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.
I was encouraged to always play it safe. Raised by post-war parents, a job was held onto for life, money was saved for a rainy day, and prodigal pursuits like gambling and extravagant shows were taboo. Of course my Calvinistic mother, from a very strict vein of the three dominant Dutch Reformed Churches that monopolised white religion and government, was even better at this than my slightly more profligate Methodist father. They used to love telling how their first marital argument was about Dad frying eggs in butter when lard had been good enough for the twenty one years of my mother’s life till then! Today, my cardiologist will not allow me do either.
This cautious Calvinism was simply a subset of puritan Protestantism and was how most of us lived through the fifties sixties and seventies. You must remember that South Africa was cocooned in Apartheid Nationalism, with no television, strictly controlled media, and prudish censorship laws that enhanced our fear of otherness and made us all (all hues and shades) quite governable and compliant.
In the world in which I grew up Judas would be speaking for all of us when he criticised Mary’s reckless extravagance. So coming to the passage as I do today, requires of me some reorienting of my formational values if I am going to understand why Jesus praises Mary and not Judas in the events John is recording for us.
I am of course grateful for the deep shifts that my training and reading in the disciplines of ministry have brought about. These changes of view help me be ready to explore the passage. Allow me to name two:
- It was at a preaching school as a probationer minister almost twenty five years ago, that our leader Rev Vivian Harris, played a cassette tape of a lecture by a Lutheran minister, whose name has been lost in my memory. The speaker was exegeting the Parable of the Sower and was commenting on how this was NOT a parable about the soils as we had come to understand and preach it, rather it was a parable about the extravagance of the sower who didn’t seem to care where he was casting his costly and carefully prepared seed. My mind was expanded.
- The second discovery comes from a book whose title I do remember. It was, Journeying Within Transcendence: A Jungian Perspective on the Gospel of John. by Diarmuid McGann. It was in this book that I discovered how important it is to read the passages of the Gospels carefully and prayerfully. The discipline of Lectio Divina is unequalled here as helping me to do that. McGann brought home to me the fact that the Gospel writers and John in particular seldom say anything without it having significance.
So to the passage.
John makes a point of locating the event “six days” before the Passover. Why? There seems to be a hint at the beginning of creation. God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh. If the Passover/Last Supper is the culmination of the New Creation of Jesus, then what is happening in Bethany could be the proto event of this new creative “week”.
In the Genesis creation story the first creative act is the dichotomous duality of light from dark. Is this the same in the little home of the two sisters whose names MARtha and MARy originate etymologically in bitterness? [Martha’s name means “Who Becomes Bitter; Provoking” Mary: name means in Hebrew: “Bitter, as in a bitterly wanted child“] At the Passover meal the eating of bitter herbs is a reminder of the bondage of Egypt, yet the bitter sisters are the ones who bless not out of bitterness but out of abundance. Martha serving the meal, and Mary bringing the evening to a climax by the extravagant anointing of her Lord. At an immediate level of course this could be because of the gratitude at the raising of Lazarus, but one feels there is a more transcendent reality hovering, as the Spirit always hovers over the chaos of human suffering. Those whose names signify bitterness, are not the ones who display bitterness. No, the bitter named women are the feast givers and fragrance spillers. It is the man, the treasurer from Kerioth, the only Judean [read superior Judean], who displays bitterness in his criticism of Mary’s extravagance. , “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Now dear John, cannot seem to help himself from editorializing. His unfortunate comments about “the Jews” later in the gospel became the excuse for Anti-Semitism from the middle ages onwards! Here his editorial wants to guess at Judas’ motives. (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.). “Hey c’mon John, you know better than to guess at another’s motives! It is the cause of so much conflict in the world. We don’t know why Judas said what he did. But Jesus rebuked him for it, that is clear!”
“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.”
The Passover is beginning. The duality is emerging. Light is separating from darkness. Six days from now at the Passover meal Judas will leave and it will be night. (As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. John 13:30) The darkness will be complete. For now, though, there are only shadows on this act of pure love.
I want to circle back to “Why the extravagance?” l do that because there is another family member whose name is significant. Lazarus means, “God is my help
Is it not true that only when we have been helped by God, that we begin to understand how to live extravagantly in honouring Christ wherever we may find him? The bitter sisters discovered that nothing was too much to offer in praise of God, after Jesus had restored their lives to them (literally because Lazarus death would have left them as women, destitute in that society). When Jesus has become the reason for our very existence, we have a different sense of values and what worth really means.
A dear friend and recovering alcoholic describes his journey into following Christ, not as some intellectual, or social pursuit. “Oh no”, he says “I had to find something that would give me a reason not to commit suicide at the end of every day” That is to know you have been helped by God.
The bitter named sisters and the God helped brother are transformed into generous and faithful followers of the one who gave them a reason to keep on living every day. The Passover lamb who kept the Angel of Death away from their little home is the Jesus whom they praise with food and ointment without counting the cost. What is a year’s wages when you have been given life in all its fullness? There is no bitterness here. The bitterness has all shifted to Judas.
Judas the cautious, Judas the pragmatic, Judas the frugal; was always playing it safe and secure. Convincing the committee with pragmatism and good fiduciary governance.
Too bad he was staring at the balance sheet so intently, he never noticed the shadows that were beginning to swallow him.
Oh, I forgot to mention what the name of Judas means.
It comes from the Hebrew root, “God be praised“