In the story from John’s Gospel, they are preparing for Passover, the annual festival to remember the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. The focus of the days of commemoration are the sacrifices in the Temple. That’s why Jesus and his friends are in Jerusalem, to participate in these acts of faithfulness and join in the festivities of their people.
At this point in his life, the leaders of the region had already decided that they had to get rid of Jesus, because he had captured the imagination of this masses. The leaders had decided that Jesus posed a threat to the delicate balance of power that they had worked so hard to establish, the peace they had negotiated with the Roman occupation. Jesus had been stirring up too much trouble as he went from village to village, gathering a following. The authorities had already told the communities around Jerusalem to keep watch for Jesus, to notify them as soon as he was spotted.
In our passage we find Jesus near Jerusalem, the royal city, the seat of power. He is keeping a low profile. He slips into the outskirts of Jerusalem, into the neighborhood of Bethany, about a two mile walk from the temple. He arrives in time for dinner with his friends. He’s there, with his cohort of disciples, at the house of his closest friends: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
Danger lurks at the edges of the meal—with spies in the neighborhood and with Judas in the dining room. But there, around the table, Mary, one of the hosts, takes costly perfume, expensive oil, and anoints Jesus. She washes the feet of their guest, their fugitive friend, perhaps on this last occasion when all of them would be together, one last celebration, the joy of fellowship, before the authorities take him away.
And there’s Judas, in a corner, watching the extravagance, the excess, the wastefulness, the irresponsibility. The whole scene is too much for him, far too extra. He calculates the cost in his head, then interrupts: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5). Three hundred denarii is about an average yearly salary for the middle class of that time and place. A year’s salary in that jar—that’s what Judas sees as Mary pours the ointment onto the feet of Jesus, then onto the floor: wasted money, squandered resources.
One way to read these Bible stories is to figure out who you’d be if you were there. I have to admit, Judas makes a lot of sense to me. It’s never good to see yourself in Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, the guy who tells the police where to find Jesus, to arrange for the arrest of Jesus. If you think you’re like Judas, then you should be rethinking things. At least that’s what I take from this passage, since I can see myself with Judas, wondering if this gesture of Mary is the best use of funds, given the needs of the people and the movement. After all, there’s a revolution to fund. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas asks a very sensible question.
Simple living. Sharing our wealth with the poor. Redistributing resources to the needy among us. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be about as Christians? There’s so much wastefulness going on in this story, just pouring all that money down the drain.
We’re in the middle of Lent, a season for spiritual discipline, for austerity. Forty days of taking stock of our lives, of paying attention, of self-reflection. A season of contemplation, of earnest living, of constraint.
And, today, during Lent, we have this story—of a dinner party, food and wine, a feast, Jesus with Mary and Martha and Lazarus and their friends, eating and eating and eating, a party just for the sake of a party, because they like being together.
There’s no self-denial in this scene. No restraint. No moderation. Just wasteful abundance—a celebration of life even though there is so much not to celebrate, because everyone in the story already knows that they are surrounded, that danger awaits them in the coming weeks. Everyone knows that the people in power, the authorities, are trying to arrest Jesus. In the story, even Jesus acknowledges that his time is short—that’s why, we read in verse seven, he talks about the anointing of his feet, this footwashing, as a preparation for his burial.
But, for now, none of that matters, with Mary and Martha and Lazarus and their friends around the table, at this supper before the last supper later in the week, this footwashing before that evening soon to come when he will take his turn and wash the feet of his disciples, his friends—later in that week, when Judas betrays him. But, for now, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, there is feasting and fellowship and joy.
We live in a world where danger lurks around the corner—with some in this world more endangered than others, where people wake up and pray for the miracle of survival in conflict zones. The pandemic over the past two years has also instilled in us a sense of all pervasive fear, in the air between us. A sense of danger also lurks as we peek around the corner, into the future, at the climate, at our environmental catastrophe.
Lent feels like our way of life these days—lent all year long, as we contemplate our lives, our mortality, our finitude, our wrongs, our need for repentance, in the midst of this world, with all the ashes around us. That’s why I think this story from the John’s Gospel is the right one for us, this scene of extravagance and fellowship in the face of dangers.
The good news in this story is that, in the middle of Lent, as Jesus begins his way toward the cross, there’s a celebration, there’s joy, there’s grace poured out like oil, wasted on feet, on a friend who will soon be crucified.
In the story, Mary shows us what the Christian life looks like—to love without calculation, to care for a life without any kind of cost-benefit analysis, even if the Judases among us, the Judases in our heads, think that such love is wasteful and irresponsible.
Mary shows us what the Christian life looks like because, in her act, we catch a glimpse of what God looks like—in her care for a life in danger.
If I might be a little like Judas in the story, then God is like Mary in her extravagant love.