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 word ‘anointed’ appears three times in John’s Gospel, by my count. In Chapter 1, Andrew tells Simon Peter “‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed)”, and then there are two references to this story – slightly oddly, Mary is described in Chapter 11 as ‘the one who anointed’ Jesus, even before we get to this story in Chapter 12! [I can hear my writer friend Fiona giving John editorial feedback: “You’ve got too many Marys in this story. Give your characters names with different initials so the reader can remember which is which!”].
What an interesting anointment, though. Not anointing with holy oils on the head as a King or Priest might be, but anointing with burial perfumes on the feet – and by a woman, not some powerful man. Not for the first or last time, Jesus’s life confounds those who are expecting a mighty king or warrior. I see a parallel with Matthew’s story of the Magi; their gifts included frankincense and myrrh, with their costly fragrance and use for anointing. Even in life, Jesus is brought gifts that prefigure death. It feels incongruous – almost like asking a dinner guest to stand up so we can measure them for their coffin!
I think Mary had a sense that she wouldn’t have Jesus for long, and wanted to show the depth of her love and respect. After all, the rumblings have already started after the raising of Lazarus. The way she lives in the moment is shocking to Judas, who can think of better ways to spend her money (though John comments that his concern for fiscal prudence had a darker motivation). Is it shocking to us, conditioned to think of saving for rainy days and to shun excessive consumption?
Lord, We give thanks for those like Mary, who have the perception to see what we cannot or will not.
Help us when we hesitate and fail to act because we might need to do something else later.
Challenge us when we fail to rejoice because we think sorrow is just round the corner.
Prompt us to hear your call now and not just when it’s convenient to us.
And may we live life in its fullest, and enable our neighbours to do so too.