Has anyone ever given you a very expensive gift? How did you feel? That’s one way to begin thinking ourselves into the story of Mary of Bethany pouring her costly nard and anointing Jesus’ feet. We can only wonder how Jesus’ felt, but what we do know is that this was a very generous gift (worth at least a years’ wages). How would you feel if someone poured a very expensive perfume over your feet while you were enjoying a meal with your friends?
What we notice in the story is a huge contrast in attitudes. On the one hand we see Mary’s display of generosity and love, and on the other Judas, who rarely says anything, can’t help but throw up his hands in utter disbelief and horror and say, ‘What a waste! What an utter waste. Think what we could have done with that money?’ I must admit that part of me shares Judas’ sentiments at this point. We could employ a children and family worker for a whole year with money like that.
But of course the author of John’s Gospel told this story to people who knew the significance of anointing with oil. Kings and Priests were the only people who were anointed with oil symbolising that they were set apart for God’s purpose. Luke tells us that God anointed Jesus with Holy Spirit and power, and at his first sermon in Luke’s Gospel Jesus claims that the words of Isaiah the Prophet applied to him: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”
Jesus has often been described as a Prophet, Priest and King, anointed by God to announce the coming of God’s reign on earth, and in John’s Gospel Mary acts as the priest who anoints Jesus prior to his death on the cross. It’s another way of John’s Gospel telling us – in Jesus we see One who has come to share our life, know our struggles and challenges and open our eyes, our hearts and our minds to the presence of God among us. John is often described as ‘The Evangelist’ because all through his Gospel he gives us glimpses, hints, pointers to who Jesus really is, so that by the end of the book we can join with Mary and Martha, with Peter and Thomas and say of Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God’.
When we reflect on Jesus’ response we see that he defends Mary from being called a wastrel. He stands up for her, affirming her generosity, accepting her gift. Its so easy for us to rob people of the joy of giving by not accepting a gift because we are embarrassed. But we should not read into Jesus’ words that we are let off from caring for the disadvantaged. That’s certainly not what Jesus is saying. In that regard he is saying that the poor are always with us and so we have an on-going responsibility to work with and for them, but there are times when we also need to honour and mark significant events in our lives well. And this gift of oil, its fragrant beauty points us to WHO Jesus is. He is more than a prophet, more than a priest, more than a King, but he is all these things rolled into one and more.