Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Jesus defends an extravagant gift of devotion.
Theodore J. Hartwig
This dinner in honor of Jesus happened six days before the Passover, and, as Matthew reports in his gospel (26:6-13), the host was Simon the Leper. Undoubtedly, Jesus had healed Simon of a disease that had made him a social outcast for many years. So it is not unusual that “leper” became fixed to his name, an enduring reminder of his gift from Jesus. This dinner was a special occasion for Simon, a way to show his gratitude to Jesus and to invite others not only to share in his joy but also to show Jesus honor and praise themselves.
MARY’S SPECIAL GIFT
Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, was a guest at the meal. The previous chapter recorded the astonishing miracle of his return to life after being dead four days. We know nothing about the state of his existence during his four-day sleep in the tomb. As might be expected, Martha was busy at her specialty of preparing and serving the meal. It was a chastened Martha. We hear not a word of criticism that Mary was not helping her. Jesus was the focus of attention at the banquet. His disciples as well as other guests were also there for this dinner in honor of Jesus.
With her expression of loving devotion for Jesus, Mary unexpectedly became the center of everyone’s attention. The perfume she poured on his feet was generous, an entire pint. It was also of highest quality. That its fragrance penetrated the room evidences its high value. It was derived from nard or spikenard, a bush native to the far-away Himalayas. Mary spent a great deal of money for this special gift for Jesus.
Then we come to Judas Iscariot, the villain of the story. Supported by the other disciples in Matthew’s account, he criticized Mary for what they called her prodigal use of costly perfume. Judas was from the town of Kerioth in Judea and may have been the only non-Galilean of the Twelve. He may also have been the most educated, which could account for his having been entrusted with keeping the common purse used for the gifts gathered from Jesus’ admirers. Judas certainly seems knowledgeable about the value of the perfume, which was worth a year’s wages. But his concern for the poor was sham talk. His fingers dipped habitually into the purse, not to cover the cost of expenses but to line his own pocket. It seems that the disciples were not yet aware of it, and though Jesus knew “what was in each person” (John 2:25), he did not use his authority to veto Judas’s office. Let the disciples discover this mundane truth at its own good time.
We feel the full impact of Judas’s fault-finding when we put ourselves into Mary’s place. When criticized by Judas and the others, she must have wanted to crawl into a hole. At huge cost to herself, she had shopped for a gift that would express the dimensions of her gratitude to this man who was her Savior. He deserved the very best from her. And, throwing all Jewish conventions to the wind, she let down her hair in public to dry the feet she had anointed. Yet what reward had come of it from the bystanders? Grating on her ears and sensibilities, Mary was crushed by the critical voice of Judas and seconded by the other disciples. More than everyone else in that dining room, these men should have known better.
JESUS’ IMPORTANT MESSAGE
In the highly charged atmosphere around the table, it was vital that Jesus come to Mary’s rescue. Judas had rendered a judgment that for the practical-minded guests must have seemed common sense. Jesus might have scored Judas for his accusation. He might have said to Judas as he said to Peter for contradicting Jesus’ prediction of his death, “Get behind me, Satan” or, in this context, “Get behind Mary, Satan.”
But Jesus spoke on a far higher plane than defending Mary for her human devotion. Of course the poor for whom Judas seemed so sympathetic needed the service of others, and poor people are always present to be helped. But Jesus will not always be at hand. On its higher spiritual plane, Mary’s perfume anointed Jesus’ body for burial.
Such words, however, ran counter to the hopes and aspirations of most guests at the table. True to human nature, their minds were set on earthly things, not on things above. They expected Jesus to liberate them from their Roman masters and, like David, to establish another glorious Jewish kingdom on earth. At least they wanted him to be always with them to speak of God’s grace and to perform miracles like the one performed for Simon. They did not want to hear Jesus speak about his burial.
In the face of this negativity, Jesus kept to his message and mission. He did not flinch from his Father’s assignment. Of this determination, Isaiah writes of Jesus in his prophecy: “I have set my face like flint.” (50:7). Despite all the wrong ideas about his mission harbored by friends and followers, Jesus remained faithful to the mission he had come to complete. He was determined to go to Jerusalem to suffer, die, be buried, but also to rise again. In Matthew’s account of Mary’s devotion, Jesus enhances his defense of Mary with this forecast: “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (26:13).
Commendation does not come any higher. And it remains as Jesus said: This episode still holds a high place among the four gems from John.
Theodore Hartwig, professor emeritus at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
This is the third article in a four-part series on the gems of John.
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Author: Theodore J. Hartwig
Volume 103, Number 3
Issue: March 2016
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