Mary took a pound of costly perfume made out of pure nard, anointed Jesus’s 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?” — John 12:3-5
Judas raises a troubling question for everyone who is not destitute. As long as there is human need, how dare we spend our money on anything else? And Jesus’ answer—“The poor are always with you”—might seem equally troubling, if taken to accept economic inequality as inevitable. But Jesus was never complacent about the status quo. In both word and deed he lifted up the lowly—the ones either ignored or shamed by their culture—declaring them worthy of blessing and honor. As Jesus himself put it, he came to bring good news to the poor: Injustice has no future. God’s kingdom of loving interdependence is at hand.
Here’s how I read this text: “You can help the destitute any time you want, Judas. If your concern is sincere, they’ll still be around after I’m gone. But I won’t be. So don’t be so quick to judge this woman. If you could only understand what’s going on here, it would save your life.”
So what is going on here? A woman, Mary of Bethany, whose brother Lazarus had recently been rescued from death by Jesus, pours very expensive oil over the feet of her Lord, and then wipes those feet with her hair. It’s an extravagant gesture of devotion, gratitude and love. The oil, worth a year’s wages for a common laborer, may have cost Mary most of her wealth, while letting down her hair to do the work of a towel was, in that culture, a shocking display of abasement and vulnerability. In other words, she was offering all that she had and all that she was to honor Jesus.
This act, both sensory and symbolic, overflowed with meanings. Anointing with oil was a way to mark the special vocation and identity of authoritative figures, whether powerful rulers or holy persons. It consecrates them as chosen and set apart. The title of “Messiah” or “Christ” means “the anointed one.” It was revolutionary to have a woman be the one to anoint Jesus as priest and ruler, but so was the kingdom he came to manifest and embody.
Anointing was also part of the culture’s preparation of a body for burial. Performed in the week before Jesus’ death, Mary’s gesture inaugurates the sequence of sacrificial acts culminating with her Lord’s burial in the stone-cold tomb. The feet she anoints will walk the Way of the Cross for the salvation of the world. This was his chosen destiny.
The story’s third meaning is in its foreshadowing of the foot-washing, when Jesus, on the night before he died, knelt at the feet of his friends to perform the work of a servant, surrendering his power for love’s sake. He was teaching by showing: This is how we must be with one another. This is exactly how God is with us. Just a few days before Jesus taught this explicit lesson at the Last Supper, Mary of Bethany had performed it instinctively, offering all she had, holding nothing back.
At the time, the disciples did not grasp the full significance of Mary’s act. Nor did Mary herself. How could they? As we like to say about Holy Week, the journey is how we know. The disciples had to follow Jesus all the way to the cross—and beyond—before they could begin to understand—through memory and reflection—what it was all about.
One of the strongest triggers for memory is our sense of smell. When John’s gospel tells us that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” it sounds like a vivid personal memory. Recalling the fragrance, the disciples could revisit that moment to absorb all the meanings which had escaped them at the time.
As we make our own personal and communal journey through Holy Week, may we too immerse ourselves extravagantly in the sensory images and sounds of the Passion narratives and rituals, allowing them, by our faithful participation, to take us deeper and deeper into the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising in Christ.
As for Judas’ sour complaint, Sydney Carter’s Passion carol, “Said Judas to Mary,” nicely disposes of its false premise of either/or. Devotion to Jesus and loving service to “the least” of God’s family are not opposed. They are inseparable:
Said Jesus to Mary, “Your love is so deep,
today you may do as you will.
Tomorrow, you say, I am going away,
but my body I leave with you still.”
“The poor of the world are my body,” he said,
“to the end of the world they shall be.
The bread and the blankets you give to the poor
you’ll know you have given to me.”
Here is a lovely rendition of Carter’s Holy Week carol sung by Fiona Dunn: