CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Extravagant Gifts
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (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.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
- John 12:1-8
The gospel for the fifth Sunday in Lent is one of the most tender devotions anyone has ever given our Lord. It is a moment of such intimacy and tenderness that I almost feel like a “peeping Tom” when I read it.
Six days before the Passover– or five days before Jesus was to be crucified– Jesus came to Bethany– a little town only a mile and a half east of Jerusalem. He came to the home of his best non-apostle friends: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. This was shortly after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Mary and Martha, whose grief over the death of their brother turned to joy when Jesus raised him from the dead, were offering their profound gratitude by hosting Jesus at a dinner.
Martha, who was a leading figure of faith when Jesus raised Lazarus, now takes the role of a servant attending to Jesus. She naturally enacts what Jesus will tell his disciples at the last supper: “I am among you as one who serves” and she has become the ideal disciple by serving Jesus. And even Lazarus, now raised from the dead, was at the table.
Mary, out of deep love and devotion to Jesus, does a very strange thing. She anoints his feet. Now when a king was crowned, they would anoint his head. And when an honored guest would come for a visit, you might anoint their head. But anointing feet was a strange thing to do. A servant might offer to wash someone’s feet after a long and dusty journey. But if feet are calloused and less than beautiful today, they were horrifically dirty, rough and banged up in the days when people mostly walked in sandals.
Out of great humility and love, Mary of Bethany gave Jesus’s least honorable body part the highest possible human honor. She treasured, honored, and loved Jesus and was grateful to him for bringing Lazarus back to life.
Mary anointed Jesus’s feet not with any ordinary ointment, but with pure nard, which according to Judas cost three hundred denarii. That’s ten months wages! Spikenard is the essential oil from a flowering plant that grows in the eastern Himalayan mountains and costs about three thousand dollars a pint today.
Back then in terms of purchasing power, according to Judas the nard would cost about six thousand dollars, but in terms of ten month’s wages for a hard-working professional American craftsman– it would be equivalent to about forty-three thousand dollars today. She essentially took the purchase price of a mid-range car and splurged it on a fragrant oil! She poured forty-three thousand dollars on Jesus’s feet. It was an act of unique extravagance, unique devotion, unique generosity. It was Mary’s heartfelt statement that the least honorable part of Jesus’s body was more valuable than anything on this earth.
In those days, nard was used for a number of things, to reduce stress and anxiety, to treat epileptic seizures and strengthen the nervous system, and as an anti-depressant in the days before modern medicine. Think about what a gift that was to Jesus who was about to face the unthinkable time of his betrayal, arrest, trial, scourging, crucifixion, and death. Mary was doing everything she could (unbeknown to her), and at an unthinkable cost, to make his last week just a little bit less anxious and stressful.
Mary also pre-enacted how Jesus would wash the disciples’ feet at the last supper. And she did even more than wash Jesus’s feet. She anointed them. And she didn’t wipe those feet with a towel– an object. She wiped them with her own hair– a statement that she was eager to do anything she could do to honor Jesus, no matter how demeaning it might be.
John tells us, that perhaps because she wiped up the fragrant ointment with her hair, the beautiful smell spread throughout the house. In the horrible last week of Jesus’s life, a week filled with agony, pain, fear, dread, suffering, misery, and death– this was a rare and beautiful moment– a remarkable and loving oasis in a desert of brutality and barbarism.
But wickedness and deceit had to try to destroy even this beautiful moment. Judas Iscariot, the dishonest treasurer for the disciples, tried to throw a bucket of cold water on this beautiful extravagance. He said “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” He said the critical word about all gifts to the church, the critical word about every beautiful and loving gift anyone has ever given to the body of Christ.
Jesus responds to leave her alone, because she bought the ointment for the day of his burial. Mary is symbolically anointing Jesus before he dies.
Mary’s anointing was her hugely extravagant way of saying how much she treasured, adored, loved, and was thankful to Jesus. And we can always be thankful that Mary of Bethany expressed this love on behalf of all of us at this otherwise horrific time in Jesus’s life. She anointed his feet and wiped them with her hair on behalf of everyone who loves Jesus that much, and yet is untimely born. For she could do it, and she did not miss her opportunity, as extravagant as it was.
Over the twenty centuries since, people have made many extravagant gifts to Jesus. They have built hospitals, universities, cathedrals, churches and orphanages; they have given their lives to Jesus in convents and monasteries, they have endowed scholarships, and built pipe organs, and beautiful stained-glass windows, and silver and gold chalices, gospel books, crosses and candlesticks. They have done needlepoint, tatted lace, and embroidered fair linen, sewed altar hangings, and polished silver and brass. They have arranged flowers, and composed music, and offered time and talent singing in choirs. They have taught Sunday school, and served as acolytes, and have taken meals to folks who are sick. They have driven people to chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and they have done all these things and a million things more in order to show their love for Jesus, and in order to honor his body, the church.
We who are untimely born will never be able to do for Jesus what Mary of Bethany did at that dinner so long ago. And so, we do what we can to love, honor and treasure Jesus by loving, honoring and treasuring the people for whom he died. And we give thanks to Mary for doing for Jesus what we could never do.
So, be extravagant in showing your love for Jesus by demonstrating your love for his sisters and brothers. Don’t let miserly negative people get you down one minute. Show your love for people while you can give it and while they can receive it. And as you do your best to love extravagantly, remember Mary of Bethany and how she anointed Jesus’s feet of behalf of all of us who are untimely born.
The Rev. Edmund Pickup Jr. is a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: Caminando with Jesus