John 12:1-11 (NRSVCE)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Jesus visits Lazarus, where Martha serves the dinner, and Mary anoints his feet with expensive perfume. This seems familiar, doesn’t it? There is another story in Luke where we have Martha doing all the work to serve Jesus, while Mary sat at his feet and listened to his words. (Luke 10:38-42) In that story, Martha gets aggravated that Mary has not helped at all. Jesus tells her “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” We see a similar thing happening here. Mary is anointing Jesus’ feet, and this time Judas gets upset. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas said this out of greed—he wanted to steal the money—but the similarity here is striking. Jesus once again says that Mary is doing the right thing. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The one thing that jumps out at us immediately here is that Jesus is clearly aware that he is soon going to die. This is a farewell gathering, even if his followers do not yet realize it. Judas is still distracted by filling his pockets, and Martha is busy worrying about the dinner. Only Mary seems to realize what is happening. She uses the perfume that was meant for Jesus’ burial, because she recognizes that Jesus is soon to die. But more than this, I find the connection with Luke’s passage most intriguing. In both stories, Mary is totally focused on Jesus. She doesn’t give it even a second thought—her first and only priority is to cling to Jesus, to heed his every word and to serve him in whatever way she can. For this, she received contempt from those around her. Her own sister thought her selfish and careless. Judas thought her wasteful and imprudent, and from Matthew’s account of this story, it seems that the other disciples agreed with Judas, where they say “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” (Matthew 26:8-9) There is a lesson here, and perhaps that lesson is that if we love and serve Christ as we ought, those around us will think us mad, or even despise us.
Though it is chiefly a lesson of priorities. Do we truly put Christ first in our lives? Helping the poor is a good thing to do, and we ought to do it as often as we can. Playing host to guests is also a good thing to do. But do we busy ourselves so much with distractions that we don’t leave room for Christ, as Martha did? Do we focus too much on what we stand to gain from the things we do, as Judas did? Do we focus so much on giving away that which we have, even to the point that we think it sinful if we retain anything? I might call it a “scrupulous prodigality,” but I hate that I can’t think of a less silly term for it.
The lesson of these stories is that we ought to emulate Mary. We ought to focus our attention on Christ, and use those things we have to honor God, however that may be. If that means giving some of what we have away to the poor, great! But it doesn’t necessarily mean that, as Jesus shows us here. We can honor God without becoming neurotic about remaining destitute ourselves.