? Would it have been a waste to anoint Jesus’ dead body? Would Judas have protested? Likely not, as during the time of Jesus the Jewish purity codes elevated proper cleanness and purity, especially with respect to dead bodies, above caring for the poor.
The striking thing about this text is not Judas’ protest, or even Jesus’ answer. It is the fact that Mary has chosen to anoint Jesus now. Rather than wait until after his death, she does so while he’s still living. Therein lies a curious intersection of death and life. They meet in the house of Lazarus, who famously died and yet was restored to life by Jesus. Jesus is going to his death in Jerusalem, and Mary seems to anoint him as one would anoint a dead body for burial, yet he is alive. By anointing him now, as opposed to after he’s been put to death, Mary is essentially giving the very best that she has (quite literally, the most expensive thing that she owns) to the living Jesus. The real waste would have been to devote her effort and her expensive gift to the dead Jesus. Rather than give what she has in memoriam, she gives it in witness to the living, breathing, presence of Christ.
Her stunning act of devotion has stark implications for Christians today. There’s a danger that churches will become museums for Jesus, that our existence will reflect more about his death than his life. In The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of happening upon the ruins of a massive cathedral while hiking in the Kachar Mountains in Turkey. After reflecting on the reality that what was once an impressive church built to the honor and glory of God in the very land that Paul walked was now nothing but ruins and garbage, she writes:
“God has given us good news in human form and has even given us the grace to proclaim it, but part of our terrible freedom is the freedom to lose our voices, to forget where we are going and why. While that knowledge does not yet strike me as prophetic, it does keep me from taking both my own ministry and the ministry of the whole church for granted. If we do not attend to God’s presence in our midst and bring all our gifts to serving that presence in the world, we may find ourselves selling tickets to a museum.” (p. 6, emphasis mine)
Think about that for a minute. We must devote all our gifts, from the smallest to the grandest and most expensive, to serving Christ’s presence in the world, or else we may find that our churches have become museums. In other words, rather than devote our time, our attention, and our energy to merely preserving the memory of Jesus, as one would a deceased relative, we are called to give the very best we’ve got to the living Christ. This text reminds us that authentic devotion to Jesus will involve giving him the best we’ve got right now in a continuation of his living ministry. Let your life be centered on the living Christ in your midst, rather than offer simple and ultimately hollow testimony that he once was.
One final point must be made regarding the presence of the poor in our day and age. Jesus’ response to Judas is oftentimes used to minimize the importance of the Christian obligation to care for the poor and needy. It is very important to note that Jesus’ response is a quotation from Deuteronomy 15:11, the entirety of which reads, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” Rather than minimize one’s obligation to care for the poor, Jesus here quotes a verse which explicitly commands it.
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First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming lectionary gospel text, and is usually published on Monday.