This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on March 13, 2016.
This week’s lectionary passage continues with the theme of generous hospitality and extravagant love. Last week, a father celebrated the return of his prodigal son (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32). This passage describes Mary’s generous act of anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. The narrative begins with his return to Bethany. The Passover is now just six days away, an indication to the knowledgeable reader that the time of Jesus’ death is fast approaching. Jesus returns to the home of Lazarus whom he raised from the dead (John 11:1-44). This was a moving encounter in which Jesus grieved with his dear friends, Martha and Mary, and then restored their brother back to life. The experience certainly cemented the sisters’ devotion to Jesus. No doubt the entire family welcomed him back warmly into their home. In fact, they are giving a dinner in his honor. It is not hard to imagine the joyous reunion and precious fellowship shared between hosts and guests. This must have been an encouragement in the midst of a tense time when Jesus’ life is being threatened because of the act of raising Lazarus (John 11:53-57). Jesus’ relationship with the three siblings reminds us of his commitment to friendship, and the calling to love others even when it requires significant personal sacrifice and even risk. This is an important theme in John’s gospel (John 15:1-17).
On this occasion, Martha takes on her customary role of serving the meal, and Mary continues to defy societal expectations (Luke 10:38-42). Mary is pictured as a committed disciple whose focus continues to be on her love for her Lord. The act of anointing Jesus with expensive perfume is remarkable for a few reasons. First, the perfume is ridiculously costly. Nard would have been used to anoint those most worthy of honor. It was imported from India, and the narrative notes that it was pure, not watered down. Any practical soul would find a way to honor Jesus that did not require the use of an item costing approximately a year’s wages for the average day laborer. It would have been common to wash a guest’s feet, but to do so with a liquid that could have been used more sensibly (as Judas notes succinctly) seems highly questionable. The passage does not identify Mary’s motivation for this act. Perhaps she was overcome with gratefulness at the restoration of Lazarus and was simply so devoted to Jesus that she sought to her express her appreciation in the fullest way possible.
Second, Mary’s act is radical because she bowed low before Jesus and wiped his feet with her unbound hair. Jewish women did not let their hair down in public. This action would have been completely inappropriate, even overtly sensual, just as it would be inappropriate in our cultural contexts today. Mary’s act is significant in part because it foreshadows the foot washing that Jesus does for his disciples shortly afterward. He will also ask his disciples to perform this kind of service for each other (John 13:1-20). In this way, Mary is portrayed as a true disciple whose actions exemplify the commitment to loving service that is central to John’s gospel. The actions of both Mary and Jesus for the sake of others point to the abundance of love shared between Jesus and his followers, a relationship that continues between God and believers. God is generous and self-sacrificial, and God’s people may also love God generously in return.
Mary’s gift of devotion stands in sharp contrast to Judas Iscariot’s response. Judas is aghast at Mary’s actions. The author is quick to inform readers that Judas is the one who will betray Jesus and has already shown a poverty of character by stealing from the disciples’ common purse. While his concern about the poor certainly has merit, and his words may reflect what others were thinking, he does not reveal the love and discipleship of Mary. The two are easily compared in this passage, and Judas’ heart and actions are found wanting. Regardless of Judas’ privileged position as one of the twelve, Mary is the one portrayed as faithful.
Jesus responds quickly to Judas’ critical question. He defends Mary and names another purpose for this expensive gift. Jesus’ words point to his impending death and burial. It must be noted that Jewish burial traditions regularly included anointing, a notion that probably seems foreign to contemporary western readers. Mary’s actions are justified because Jesus is about to die. Jesus is not denigrating the importance of giving to the poor. He seems to be alluding to a reference in Deuteronomy which states the poor will always be present (Deuteronomy 15:11). Instead Jesus is emphasizing the importance of Mary’s act in light of the overall narrative of his death and resurrection.
The beauty of Mary’s service highlights the necessity of making personal sacrifices and giving generously for the sake of others. At times, the choice to love may even challenge conventional expectations, like the father welcoming home his prodigal son, yet God continues to call us to love him and love others with generous hearts.
Dr. Angela Reed
Assistant Professor of Practical Theology; Director of Spiritual Formation
George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, TX
Tags: nard, Mary, Martha, Judas Iscariot, Lazarus, perfume, Bethany