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.