Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
Okay, I already know the answer to this question, but I will pose it anyway: have you ever uttered a complaint about something only to learn that your complaint not only has no basis, it is clearly out of line? I think we can all bow our heads a little and answer in the affirmative. And, if we don’t recall doing so, I suggest we ask someone who helped raise us in childhood. Thought so…
The Wednesday of Actual Holy Week doesn’t appear to have much happening… except it has an amazing thing happening: this anointing is happening. There is a “mood” in Jesus’ circle of friends that is both anxious and anticipatory. Jesus is behaving in a somewhat more edgy manner and has been for a few weeks.
Yet, having “set his face like a flint” (Isaiah 50:7) towards Jerusalem, towards his arrest, brutalization, death, resurrection, and ascension, he cannot be dissuaded from allowing the cards to be played out as they are dealt. Imagine how the disciples felt when he made his triumphal entry into the Holy City of Jerusalem. This is “their guy,” the miracle working prophet who chose them to live with and love with and shake up the powers that be with. This parade, however organic and seemingly spontaneous, was a big deal, and they know it. Maybe all those dreams of Messianic Power and Glory weren’t just dreams, after all. Maybe Jesus is launching a people’s revolution to overthrown the Romans and the Jewish leaders who cooperate with them.
It does seem to them, though, that Jesus is somewhat “edgy” these days. That business with the fig tree may have shocked a few of them, and now there is this situation with the nard and the seeming excess of the moment. Edgy. Wasteful? Out of character? Let’s try to be a fly on the wall way back then, in that room at that time…
This situation is recorded in each of the gospels, which is a rare thing. It’s not stretch to say that such “reporting” suggests that this was such an important “anointing” that the gospel writers and their early church readers regarded this event as being extremely telling and important. Fact is, readers of the gospels throughout the ages should apply the same degree of “valuing” to this story. But, why is it so important, and why should it move us?
Most scholars agree that the amount of nard poured out onto Jesus by Mary was worth at least a year’s salary for an average worker in those days. Thus, the outcry that this act was over the top, extravagant, even downright wasteful. But, not to Jesus. Not to the Father. Not to the Holy Spirit. As “owner of everything,” God has no economic limits for how we might best worship him, how we might best comfort him, how we might best anoint him for a challenge ahead.
Now, we don’t know about conversations Jesus may have had with Mary (and/or Martha) ever since Lazarus was raised from the dead. But, we can expect that they talked – and they talked heavy stuff – and that Jesus shared that he was soon to experience a pain and brokenness that is incomprehensible to us. Mary clearly knows something about the pressure he is under or is about to undertake. And she must honor and worship him. And he must receive her honor and worship. No amount of extravagance is too great for God, for his extravagance is immeasurable towards his people. Towards you. Towards me.
We do know that Judas Iscariot shows his true colors in trying to seize the high moral ground here. And there may have been others who appreciated that he had spoken up about this excess. But, not Jesus. Not even a little bit. Not at all. Judas is a selfish fool, and Jesus knows it already. Jesus makes certain that Mary receives the heart lifting reward of appreciation from him, a reward “nonpareil” to any other. She knows what he knows: he won’t be around like this much longer, and she is going all out to adore him. And something in him receives this adoration with humility and honor. Classically Jesus. Classically holy. Classic.
Great, great story, this. Now, how do we allow this story to work on us, to move us, to cause us to love Jesus more? I look at it through a certain filter of my own experience in Christian organizations for more than forty years. It is not unusual for issues to surface in which spending vs. saving come to the fore, nor is it unusual for spending on people to be considered vs. spending on places or things. Still happens and probably always will. Sue and I speak periodically of a meeting we were in decades ago at a different fellowship than Jacob’s Well. This is how it went down…
We were at a board meeting. We were both board members. She was the Sunday School Superintendent and had a very modest proposal to upgrade the resources used to minister to the dozens of kids under her leadership. Turned down. Not much discussion, but too expensive. “Sorry, Sue, but we just can’t afford it.” In a matter of minutes, the same board enthusiastically endorsed spending $55,000 to redo the covering of the parking lot.
We were stunned. We were sad. And, yes, we were angry. I say with all humility that we felt like we valued kids’ souls more than the fact that our parking lot had a few cracks in it. In retrospect, rather than seethe with righteous indignation, I should have had us all turn to this pericope in the gospels. I should have assumed a teaching stance. But, I wasn’t the pastor, I wasn’t in charge in any way, and I didn’t say much. And that was my weakness in action. I knew what Jesus valued, but I didn’t fight for it like I should have. We came home rather jaded and truly disappointed. Still bothers me, really.
But, here’s the good news: I think both Sue and I turned a corner after that incident. We decided we could fight the “old guard,” we could promote our view of Kingdom principles without apology; in fact, we could propose and promote them with confidence that we were applauding Mary’s act of love towards Jesus. And that’s the key: value people more than things; value love expressed more than savings withheld; value the kind of extravagance that mirrors that of God Himself.
Clive says: “The allegorical sense of her great action dawned on me the other day. The precious alabaster box which one must break over the Holy Feet is one’s heart. Easier said than done. And the contents become perfume only when it is broken. While they are safe inside they are more like sewage. All very alarming.
from a letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, 1954