The people we tend to remember the most are those who test the boundaries of social convention, who take risks, who as we say, “go against the flow.” These people who tend to march to the beat of their own drum are indeed memorable. They can also be very annoying and sometimes infuriating. Surely, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus pushed the boundaries of the culturally acceptable in her devotion to Jesus.
Jesus is being hosted at a dinner in the home of Lazarus. John tells us that Martha is serving dinner. She is fulfilling her responsibilities as the culture of her time demanded. But, her sister Mary seems quite unconcerned about the expectations of those around her. In an emotional demonstration of her devotion to Jesus, Mary doesn’t just slightly step over the social mores of her culture; at this dinner gathering she crashes through them like a bull in a china shop.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume (12:3).
As Mary once defied social convention by taking the posture of a disciple at the feet of Rabbi Jesus (Luke 10:38-42), something no women was permitted to do in that place and time, so now she puts herself at Jesus’ feet again, only this time as a disciple in an act of radical hospitality and extravagant generosity. She inserts herself front and center into the evening gathering instead of staying in her accepted place on the edge of the dinner conversation, serving food while the men talked. But that is not the first social barrier she tears down. She lowers her hair, which would have been considered quite provocative, and she uses it to anoint Jesus’ feet with very expensive perfume. Anne Howard writes, Mary “assumes the priest’s role as one who anoints.” It was likely one of those moments when the silence in the room was loud.
But Judas breaks the silence with a complaint– “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (12:5). But John is quick to note that Judas could have cared less about the poor. Sometimes people object to where money is being spent, not because they think it should go somewhere else; they just don’t like how it is being spent.
But this is the appropriate time for Mary’s act, and Jesus recognizes it as such. Yes, the poor will always be with us, and it is unfortunate when people use these words of Jesus as an excuse not to reach out to the needy. Indeed, Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy 11:15, which reads in toto, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Jesus knew the Scriptures and to use Jesus’ partial quote of Deuteronomy 11:15 as an justification for neglecting those on the margins is to take Jesus’ words grossly out of context.
The point Jesus is making is not that it is acceptable to neglect the poor, but that in this moment, Mary has acted rightly. There will be plenty of opportunities to assist those in need. Such obligations should not be used to dismiss Mary’s act of devotion.
Indeed, Mary’s behavior was outrageous, but it was a scandalous act of extravagant generosity and radical hospitality… and Jesus approves.
And that’s all that matters.