The scene in today’s gospel reading takes place straight after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. We’re told they’re in the middle of a dinner for Jesus, and Mary comes up and anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. For reference, in today’s dollars, the cost of the nard would have been the equivalent of $38,000! Yep - take a moment to let that truly sink in. Picture a jar opening and $38,000 pouring out in front of you, on to someone’s feet!
Imagine yourself being there. What’s your gut reaction? Mary just took her most valuable possession, likely her inheritance, since women wouldn’t inherit land, and poured it out on the feet of Jesus! Others will declare Jesus to be the anointed Messiah, the promised Son of David, Mary’s actions show a whole hearted, fully devoted belief that expresses itself in costly worship. Notice her posture, bowed down, humbly kneeling at the feet of Jesus, worshipping him in adoration and love. We’re told the whole house was filled with the fragrance of perfume.
Again, imagine yourself being there. Think how strong that perfume must have been. Other gospels report that it was also poured over Jesus’ head, and would have flowed down over his clothes and body. Could it be possible that the fragrance from this act of costly love and devotion stayed with Jesus on his skin and clothes all the way through the rest of Holy Week - all the way through the pain, the mocking, the rejection, injustice and evil? A reminder of the enduring power of love?
What produces this sort of worship in a person’s life? I’d say the testimony of Jesus by his words and deeds. Remember Mary was the one who took the invitation to sit at the feet of Jesus and to hear his teaching. She prioritised the word of God in her life, over the voices of her culture. She’s also just seen the power of God’s incarnate word and his power over the grave. Even without yet witnessing the full extent of God’s love and power in the death and resurrection of Jesus, she’s seen enough to respond in faith. Like the fragrance that fills the room bears witness to the pouring out of the oil, so Mary’s life bears witness to the pouring out of the love of God in Jesus.
Standing in contrast to Mary is Judas, whose avarice and self-interest brings only the fragrance of death to others.
(Note: “the poor will always be with you” - is not a rebuke of almsgiving - see the following line that Jesus is quoting in Deuteronomy. For context, there was a rabbinic conversation at the time as to what was more important, almsgiving or looking after the deceased. Jesus is speaking into this contemporary conversation. We often criticise a faith that is focussed on worship and praise without any action toward the poor, but it’s clear we should also be very careful of a purely social justice driven ministry that fails to worship or proclaim Jesus as the center of our testimony and behaviour. Jesus calls us to both. Love of God and love of neighbour.)
Also in the room is Lazarus. He’s just been brought back from the grave! We see that his life is now a testimony to others, and many are coming to faith in Jesus through his witness. People who experience new life tell others, even though some (here, the chief priests) would have them silenced. What opportunities do we have to testify to Jesus in word and deed this Holy Week? What acts of costly worship and faith can we offer to bear witness to Jesus, the King who brings fullness of life? What would hold us back?
Lastly, don’t miss the two big ironies in this text. One, the chief priests are plotting to send Lazarus back to the grave - even though Jesus has just shown the grave has no power over him! And two, at the center of this story, is Jesus. Having raised someone else from the dead, he is now about to die as a sacrifice for others. The invitation for all of us today, is to have Jesus and his offer of life as the center of our stories too.
How would your life change if you knew, in your deepest being, that Jesus had the power over death, and you need not fear the grave?
How would your life change if you knew, in your deepest being that God was truly a good Father who provides for his children? That we didn’t have to hold tightly to our possessions?
I think we’d be free to live lives of great worship, generosity and love. Lives that fill our communities with the fragrance of costly, sacrificial love. A loving, non-anxious presence amidst a world of turmoil and pain.