Isn’t it a great story, our gospel reading today? It’s a really dramatic scene. Jesus, Lazarus and their friends at the table, Martha serving the meal, and then suddenly there’s Mary behaving absolutely outrageously, pouring out this precious perfume over Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair.
When you picture the scene, I wonder how you picture it? What kind of room? What is the atmosphere like, and how does it change when Mary starts acting so strangely?
And I wonder where you find yourself in this story? Are you more of a Mary or a Martha? Are you among the disciples at the table, or an onlooker? Do you put yourself in the place of Lazarus? Or Jesus?
I’m afraid I run into a bit of a problem here. In this narrative, the person I really automatically identify with is Judas. Yes, “Judas Iscariot, the one who was to betray Jesus”. That’s not a great place to be, is it? Identifying myself with Judas is not exactly something that’s encouraged for trainee priests, I don’t think.
But… he’s got a point, hasn’t he? What Mary’s doing is absolutely outrageous. It’s such a waste! Just think what could have been done with the money if she hadn’t wasted all that precious perfume on Jesus. It’s hard to say how much 300 denarii is in modern terms, but in Jesus’ times it was roughly the equivalent of the average annual wage. A year’s pay – by any standards, that’s a serious amount of money. Just think how many hungry people you could feed with that. It’s the sort of donation most food banks can only dream of. And here she is, this upstart Mary, just pouring it away at Jesus feet. Money down the drain. No wonder Judas was angry.
Yes, I can see where Judas is coming from. His is a very reasonable, rational, even sensible response. But Jesus looks for something more than that in his followers. And he finds it in the utterly unreasonable actions of Mary.
To understand why Mary does something so outrageously extravagant, so wasteful, we need to understand the context. In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, Mary’s brother Lazarus has died. Yet here he is, sitting and eating with Jesus. How come? Because Jesus himself has raised Lazarus from the dead. And not only that, he has done it with such love. Lazarus is described to Jesus as “he whom you love”, and Jesus weeps when he hears that Lazarus is dead. There is no doubt Jesus loves his friend Lazarus, and Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha too, and he demonstrates that love in the most extraordinary way possible, by bringing Lazarus back to life.
It is in response to this love that Mary pours her precious perfume over Jesus’ feet. And when you understand that, suddenly it doesn’t seem quite such a strange thing to do. Mary is giving the most precious thing she has to Jesus, because Jesus has given something far more precious to her and her family – life itself.
Mary in this sequence embodies the idea that “we love because God loves us first”. She is pouring out not only her perfume but her love for Jesus in the most extravagant way she can, precisely because Jesus has poured out his love for her, and will do so again, infinitely more than she could imagine, in the death and resurrection for which she is preparing him. And so he does for us too – pouring out such abundant love for each one of us.
Mary knows how much Jesus loves her, and she responds with her own outpouring of love. What can we learn from her response about how we too might respond to Jesus’ love for us?
Mary gives out of her abundance. She gives what is precious to her, and she gives incredibly generously, but she doesn’t give what she doesn’t have, and she doesn’t give in ways which damage or diminish her.
She gives freely. Her giving is unexpected, and it is un-coerced. Nobody – least of all Jesus – demands that she give anything at all. It is her own free choice to respond to Jesus, and her own free choice to respond in the particular way she does.
And when Mary gives, that giving is life-giving – both for her, as she becomes more truly herself in the presence of Jesus, and for Jesus, as he receives such love and generosity. And also for us, as we encounter Mary’s witness in scripture.
How can those three things – giving out of abundance, un-coerced, and in ways which are life-giving, inform our own response to Jesus?
We too are called to give out of our abundance. It is a truism that “you can’t give what you haven’t got”. God gives to each of us gifts which we can use to give to God and our neighbour, but we need to be offering the gifts we’ve got, not the gifts we wish we had, or the gifts other people wish we had. Giving out of our abundance is a source of joy. If what we give doesn’t bring us some measure of joy, we might want to consider whether there is a different way we could be giving, which is more in keeping with who we are and the gifts the Holy Spirit has given to us for the common good.
