This is a beautiful story – Well, Mary comes out of it as a person of love and generosity; Judas does not. Mary and Martha are also found in Luke’s gospel where Mary is the one who wants to listen and learn from Jesus, and Martha, as here, is serving the food. At the midpoint of John’s gospel is the raising of Lazarus from the dead (the previous chapter). John wants us to link the two events, the raising of Lazarus, and the anointing by Mary, his sister of Jesus’ feet.
We can presume the family are moderately well-off; they have a home and can entertain others, and Mary has bought this expensive perfume. But this is a costly, extravagant gesture, one of deep love – some men might find the idea of having their feet washed by a woman’s hair quite strange – and it is; it is a personal, loving, generous gesture. In the next chapter Jesus will wash the feet of his disciples, though only with water. Death, raised to life, washing, being washed, all these themes overlap in this part of the gospel.
Jesus’ feet are not there for us to wash; the modern equivalent is probably leaving a legacy to the church or to a Christian charity, not for a memorial plaque, but simply because we want to give something to God in thankfulness for what he has done for us and given to us. Mary did not do this to get a mention in the gospel; she did it from love, from a deep thankful love, not least because her brother was alive again.
And Judas, maybe like some of us, sees it as a waste; it does not fit his economics. John tells us he was a thief, someone who wanted money, though some scholars suggest that the early church began to condemn Judas. It is too easy to turn on someone we do not like and add to the vilification. Did the early church succumb? We don’t know. For us we contrast the generosity of Mary, the spontaneity, with the lack of generosity in Judas and his calculating reasons not to give.
There is, however, one way in which this passage has been misappropriated by some, who suggest that we do not need to help the poor – Jesus says there will always be poor so why help? This is a scandalous misappropriation of Jesus’ teaching. In a sinful greedy world sadly there will be the poor. We must love God with all our heart AND our neighbour; generosity should be both to God AND to the needy. Mary gave out of love, a deep appreciation of Jesus; we should give to God in a similar way, and we should also give generously to those in need out of care and concern for the victims in our world and those who have made bad choices. We would hope someone would do it for us, if we were in that situation.
May the joy and love of our giving create a beautiful aroma that will fill the house.
Rev’d Peter Reiss