Was it a spur-of-the-moment thing? Or something Mary had in mind for a long time?
If it was impulsive, why did she have so much expensive nard-based perfume on hand?
Was Mary collecting this perfume because she loved exquisite fragrances? Or was she a wise investor, hedging her bets against volatile currency markets by putting her money in the equivalent of precious metals?
Either way, Mary’s perfume was worth the equivalent of just under a year’s wages.
But what if this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment matter but, instead, something she had planned for a long time, requiring a disciplined setting-aside of income over an extended period?
If she knew an event was probably forthcoming that would require this extravagant expression of love and devotion, how did she know it was likely to happen?
How did she know that her dear friend Jesus was liable to have a shortened life, an early death?
Did she have an intuition that something tragic was almost certain to occur? Or was it a more reasoned realization – perhaps a sense of inevitability about what would happen to such a radical rabbi?
Perhaps she knew he would incur the wrath and retribution of the religious, social, cultural and political establishments by the following:
â— His revolutionary teachings about the extraordinary care that was to be extended to the poor, the sick, the blind, the lame, the marginalized
â— His spectacular and attention-attracting miracles
â— His rash proclamations of what God (who he dared to call his divine parent) was bringing into reality – an inclusive, pervasive, all-encompassing community of love, a beloved community
Or was it some combination of her discernment of Jesus’ fate and her recognition that the time was now at hand for that fate to be realized?
Calculating that she wouldn’t be able to get to his cadaver after the ruckus of his crucifixion in order to anoint and embalm his body, had Mary made the decision to anoint Jesus, then and there, before, not after, his death?
Whether by spur-of-the-moment impulse or careful, extended planning, this was the time to fetch the perfume, break it open, lower herself to the floor at the feet of Jesus, pour out all of the exquisite perfume on those feet, and dry them with her hair as the fragrance from the perfume filled the air for all in the room to experience – maybe just once in their lives.
It was the ethicist Judas who questioned Mary’s extravagant act.
“Why wasn’t this perfume sold? It was worth around 300 silver pieces. Just think what that could have done to help the poor that Jesus is always telling us to give priority to.”
Judas probably wasn’t alone in his reaction to Mary’s extravagant act. Others in the room must have had the same thought in their minds.
But Judas was the treasurer, so he had some idea of what was at stake in real currency, and was known for not being able to keep a thought to himself.
I think Judas was raising a perfectly reasonable question – and one that deserved an answer. Still, there must have been a moment of stunned silence after the outburst by Judas.
All the eyes in the room must have turned to Jesus. How would he resolve the dispute between the spendthrift and the ethicist?
One was acting with a great sense of gratitude for the restored life of her brother and a great sense of impending loss, knowing that this would probably be the last time she saw Jesus alive.
The other was acting out of a sense of faithfulness to the principles that he had learned as a companion of Jesus and out of a sense of loyalty to him.
Jesus said: “Leave her alone.”
He explained: “Look, Mary bought and kept the expensive perfume so that she could use it for my burial.”
And then came the zinger: “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
After all those teachings about letting go of one’s riches and giving those riches to the poor, do we now have Jesus commending someone who wastes something really valuable on, what, an act of devotion directed to him?
Really? Yes, really.
In rabbinic theology at the time there were two kinds of “good works” – those that have to do with mercy and compassion and those that have to do with justice, whether that be giving to the poor and outcast or changing the economic and political systems that exploit the poor and vulnerable.
There was a general consensus that mercy and compassion were a more perfect expression of good works than justice. But my contention is that this bit of rabbinic theology doesn’t apply here.
If it did, then acts of mercy and compassion would always trump acts of justice. And I don’t think that formula can be sustained by the New Testament witness.
What, then, is going on here?
Let me suggest that Mary is making a one-time gift, not just for herself or for everyone in that dining room in Bethany, but a one-time gift for all of us who recognize that this Jesus was and is God’s anointed, chosen, revealing and redeeming one.
It was a gift that could only happen once in history, at that very time when Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem and live the last of his earthy days.
But thank God for Mary, who acted on our behalf with such extravagant generosity in her one-time gift.
And what is the consequence of her one-time gift?
It is simply this: that we who follow Jesus do not have to duplicate or outdo Mary. She has freed us from that obligation.
That, in turn, allows, frees and obligates us to devote ourselves to generous and repeatable acts of mercy and compassion, and to courageous and persistent acts of justice, reconciliation and peace.
Thanks be to God, for Mary’s one-time gift.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.