THE ANOINTING OF JESUS
Mary poured onto the floor, via Jesus' feet, a whole year's wages of perfume. It was a show-stopping gesture; a remarkably sensuous act of devotion.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead sealed the death warrant of Jesus. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were well-connected pious Jews. His death and burial and subsequent emerging from the tomb like it was no more than a Sunday sleep-in were undeniable events. Jesus ensured this by taking so long to respond to the request of the sisters to come and heal their brother that by the time he arrived, there could be no ambiguity about the death, like some might have claimed a few minutes after he had stopped breathing.
Lazarus became a walking demonstration of the authority of Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders knew a tipping point had been reached, where Jesus had to be dealt with once and for all. ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation’, they exclaimed. Not for the first or the last time in history, a ruling establishment, desperate to preserve its position, wrapped up their self-interest in the cloak of religious nationalism.
This is the immediate background to the story of the anointing of Jesus in John 12, six days before the Passover where he would be betrayed. The last time Jesus had turned up at Bethany, Martha and Mary had both passively confronted Jesus with his failure to be there in time to heal Lazarus. This time the mood was celebratory; only Jesus knew he was entering the final days of his human life.
In an earlier encounter, Jesus had gently reprimanded Martha for being pre-occupied with the housework while he was teaching others. It seems nothing had changed because Martha was serving while Mary performed a stunning act of devotion, pouring a pint of expensive perfume over the feet of Jesus and wiping them with her hair. How often do you see a pint bottle of perfume on display on the fragrant, over-manicured counters of the cosmetics section of a department store? You would have to be the wife of an oligarch to afford some brands. Judas had calculated the cost very quickly. Mary had poured on to the floor, via Jesus’ feet, a whole year’s wages of perfume.
It was a show-stopping gesture; a remarkably sensuous act of devotion. If this story had not been included in the Gospels, it is not one we would have imagined taking place, so intimate is the scene of Mary’s touch. Yet it came from the voluptuous heart of the Song of Solomon, where the worship of God is described in the poetry of erotic love. Though we adore the Lord in a different way to a lover, there are strong similarities in the depth of desire and longing, in the trust and self-abandonment. Mary was drawing on a long tradition of intimacy in her love of God.
Judas’ calculating words, that the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor, are passed off as the avaricious contempt of a thief. As treasurer of the group, he was used to dipping a hand in to furnish his own desires. It is easy to pass off his words as cynical and corrupt and beneath right-minded people, but there is something deeper here that compels our honesty. Reckless acts of generosity towards God by other people challenge us; they can even threaten us, causing us to close our hearts to the message conveyed. On being faced with someone else’s act devotion to God, we can be critical, taking it apart piece by piece, as a way of making our own commitment look less insipid.
It is just as true of the good deeds of others; we find a way of distinguishing what they do from what we could but don’t. If we are able to make the actions of others look less noble, our own inertia is more readily excused. This might sound tasteless and unworthy, but we are often full of judging commentary on the lives of others, without thinking about the response God calls us to make to him. Judas’ use of the poor is emotionally manipulative, a cheap way in which to clinch an argument but one which does not hold up to scrutiny. On this basis we would never give presents to one another and re-direct all our money to charity. In some cases this has a place, but a community where people do not show their love for one another by the offering of gifts is impoverished and begins to take people for granted.
One of the reasons we find this story about Mary so peculiar is because we so are much less pre-occupied with God than we are with ourselves. To subvert the words of the often sung hymn, Lord, for the years, it is more true to say it is ‘Christ on the cross and self on the throne’ today. This has always been true of wayward humanity, but the culture of self-expression, allied to instant, universal communication means more of us are spending more time telling others about ourselves through words and pictures than ever before. If a youthful Mary had anointed Jesus today, she would probably have been tempted to take a selfie as the event unfolded as a way of placing herself at the heart of the moment. The bigger we become in our own eyes, the smaller God seems to us and the less worthy of praise and adoration until he becomes a bit player in the drama of our lives, like a check-out worker we get what we want from, say goodbye to and forget we met within minutes.
God inhabits the praises of his people, which is both an encouragement and something of a judgment on us. He is nearer than our heart-beat and yet our worship is sometimes so minimal and perfunctory that anyone looking in could be forgiven for thinking God is absent. Our worship is our witness; we offer it to draw the attention of others, like Mary did, to the presence of royalty. We use our gifts, like her, so that others, in the words of 1 Corinthians 14:25, ‘will bow down before God and worship him, declaring “God is really among you”’.
Mary’s act is inspiring, challenging others to match her generosity to God. It asks us what gesture we wish to make towards God for the permanent sacrifice he has made for us. And it quietly asks us not to judge others when they try to live out their own commitment to Jesus. There is a famous cosmetics advert which has come to sum up our generation: we make ourselves up – men and women together – ‘because we’re worth it’. Mary’s extravagant use of the cosmetics at her disposal makes a different case. It’s because he’s worth it. So what exactly is he worth to us this day?
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