Yesterday we celebrated Palm Sunday. It is a day of triumph, but that triumph is short lived. Even though John places the entry into Jerusalem after this story, the story of Mary anointing Jesus with pure nard, a perfume, which Judas understands to be of great value, this is an important story for us to hear as we move toward Easter. Palm Sunday reveals Jesus' calling to be the victorious but humble king (Zechariah 9:9), the path leads through death, and therefore it is appropriate that Jesus be prepared for that move.
For John the story of the raising of Lazarus is intimately connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, there was a plot underway (according to John) to kill Lazarus (John 12:9-11). Why, because this miracle had made Jesus a hero to the people. Getting rid of Lazarus would eliminate this important witness to the message and person of Jesus. But, on this Holy Monday, our attention isn't on Lazarus, but on his sister, Mary. You know Mary, she's the one Jesus commended for giving her full attention to Jesus the teacher, much to the dismay of her sister Martha (but that is a different gospel, one in which Lazarus isn't part of the story -- Luke 10:38-42). We should note that Martha is again serving the meal, but Mary is not helping.
So we return to Mary. Jesus is in Bethany in the days prior to the Passover. Bethany isn't far from Jerusalem, so its a good staging area for Jesus. They are eating dinner, when Mary comes up to Jesus and anoints his feet with costly perfume (Judas says it's worth 300 denarii, which would be nearly a years wages). Not only that, she wipes his feet with her hair. There are similar stories in other gospels, but this is the only one in which the woman is named (and she's obviously not the woman who has had her sins forgiven).
Judas raises a good point, even if John is correct about his motives. Surely this is wasteful. Shouldn't the perfume be sold and the proceeds be used to provide for the poor? This is a question we raise regularly in the life of the church. Buildings, organs -- aren't they wasteful?
Jesus offers an answer that my cause us a few problems. He tells Judas to leave her alone. She had done a good thing. She had purchased this expensive perfume for one purpose -- and that is to prepare him for burial. Hers was an act of love and service (even as Martha was doing by serving the meal). As for the poor, they will be with us always. That can sound rather out of character for Jesus. Didn't Jesus tell the rich young ruler to sell all and give it to the poor?
Perhaps the reason we have problems with a story like this is that we tend to see things in either/or categories. Surely Jesus is worthy of our attention. If he is to soon lay down his life, there is opportunity to anoint him for the task. As for the poor, they are still with us. We still have responsibility for them. We don't get to ignore them. Jesus is their liberator. He is their shepherd. As his heirs, we continue to have responsibility for them. That doesn't mean that there is no place for showing our praise to God through beauty and even extravagance. Worship needn't be shorn of such expressions to be faithful, unless of course, we neglect the other.
Mary did the right thing in the moment. With this act of preparation, we move further along the journey that is Holy Week.