We too are invited to give in response to the love we encounter in Jesus, but never coerced. The church has a long and shameful history of trying to force people into a particular response in ways that are coercive and abusive – whether that’s expecting women to be silent, or gay people to be celibate, or people of colour to be subservient – but that is not the way God works. God does not coerce. God does not demand. God does not force us. God does not expect payment, or tit-for-tat, or a thank you card. God simply loves. God simply is love. Our response is up to each of us.
And we, like Mary, are called to give in ways which are life-giving rather than life-draining for us, as well as for those to whom we give. “I have come that you may have life in all its fullness” says Jesus. Not “I have come that you may offer life in all its fullness to other people at the expense of your own life”. That’s not how Jesus works. If it’s not life-giving for both giver and receiver, then it might not be what God is calling us to.
“That’s all very well”, you may be thinking by now, “but there’s work to be done. Folks need feeding and housing, and helping with their benefits forms, and listening to, and somebody’s got to do it”. It’s a fair point.
But perhaps the most important thing Mary points us to in this story is that our giving – all our giving, of time, talents and money, of ourselves in service of our neighbours – needs to be rooted in an encounter with Jesus.
Mary models an encounter with Jesus which transcends the rational, the sensible, the transactional. In her response to Jesus, she shows a generosity, an extravagance – a waste, even – which we (like Judas) might find quite shocking. And she does it because she has been transformed by her encounter with Jesus, and her way of seeing and relating to the world around her has been so transformed, that her priorities are different.
When we encounter Jesus in worship, whatever form that worship takes, we too are entering into an encounter which should transform and go on transforming the way we see and interact with the world. Generosity, extravagance, waste. These are some of the characteristics of encounter with Jesus – for Mary and for us.
Worship is, quite frankly, a waste of time. And that’s exactly the point of it. In a world dominated by concern for productivity and efficiency, we set aside time for worship which – unlike almost everything else we do – has no measurable outcomes, no targets or benchmarks, no indicators of ‘success’. Like Mary pouring out her perfume, wasting it at Jesus’ feet, we pour out in worship our time, our attention, our hearts, minds, souls, our very selves.
And when we do, when we choose to waste time with Jesus in this way, like Mary wasting her expensive perfume, we come to see things differently. Our priorities change. We learn more and more – and it is a lifetime’s learning – to see the world through grace-tinted lenses.
That ongoing transformation affects everything. But perhaps most of all it affects the way we serve and give. It is very easy to make our social action, our serving and giving, about what we ought to do. We ought to love our neighbour. We ought to feed people who are hungry. We ought to stand up against oppression and work for justice. Life can become one long series of ‘ought’s. And that’s exhausting and draining, and the very opposite of the life-in-all-its-fullness which Jesus wants for us all.
But when we reframe our action as a response to loving encounter with Jesus, it becomes not an obligation, an ‘ought’, but a freely given response. We love and we give and we serve not because we ought to, but because God loves us first. Truly Christian service always springs from life-giving encounter with Christ.
Jesus calls us, as he called Mary, to step out of an economy of obligation – all those ‘ought’s – into an economy of grace, of loving response to the infinite love we encounter in Jesus. This is the alternative economy of God’s kingdom, based not on obligation but on gift, not on scarcity but on generosity, not on fear but on hope. It is encounter with this grace-filled, hopeful, generous, loving reality that transforms us and moves us to respond. And by our response, by our own loving generosity, we invite others into this changed reality.
When we live our lives rooted in our transforming encounter with Jesus, we demonstrate that there is another way to live, driven not by fear or obligation or anxiety, but by outrageously extravagant love, freely poured out for all. That is immensely attractive – living and giving and serving in that way is perhaps our most effective witness to who Jesus is and what God has done and is doing – and it is also the means by which God is transforming the whole of creation, drawing all things to Godself.
May God give each of us, like Mary, the courage to live and give and serve in ways which are rooted in a life-changing encounter with Jesus.