Sometimes it’s fun for me to play the “Bible-smarty-pants” game. I invite people to ask me a Bible question and then with dignity and a lofty tone I answer the question. Of course, I’m quick to point out that I actually don’t know everything and more often than not have to answer, “I don’t know the answer to that one. Let me study a little bit and get back to you."
Now, however, let me simply offer some “Bible smarty pants-ness” as it relates to this week's scripture reading from John 12:1-8.
A story of a woman anointing Jesus with expensive perfume is in all four gospels. Scholars debate whether they are the same story or not. Regardless, the stories are similar. You can find the other stories in Matthew 26:7-13, Mark 14:3-9 and Luke 8:36-50.
Here are some things to keep in mind about this week’s reading:
- Mary from Bethany is not Mary Magdalene. In the other passages an unnamed woman pours out the perfume on Jesus. She is called “a sinner” in the other passages. Mary Magdalene is also identified as “a sinner.”
- Mary Magdalene – who is not mentioned in this passage, was nonetheless not a prostitute. Since she was identified as “a sinner” many have made that jump. A woman who was “a sinner” was not a prostitute – she was poor. When Mary of Bethany wiped Jesus feet with her hair, she had to let her hair down. Some would argue that only a prostitute would do this. Neither Mary of Bethany no Mary Magdalene were prostitutes.
- Mary was the sister of Martha. The two of them had a brother, Lazarus. Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Because of that miracle (It is written about in the verses just before today’s reading.) A plot to kill Jesus had begun. Because people were seeing Lazarus and believing in Jesus, a plot to kill Lazarus was also hatching. That is written about just after today’s reading.
- Mary is the one who sat and listened top Jesus while Martha readied the house in Luke 10:38-42. Martha was angry that Mary wasn’t helping. Jesus said that both hospitality and listening to him were important.The perfume Mary used was made from pure nard. Nard (that doesn’t sound so high-filutin’, does it?) came from the roots of a plant grown in the Himalayas. The perfume she used was worth a year’s wages.
- Jesus is a scripture smarty-pants.
What’s happening in this reading has a lot of “wrong” in it.
- Mary, who was poor, used expensive perfume extravagantly.
- Mary let her hair down in the presence of men. Something like that could start rumors.
Nobody but Judas made a stink about the value of the perfume, the extravagance, and how the perfume was wasted.
- Judas was labeled as a thief. Many scholars see him as more of a political figure who was trying to “smoke out” the messiah by betraying him and forcing Jesus to come out with power. The writer of John simply says he was a thief.
- Nobody made a stink about the hair or the sensuality of what Mary did when she poured out, with abandon, her devotion and love on Jesus.
- Jesus said ‘the poor will always be around – but I won’t’
I’ve been spending most of my time contemplating two things in all of that.
- Mary poured out, extravagantly and with abandon, her devotion and love for Jesus
- Jesus said ‘the poor will always be around – but I won’t.
Mary’s uninhibited and extravagant display of affection for Jesus is something that makes me feel at least a little uncomfortable. The image of a woman anointing Jesus with perfume and drying his feet with her hair is intimate. There is strong sensuality in that image and in the brilliant fragrance of perfume that filled the house. And the sense of abandon and love that Mary displayed towards Jesus is uncomfortable on a sensual and a practical level. Can you imagine loving God in a way that is so “out there?” And while I’m feeling uncomfortable about this scene, I see that Jesus reacted with welcome and appreciation towards her.
- Can I love God with that kind of reckless abandon at our very core? How do I get to a place where that seems natural?
Something else that makes me uncomfortable is Jesus words at the end of the passage: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."Here, however, I know that Jesus was displaying his scripture smarty-pants-ness. He was quoting from Deuteronomy – the scroll that summed up the Torah – the law.
Deuteronomy 15:11 says this: Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."
Jesus knew that the people in the house knew the scriptures. Jesus knew that those in the house would not misunderstand his words as perhaps we have. He reminded them that caring for the poor was at the core of his ministry. He also reminded them that devotion and love for him was at the very core of caring for the poor.
- Can I care for others in a way that starts with unfettered love for Jesus?
Mary poured out the best she had to offer at Jesus' feet because she loved him. I pray that we all experience that love and devotion toward Jesus – and that we also share it with others – as all experience Jesus’ love poured out.