Mary Anoints Jesus’ Feet – Being an Authentic Lover of Christ
Mary Anoints Jesus’ Feet – Being an Authentic Lover of Christ
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.’
Mary Anoints Jesus’ Feet
We approach Easter. We journey with Jesus though the days and weeks leading to his passion and today we read of an incident the day before Palm Sunday, where Jesus is being honoured by the family of Lazraus, the man he raised from the dead.
During this meal, Mary, Lazarus’ sister, perfumes a spontaneous act of loving devotion to Jesus, anointing his feet with costly “nard”. Nard is a form of aromatic oil, which would have been used in Jesus’ time for anointing, particularly in the context of a death. It was offered at a specialized incense altar in the Jerusalem Temple. But the interesting thing is that it is derived from a flowering plant which grows not in Judea, but in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India. For that reason this oil was very expensive. Because it was expensive, nard was often mixed with inferior oils, and it was sometimes counterfeited. Notably, both Mark and John state that “genuine nard” was used on Jesus.
There are two incidents of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet. Matthew, Mark and John record this story set in Bethany. Luke records a different story of a sinful woman (probably a forgiven prostitute) who anoints Jesus feet in a similar fashion, but in the Galilean region, and is unnamed; she is not called Mary as far as we know, lives in Nain or Capurnaum, and neither woman is Mary Magdalene. We need to be wary of conflating these two stories, especially with so many Marys.
This Mary is named as Mary the sister of Martha and Lazaraus. Lazarus is the man whom Jesus raised from the dead after four days in the tomb. Luke’s agenda is probably consistent with one of his gospel themes, which is to show Jeuss reaching out to the despised, the outcasts of society, and restoring them to dignity and community. John’s priority is that people know who Jesus is, the Word made Flesh, and Mary’s reaction is consistent with one of the greatest of Jesus’ signs, conquering death by raising Lazarus, as a prelude to his own death and resurrection.
In both stories, the action by the woman and Jesus’ acceptance of it is criticised by those watching. The prostitute is seen as someone that Jesus ought not have associated with at all, so Jesus replies, “Whoever has been forgiven much, loves much”. Mary of Bethany is criticised (and not just by Judas) because her perfume could have been sold to feed the poor. Jesus rebukes the criticism, points to his own impending death, and then says something interesting about the poor.
In both cases there is an action by Jesus which liberates someone. In the one case from sin and guilt and rejection by others, from condemnation and shame; not everyone approves of the liberation of other people, especially those they despise.
In our story, Lazarus and his family have been liberated from death and bereavement. Mary is pouring out her heart and her ointment, to honour the man who has brought her brother back from death itself and restored him to her. Not everyone approves even of this; there are plots to kill both Jesus and Lazarus.
In both cases, the women are in touch with their feelings and allow their feelings to inform their actions. Their emotions overflow into acts of loving devotion and worship, blessing both the giver, and the receiver. Jesus is touched, and honoured by their gratitude and rebukes those who criticise the gift.
“The Fate of the Just Man”
In John 11:47-53, we see something sobering; great grace provokes great evil. The raising of Lazarus causes others to plot Jesus’ death, and in John 12:9-11 they plot to kill Lazarus too. So just as Mary’s actions provoke differing reactions, so did the actions of Jesus. Plato developed a theory which he called the “the fate of the just man”, which suggested 400 years before Christ that the perfectly “Just Man”, if he ever appeared, would be “pierced” and killed, because his actions are not in the spirit of the world. People would feel threatened by goodness and seek to destroy it to hide their own guilt. Plato was prescient, if not prophetic.
Judas’ reaction to Jesus, and to the adoration of Mary, is a perfect example of Plato’s prediction. Before him lies the perfect, just man, but in his heart is turmoil. In some ways, not to defend the man, I identify a bit with the struggle that is going on inside him.
Perhaps he was just simply a dishonest man, a would-be thief, who just had a problem with money. But I suspect there is something else going on here that might speak to us, something we should not run away from.
The scale of what Jesus has done is so big that some of us are not equipped to react as Mary did. For many of us, the lavish, extravagant outwardly visible thing is not the thing we do. It makes us feel awkward and inauthentic, because that is not the real us. We look at others raising their hands in worship or speaking in lofty tones, and feel threatened. When that happens, human nature can all too easily kick in. Instead of looking for other ways to honour Jesus in our own way, even if it is not Mary’s way, we try and criticise what is going on.
Judas inwardly knows that this perfect, just man, Jesus, loves him so much, and didn’t know how to handle that. Inwardly, in the deepest places, he is saying to himself, “I don’t know how to respond. I know there’s something wrong with me, but I want to make out there’s something wrong with her!” He knew himself and all his faults, just as we do and instead of laying those faults and weaknesses at Jesus feet, he retreats into self defense and justification, with a dishonest pecuniary motive into the bargain. Mary knew different, and so did the sinful women of Galilee; the point was not that they were better than Judas, but that it didn’t matter.
The proper way to respond to someone else’s authentic worship is to locate your own authentic worship. It is not to start loving Jesus less because you don’t like the way someone else does it. Your gift of worship is worth every bit as much to Jesus as Mary’s gift of costly nard. The critical factor is why she gave it. Give your equivalent in your own way.
P.S. What about the poor..?
What about this last comment that Jesus makes: “The poor you will always have with you …”? Interestingly, Bethany means ‘place of the poor’. When Mary poured a bottle of perfume on Jesus feet which cost a year’s wages, the point was made that it was a very extravagant gesture. The disciples would have been aghast at the generosity of it all, but they also thought that the money could have been put to better use.
Some people use this verse to object to social justice Christianity, where the argument seems to go, that if Jesus said we’d never get rid of the poor, it’s foolish for us to try. As a result, too many churches regard social justice as a sideshow, a diversion or distraction away from the “real deal”.
But we can see from Jesus wider teaching that that is nonsense (just read Matthew 25 if nothing else). What Jesus meant was, “and whenever you want, you can do good for them.” But perhaps Jesus wasn’t just making a random comment; he was quite probably referring to the Law of Moses, specifically Deuteronomy 15:11:
For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’
Because there will always be poor, God always expects his people to be generous to the poor! Not because we can ever “cure” poverty, but because God loves them. Verse 10 says: You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.
So the irony is, one of the ways we can show gratitude to God is precisely to do what Judas suggested, but genuinely and with the love of God as your motivator, with the assurance that God will bless you in return.
The telling point about Mary’s offering was that it was a physical expression of her best. It is unlikely that she owned anything else remotely as expensive as this, and it may well have been the equivalent of your pension fund, set aside to fund her old age, we don’t know. In any event, Mary’s appreciation of who Jesus was, and what he has done, flowed out in an extravagant act of worship.
You don’t have to pour out your pension fund on Jesus, much as the church would love you to do it! But this is the perfect season in the year to ask yourself, what is my inner heart response to what Jesus has done, and how do I authentically show it?