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Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Jesus said: You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
In today’s reading we see Jesus returning to the home of his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. There can be no doubt that the atmosphere would have been one of celebration as everyone rejoiced at Lazarus being raised from the dead. As Lazarus joined Jesus at the table Martha bustled around and served the food. But Mary, the prayerful one, takes some very expensive perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet.
This intimate act of anointing would probably have caused some shock amongst all who were in Lazarus’ house on that day, but it was Judas alone who expressed his outrage at the waste he was seeing. The one who would soon turn from disciple to betrayer missed the point completely as he spoke of the monetary value of the perfume, and all the ‘good’ things that could have been done had it been sold, rather than being poured over someone’s feet. Then, in response to Judas’ outburst, Jesus says: You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
I wonder how you are responding to these words. As we have journeyed through Lent we have been encouraged to serve others. Many of those we have been serving have been poor, some in need of the most basic things of life such as food and shelter. In the light of such need, we should reflect upon the seemingly harsh words that Jesus gives us in response to Judas’ words.
A politician might say that it is all a matter of priorities. We have limited resources and we have to make difficult decisions about how those resources as deployed. A theologian might say that Mary did the right thing because Jesus is the Son of God and he deserved the very best as he approached the time of his cruel execution. There are, of course, many ways of looking at this situation, but we need to be careful that we do not root our thinking in the sphere of worldly wisdom. Jesus is the Son of God, and he is soon to be betrayed, tried and executed. One of his dearest friends has chosen to make the personal sacrifice of using her expensive perfume to anoint him for what lies ahead.
We do not know what inspired Mary’s actions, but this is an important moment in the story of this most Holy Week in the year. The crowds will soon turn into a mob and the political and religious leaders will stoke their fury. The shouting of the mob will lead to a summary execution that will allow no time for prayerful and loving preparation. Mary’s actions are filling the yawning gap that will open up in the events of Good Friday.
Too often we place worldly worth and personal ambition ahead of our Christian calling. We think of all the good things we could do, if only … ! Our materialistic attitudes cause us to hoard and hide money, to keep our time and talents to ourselves, even when we could bring relief and joy into the lives of others. Even worse are the times when we wrap our earthly greed in a veneer of piety that is not even skin-deep.
Let us pray that we might put the honouring of our Saviour before all else. But … let us also pray that we might never turn out backs on the needs of others as we give sacrificially in the name of Jesus.