This dinner party was different from any other before or since. Jesus was the guest of honor in the home of sisters Martha and Mary and their brother, Lazarus. And Lazarus whom he had raised from his tomb was at the table with him, along with Jesus’ 12 disciples.
The home was in Bethany, a village on the far side of the Mount of Olives about two miles from Jerusalem. The meal was being served six days before Passover when crowds would flood Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Passover was the main Jewish feast of the year and the city was already beginning to stir in expectation.
The table posture of the guests would not fit our style today – they “reclined” on low-lying couches, resting on their left elbows and receiving and eating with their right hands.
Into this picture came Mary, sister to Lazarus. She carried a pint of very special ointment imported from India (worth nearly a year’s wages). Before the guests realized what was happening, she had broken its seal and poured its content lavishly on Jesus’ feet. She then used her hair to wipe up the excess, in the process unintentionally perfuming herself and filling the room with a pleasing fragrance.
One person at the table erupted in indignation. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” It was Judas. On the surface this sounded like a good question. But John, the apostle who preserved the story for us knew in retrospect what the real issue with Judas was. He was a thief. He had been the treasurer for Jesus and his twelve companions and more than once he had filched money from that bag. Corrosive greed had eaten into his soul.
Jesus came to Mary’s defense “Leave her alone,” he said. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”
What an unexpected twist!
They must all have wondered, “My burial?” After all, he was a young man, about 33, and in complete full health. Though he had tried to forewarn his disciples, none of them at table with him was thinking in terms of funerals and burials.
But that’s what makes this dinner memorable. Jesus knew what was ahead for him and although he must have entered fully into the social exchanges at the table, his mind at the same time must have been playing on what was in his immediate future.
He knew that he was marked for a very cruel death, and an ordeal of unspeakable anguish as the world’s sin-bearer.
It appears that Mary’s perceptions were deeper than those of all others at the table, however vague even hers may have been. Perhaps, sensing that the time for such displays of love and respect was coming to an end, her womanly intuitions and her deep love for the teacher prompted her to seize the moment to pour out her devotion in this extravagant way.
Jesus halted the clamor by saying, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” This seemed to be an acknowledgment that her insight was accurate. She had perceived correctly the trouble ahead.
When Matthew and Mark tell a similar story they add these words of Jesus: “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
To Jesus, Mary made a gesture of extravagant devotion at a time when the world was set to reject him, and his own followers to forsake him. Her kind of devotion must have spoken to his lonely soul.
Jesus said to those at table with him, “She has done what she could.” And, “She has done a beautiful thing.” The beauty was in a devoted follower’s openhanded love.
The account gives us occasion to measure our own love for the Lord Christ at Easter time.
(If you wish to meditate further on this story during this pre-Easter season here are the references: John 12;1-8; Mark 14:1-9; Matthew 26: 6-13)
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