In the 12th chapter of John’s -Gospel, we find Jesus in Jerusalem with his disciples. They are making preparations for Passover, the annual festival to remember the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. The focus of the days of commemoration are the sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus and his friends participate in these acts of faithfulness as they join in the festivities.
The leaders of the region had already decided they had to get rid of Jesus because he had captured the imagination of the masses. They had decided Jesus posed a threat to the balance of power, the peace they had negotiated with the Roman occupation.
Jesus had been stirring up too much trouble as he went from village to village, gathering a following. The authorities had already told the communities around Jerusalem to keep watch for Jesus, to notify them as soon as he was spotted.
Jesus keeps a low profile as he slips into the outskirts of Jerusalem, into the neighborhood of Bethany, about a two-mile walk from the Temple. He arrives in time for dinner. He’s there with his cohort of disciples at the house of his closest friends: Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
Danger lurks at the edges of the meal — with spies in the neighborhood and with Judas in the dining room. Nonetheless, Mary, one of the hosts, takes costly oil and anoints Jesus. She washes the feet of their guest, their -fugitive friend, perhaps with a pre-monition that this will be their last -occasion together — one last celebration before the authorities take him away.
From a corner of the room, Judas watches the extravagance, the excess, the wastefulness, the irresponsibility. The scene is too much for him. He calculates the cost, then interrupts: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5).
Three hundred denarii was an average yearly salary for a worker. That jar stored up a year’s wages. That’s what Judas sees as Mary pours the ointment onto the feet of Jesus, then onto the floor. Wasted money, squandered resources.
Judas’ concern makes a lot of sense to me. It’s never good to see yourself in Judas Iscariot, the betrayer who tells the police where to find Jesus, the one who arranges his arrest.
If Judas’ response makes sense, then we should rethink how we think about the world. I can see myself in Judas, wondering if this gesture of Mary is the best use of funds, given the needs of the people and the movement. After all, there’s a revolution to fund.
Simple living. Sharing our wealth with the poor. Redistributing resources to the needy. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be about as Christians? There’s so much wastefulness going on in this story, with all of that money poured down the drain. There’s no self-denial in this scene. No restraint. No moderation. Just wasteful abundance — a celebration of life, though there is so much not to celebrate.
Everyone in the story knows they’re surrounded, that danger awaits. -Everyone knows the authorities are conspiring to arrest Jesus. Even Jesus acknowledges his time is short. He talks about the anointing of his feet as a preparation for his burial (John 12:7).
But, for now, none of that matters — with Mary and Martha and Lazarus and their friends around the table, at this supper before the Last Supper, this footwashing before that evening when he will wash the feet of his disciples, his friends. Later in the week, Judas will betray him.
But, for now, on the outskirts of -Jerusalem, in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, there is feasting, fellowship and joy.
We live in a dangerous world — with some of us more endangered than others, praying for survival. Each of us needs the transformation of repentance, personal and social.
That’s why this story is right for us, this scene of extravagance and fellowship in the face of danger. Because the good news is that, in the middle of our Lent, as Jesus begins his way toward the cross, there’s celebration, there’s joy, there’s grace poured out like oil, wasted on feet, on a friend soon to be crucified.
Mary shows us what the Christian life looks like: to love without calculation, to care for a life without a cost-benefit analysis, even if the Judases among us — including the Judases in our heads — think such love is irresponsible. Mary shows us what the Christian life looks like because, in her act, we catch a glimpse of what God looks like.
If I might be like Judas in the story, then God is like Mary in her extravagant love.