Lectionary this week: Mary anoints Jesus
For those of us who have the nerve to think that Jesus was serious when he told us to serve the poor, this week’s gospel passage is disturbing. At first glance, Jesus seems reckless and more than a little self indulgent. When he’s forced to choose between meeting the needs of the poor and enjoying a high-priced pedicure, Jesus picks the pedicure.
But wait a minute … that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know. So, what are we missing?
The Passage: John 12:1-8 (NRSV)
1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
This is what generosity looks like
In John 12:1-8, we find Mary, the sister of Lazarus, applying expensive perfume to Jesus’ feet. And she’s doing it with her hair. A strange and scandalous thing to do, even by today’s standards.
In response, Judas (yes, that Judas), takes Jesus on a guilt trip. Although the passage implies that Judas planned to steal the money from the sale of the perfume, he raises a valid question. If Jesus is so committed to the poor, how could he tolerate the squandering of resources — resources that could be used to feed and clothe and care for the needy?
In Sand and Foam, Khalil Gibran said:
“Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.”
Unfortunately, I think we find it a lot easier to swallow the part about pride than we do the part about generosity. But Gibran’s definition of generosity gets to the heart of this week’s gospel passage.
When it comes to generosity, Jesus makes it clear that the ends never justify the means. Despite the ever-present need to provide material support to the less fortunate, the act of generosity cannot be constrained or limited.
In other words, there can be no half measures. Why? Because real generosity — the kind of generosity the gospel invites us to practice — is an all or nothing proposition.
Judas’ concept of generosity wasn’t very generous at all. Notice how quick he was to sell someone else’s perfume. It required nothing from him. There was no sacrifice, no selflessness, no giving.
Mary, on the other hand, held nothing back. Without shame, she gave more than a jar of perfume. She sacrificed her very essence, laying down her dignity and social status in an act that transformed generosity into worship.
At the end of the day, isn’t that what generosity is supposed to look like? Not a calculated and measured response to the guilt of our own affluence, but a radical and all-consuming way of living that transcends charity and becomes worship.