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.
“The unbound tresses, appropriate for the harlot, would be regarded as shameful on the part of the lady of the house” – this delicate description of Mary’s Rapunzel moment comes from my 1952 version of the Interpreter’s Bible. Tom Wright is a bit more racy when talking of the unbound locks, “roughly the equivalent, at a modern polite dinner party, of a woman hitching up a long skirt to the top of her thighs.”
It seems that Mary’s action goes beyond good taste. It also surpasses extravagance – perfume worth nearly a year’s wages. Both can make the onlookers and indeed the reader, somewhat uncomfortable.
John tells us though, that Jesus accepts it all graciously and gives her action meaning. He allows himself to be ministered to. That is one point.
More, according to John, the woman doesn’t speak. When this story, or versions of it, is told in all the other Gospels she never speaks, though everyone else has plenty to say about what she has done. She doesn’t speak, she acts. In the midst of carp and small mindedness and terribly good common sense, her somewhat bizarre, loving actions echo down the centuries and as John so poetically puts it, ‘fill the whole house with fragrance.’
A final thought for those not really in a position to pour out a year’s wages or not inclined to show their knickers (men included) at a dinner party – there are times when it is not prudent but nevertheless necessary, to put yourself in a place where good sense does not reign. If today, God gives you the opportunity to go beyond yourself, to be a bit foolish, to open your home, or your heart, or your closed mind, or your purse – grasp it. In Christ, all love is graciously received and given meaning.
Today, Lord Jesus let me know and share your love; teach me the way I should walk and help me walk it in wonder. Amen
The Rev’d Ros Lyle is a retired minister working in Thames North Synod and a member of Muswell Hill.