There are many things for us to pick up on in this story of the anointing of Jesus, in John’s gospel. The first is that this takes place at the home of Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany. The story specifically reminds us that Lazarus was the man that Jesus raised from death. We read about this in the previous chapter. We also read there that the Jewish authorities, from the day Lazarus was raised, made plans to kill Jesus. (At this point, we may do well to remember that there is no such thing as an unbiased view of history). Knowing of the opposition to him, Jesus withdrew to a place near the desert, and stayed there with his disciples.
The time for the Passover, and Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem, was near. And so he travelled, and we find him at Bethany. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with vastly expensive perfume, and wiped them with her hair. We need to remember that this perfume was worth about a year’s wages for an ordinary worker at that time. Mary’s gift was incredibly extravagant, but the sweet perfume filled the whole house. Mary breaks very strong social taboos by letting down her hair, and so wiping Jesus’ feet. We are, by and large, left to imagine what the others in the house thought. How might Martha have felt about what her sister was doing? What did most of the disciples who were eating and drinking with Jesus make of this great breach of convention? Were they quite embarrassed by this “over the top” display of devotion?
We know how Judas reacted. We know the reasons given in the gospel for his saying what he said. It’s interesting to ponder whether Judas himself believed what he was saying, or whether he knew full well he was saying it from ulterior motives. What a lot we don’t know about people’s motives and thoughts in the bible. Jesus rebuked Judas, telling him to leave Mary alone. The gospel is very clearly focused on Jesus’ death and burial at this point. Mary’s extravagant gift, and the great love which lies behind it, are a fitting response to the gift which Jesus gave in raising Lazarus, and for the greater gift he is about to give.
Jesus’ comment that “You will always have poor people with you, but you will not always have me.” strikes us as completely out of character. He had always been resolute in declaring that we must care for the poor. And we can’t make out what’s suddenly happened to make him say what he says. However, perhaps we forget how very well the people who were there with Jesus would have known the scriptures. This is a reference to Deuteronomy 15:11 “There will always be some Israelites who are poor and in need, and so I command you to be generous to them.” We need to remember that, to put together the puzzle of exactly what’s happening here. In fact we need to remember whenever we read the New Testament that there are many allusions and direct references to the scriptures which Israel had possessed for many centuries which we, who do not know the scriptures anywhere near as well as they did, are likely to miss. This is all part of trying to understand the mindset of the people who first read the New Testament or who, even earlier, heard stories about Jesus before they were written down.
Still, we are left with the impression that Jesus has his own death forefront in his mind. It is hard to imagine that he would not have known that to go to Jerusalem was to go to his death. It’s surely possible that Jesus was expressing the grief which anyone would feel at the thought of their own death. We have to make sure we don’t forget the human side of his nature, through concentrating only on the divine. Scripture goes to great lengths to affirm both the humanity and the divinity of Jesus.
Let’s focus on Mary’s extravagant gift, and her love for Jesus at this point. We all tend to abide by the conventions of our society, and the way we express our love and care for others is no exception. Mary didn’t stay within the bounds of convention, and in this she followed Jesus, who certainly didn’t. The love he showed for people who were completely on the outer shines brilliantly through the gospels. In fact, it was partly the forgiveness, acceptance and love he showed to people who were ‘unacceptable’ to polite society which caused people in power to plot his death. We know that we are called to open our hearts with love that goes beyond conventions. We know we are asked not to count the cost of what we do for others, but to trust God to sustain us along the way.
Would you agree with me that generosity in our care for others and trust in God go hand in hand? I think that each of us has to ponder for ourselves where the line goes between what we can do for others, and what is beyond our means- whether we are thinking of finances or the sheer energy and effort it takes to do things for others. We need to be sure, though, that in our pondering we listen to the voice of the Spirit, calling us to do whatever we may be able to do to support others in need. In all of this we remember that God knows us and our own unique situation better than we know ourselves. God knows our strengths and weaknesses, our possibilities and our limitations. God knows whether to bestir us into activity, or invite us to rest for a while. We are a community, but we also all have our individual needs and capacities.
Mary’s gift of exceptional care to Jesus was, I think, not only based on generosity springing from trust in God but surely in gratitude as well. Jesus had transformed the lives of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. If we actually take the time to think of how much God has given us over the years, then we will naturally feel gratitude too. If we only think for a short time of how much we have which other people don’t, how could we not feel grateful. We know that there are people in the world who have a dark view of things and who can only seem to see the negatives in life. And it’s true that some people have far, far more of their ‘share’ of trouble than others. But we, here, have very much to celebrate and be thankful for. We have certainly experienced much of the love and care of God along the way. Gratitude, trust in God, and generosity to others are a very fitting response. Amen.