John 12:1-8 Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, *said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.”
Picture the scene. All the men are seated at dinner; Martha is serving the meal when Mary enters with a jar of nard, very expensive and precious ointment. She pours it all over Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. The whole house smells of the perfume. Judas, who kept their money (and who evidently took a little for himself), is outraged. “This ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor!” Jesus’ stands up for Mary: “Let her alone. Let her keep it for my burial.” And then rebukes Judas with a statement more like, “Don’t worry, Judas. You’ll have plenty of poor to take care of after I’m gone.”
This is a story of extravagant love and vulnerability that transcend social norms, showing us how to give and receive love and devotion. Dinner’s on. Martha is serving. Jesus hangs out with the guys, reclining at dinner, as was the custom, when Mary comes in – as was definitely not the custom. Not only does she enter the men’s room, but she kneels at Jesus’ feet, breaks open a jar of costly perfume, pours it on his feet and wipes them with her hair.
Nard was so expensive, it cost a year’s salary! Think of the number likely in the disciples’ heads. Mary enters the room, not to serve the men, but to touch a man who is not her husband, and in the presence of others! She kneels at his feet, pours expensive perfume on them, and in an act of unreserved intimacy and sensuality, wipes them with her hair. Her hair, no less! And what does Jesus do? He completely receives her love and devotion, opening himself to her extravagant expression while disregarding Judas’ criticism and the unspoken disapproval of the breaking of social norms that specified converse between women and men. Mary’s act was very public; not only did she perform it in the middle of a group of men, but the Gospel writer points out that the whole house reeked of the stuff. It probably stunk up the whole neighborhood.
What kind of person can receive this extravagant, shockingly wrong, public, sensual act of devotion, as Jesus received it?
Only one who is vulnerable and open enough to receive such a gift, who does not judge, who isn’t predicting the future and who definitely isn’t following the rules.
Only one who can accept himself or herself as the Beloved. Think about that. What would it be like to open to love in such a way that you accept yourself as the Beloved? This is Jesus’ example to us. He is the Beloved. Mary is the Beloved. Judas is the Beloved. And you and I – we are the Beloved. The Beloved doesn’t need to put off love using all of our tricky ways. The Beloved accepts him or her self as exactly that, and from that place, opens to receive.
And Mary… We can safely assume that she didn’t simply take one jar from her stash of nard in the cupboard. This was an extravagant act, pouring herself out with the perfume. It was an act of bravery and purpose, flaunting the social custom of the day by entering that room. It was an act of sensual devotion, wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair.
What kind of person can do that? Only one whose love cannot be contained, who is brave enough to risk embarrassment, scorn and criticism. Only a person that knows herself as the Beloved is that brave and that overflowing with love.
The Beloved can risk it all – the Beloved can feel the pain of betrayal and the hurts that life and people inflict. The Beloved will feel the pain, but the Beloved’s center, deep in the heart, is not perturbed.
Contrast Judas’ predictable and disciplined reaction, likely a projection of his thievery. Judas says it’s a waste of money. Some of us would argue that it’s also a waste of effort and that such a display is not only unnecessary, it is also unseemly and embarrassing and should be reserved for private time, away from view of others. Martha could have argued (and did, in another story) that Mary should have gotten up and gotten back into her female role of servant of the men, and helped her. What unnecessary extravagance!
Now, let us enter that room. Where are we in this room? I suppose we’re with Judas, making some sort of protest. Now, Judas is right, in that the ointment could indeed have been sold. The money could indeed have helped some poor people. And here’s where we get confounded by our own protests. It’s hard to disagree, when what’s being said contains some element of truth. Jesus, of course, has the answer. “Don’t worry, Judas, there will be plenty of poor folks for you to ‘help’ after I’m gone.”
But let’s look deeper into ourselves and why we tend to side with Judas, when we’d long to be in the place of Mary and Jesus. Let’s look at our lack of vulnerability that keeps us from receiving extravagant and intimate gestures of love. Let’s look, knowing that everything we tell ourselves, to shield us from the vulnerably of receiving love, like Judas’ remark, contains a grain of truth.
• “Let’s not waste it. Just use a little and there will be more left for next time.”
• “Oh, I don’t need that. Use it for yourself.”
• “Oh, you shouldn’t have.”
• “I don’t want to make a scene.”
• “Really, you don’t have to do this. I know you love me.”
• “In our family, we don’t waste what is valuable.”
All fine sentiments, all containing some truth, IF they aren’t used as vulnerability shields. Yes, they all represent some virtue: frugality, modesty, unselfishness. But what is their function? I’d argue that their function is to protect us from the vulnerability of giving and receiving extravagant expressions of love and devotion. Isn’t that what we do with each other? Isn’t that what we do with God?
I would invite you to consider the statements you may make that are like the examples I gave. As you find yourself saying or thinking these, ask yourself, “Did I just shield myself from vulnerability?” Become aware of when you do this. Curiously aware, without judgment, as you watch yourself shield your heart from opening to gestures of love – especially extravagant ones! Remember at these times that you are the Beloved. And from that place, imagine what it would be like for you, to be in Jesus’ place, accepting acts of love and devotion. Imagine being Mary, risking criticism by defying social norms. Can you imagine it, from the place of the Beloved?
Yes, we do need these devoted gestures. Yes, we do need to be open and vulnerable to receiving such extravagance, such love. Because if we actually were open to this extravagant love of God, Jesus would never have had to show us this example.
Judas, and the other disciples in this Gospel story, put the wall up. “Extravagant waste! Give the money to the poor!” I’d guess that they, like us sometimes, are not willing to dig deep, to the place where they and we are crying out to give and receive this extravagant, intimate, sensual gesture of love.
So, I invite you: Dig deep, past the half truths of “really, you don’t have to do this, I don’t need it, use the money to help others, take the spotlight off of me, even if it’s the spotlight of love.” Dig deeper, to your heart which is crying out to give and receive this deep love. Dig past the hardness, the fear, the family rules, the societal norms, the embarrassment, to the vulnerability of the Beloved, which I promise you is there.
Because if it wasn’t, Jesus would never have shown us what we could be. He would have sided with Judas. But he didn’t. We don’t have to either.