It was a rather unusual dinner party. There was Jesus who had just come in from the cold. Ever since he had raised Lazarus from the dead there had been a price on his head. So he had been hiding out in the wilderness with his disciples.
And speaking of Lazarus. He was there, too. It was actually his house. He was as alive as ever, and nobody could quite figure it out. They had not only seen him dead, but smelled him dead. But here he was now, and he was no ghost.
These were not dinner parties as we think of them. There wasn’t a whole lot going on in places like Bethany, so when someone threw a dinner party, uninvited people came. Not to eat. But to watch. They would either crowd in the courtyard or the dining room and watch people eat and try to catch their conversations. Doesn’t sound like great entertainment, but what were the alternatives? And besides, it was free.
So there was Jesus, the wanted man and Lazarus, the dead guy who was alive again. If that wasn’t enough to keep people talking for days and weeks to come, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, starts to do something quite unexpected. She has this jar of super expensive lotion and starts massaging Jesus’ feet with it. And then like some common tart, she lets down her hair and uses it to dry the feet of Jesus. The people who were watching, who got in free remember, must have had their jaws dropping. None of them would probably see anything like this dinner party ever again.
Then Jesus and one of his posse, Judas, get in this argument. Nobody could quite figure out how Jesus and Judas ended up hanging out together anyway. And why had Jesus made him the Treasurer when everyone knew he was a crook? Nobody was surprised when they found out if was Judas who ratted Jesus out.
They were arguing about what Mary was doing. Judas thought is was scandalous, but not in the way most of the people there thought it was scandalous. In a culture where there was strict separation between men and women like there still is any many Middle Eastern countries, this was beyond imagining. And he called himself a Rabbi! This is exactly why you get them married off as soon as you can.
That’s not what concerned Judas, though. He was thinking about the money. “Do you know how many hungry people we could have fed with what this woman spent on that ointment she just dumped on your feet?” As if Judas was really looking to feed hungry people. Most likely he was looking for anyway to build up the purse, and not for his personal gain. He was supporting the armed rebellion against Rome, and was more than a little frustrated that Jesus hadn’t joined. But Judas was maybe looking for ways to fund the rebellion.
Who knows? Jesus may have well agreed with him, about the money for the poor anyway. But what’s he going to say? “Mary, you shouldn’t have done that.” It’s not like he could have scooped up the ointment and put it back in the bottle, and gotten three hundred pieces of silver for it, anyway. Instead, he honored Mary for what was doing. And what was she doing?
Mary was simply trying to find a way to respond to Jesus and what he meant in her life. She was grateful to this man who had shown her a path to God she had never seen before, and the man who had raised her brother from the dead. And she didn’t care what anybody in the room thought about what she was doing. What she was doing, she was doing for Jesus. Let them think and say what they want. Who cares if it’s the main topic in Bethany for the next year?
Did Mary really know she was anointing Jesus for his burial? There are, at least, two ways you can look at that. The first is that she had no idea that Jesus was about to die. She just needed to do something to show her devotion to him. Jesus, in his response to Judas, may have been elevating Mary’s intent beyond what she came into that room with. It could have been as much of a surprise to her as anyone else in that room that she was preparing him for his death, which is just a few days off.
Or she may have known exactly what she was doing. You get the sense, from the little we read in the gospels, that she paid attention. This was the Mary that sat at the feet of Jesus listening to what he was saying, while her sister Martha did all the work in the kitchen. And don’t confuse her with Mary Magdalen, which many do. This is Mary, the sister Martha and her formally dead Lazarus.
She paid attention to what Jesus said and what was going on around him. She must have known that his talk and actions would get him in trouble with the religious and political authorities. And neither were willing to put up with any challenge to the status quo. Rome crucified Jews by the hundreds.
In the passage just before this the religious establishment gets together to figure out what to do about Jesus. They are all in an uproar. “If we let him go on, pretty soon everyone will be believing in him and the Romans will come and remove what little power we have left.” The High Priest, Caiaphas, had a simple solution. “Don’t you know anything? Can’t you see its to our advantage that one man dies for the people rather that the whole nation be destroyed?”
I doubt such talk would have surprised Mary. She knew how things worked and she may have well realized that Jesus wasn’t going to survive much longer. So maybe now was the time for her to show her devotion rather than saving the ointment to rub on his dead body.
While we are remembering which Mary is was who anointed Jesus with that expensive ointment, let’s also make sure we understand what Jesus was really saying about the poor always being with us. This is a passage that has been readily ripped out of context to suggest that Jesus was saying we really ought not to concern ourselves about the poor since we won’t really be able to do anything about poverty, anyway.
If there was anyone who demonstrated care and concern for the poor it was Jesus. He very much believed that there was something we could and should for the poor. We can feed the poor, we can advocate for the poor, we can remind the poor and everyone else that God seems to have a special concern for the poor.
Jesus doesn’t at all suggest we abandon the poor. In fact, Jesus made it clear that following him was about turning toward the poor and the powerless and away from the rich and powerful.
Mary would have plenty of opportunity in the future to spend her money on the poor. But her days with Jesus were short.
So what does this story mean for us? Is it on the level of entertainment for us as well? It’s kind of an interesting story with all its details about Jesus and Lazarus and Mary. But how does this word from God change us? What are we willing to risk to show our devotion to Jesus? Mary wasn’t just risking her bank account on Jesus. She put her reputation on the line. She didn’t care about that expensive perfume. She didn’t care what all the folk were going to say about her after that dinner party.
Mary, abandoning all sense of propriety washed Jesus feet with her hair. A few days later Jesus, abandoning all sense of propriety stooped to wash his disciples feet. Who learned from whom?
We know that Jesus sustains and nurtures us. But in this story Mary sustains and nurtures Jesus. What is it that we are willing to anoint Jesus with? What can we offer to sustain him?
I think what keeps Jesus going is lives that are devoted to him and his ways. He went to a cross and trusted God to raise him from the dead, all for the sake of a movement. It’s a movement toward God and to what God wants for this world. Jesus didn’t mean that all to start and end with him. He’s looking to us to take this thing and run with it. All that stuff about loving God and loving our neighbors. All that stuff about making peace, trusting God, welcoming the outcast, learning how to forgive, tearing down the walls that divide us from God and each other; he wants us to spend our lives on it like he did. That’s what sustains him.
That was some crazy dinner party. And things were about to get crazier. Are we going to be the ones watching what’s happening, or the ones everybody is talking about after the party is over? And what are they going to say?