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.” John 12:1-8
Recently, I finished work on a writing project in which I tried to describe some events from my teenage years. For fun, and for a bit of a reality check, I asked a number of my old friends if they would be willing to contribute to the project. Several of them did.
What emerged was fascinating. Events that we had all participated in were remembered in completely different ways. Dates were confused, details were lost or considered more important by some or less important by others, timelines were sometimes linear and sometimes contorted. At times, I felt like I was writing a work of fiction, even though all of us swore that we had been there and that we had experienced the same things.
Similar things are happening with today’s Gospel reading. The anointing of Jesus is one of a handful of incidents mentioned in all four Gospels, putting it up there with Jesus’ baptism, the feeding of the multitude and the events of Holy Week that we will be experiencing in the next few weeks. So for the Gospel writers, this event is a pretty big deal, even if they each bring out different details that give each version of the story a different meaning.
So let’s start with the “who, what and where” details of the story. Matthew, Mark and John all agree on the location of the events: Bethany, a small village a mile or two outside of Jerusalem. That’s an important detail that we’ll come back to in a minute. But where in Bethany? Matthew and Mark say that it was at the home of one Simon the Leper, Luke at the home of a Pharisee. But John does not identify a precise location. Instead, John just tells us that Jesus has been invited to a dinner, and that Lazarus is there with Mary and Martha and Judas. Lazarus’s presence is another telling detail, unique to John’s account, which we will also revisit in a little while.
All the Gospel writers agree on what happens next: Mary goes ahead and pours a very expensive jar of perfume on Jesus. John even adds the detail that the perfume cost “three hundred denarii,” which some believe was the equivalent of a years’ wages at the time.
Now as John tells it, Judas objects to Mary’s act, saying that the money spent on the perfume could have gone to help the poor. In doing so, Judas is trying to create what economists call a zero-sum game: that if one group benefits from a particular situation, another group has to lose. To put it another way, this is what philosophers call a false dilemma: that choices can only be between one thing or another and that no other options exist. It is something we see in our political and social discourse every day, especially in this year when we once again go through the process of choosing a new president. Why, some will argue, are we sending aid to governments overseas when we cannot take care of the poor in our own country? Why are we funding welfare benefits when we can’t pay for medical care for our veterans? Why does one group get something when another group that is also in need gets little or nothing at all?
But Jesus’s response to Judas’s zero-sum proposition is puzzling. Rather than denounce Judas outright, Jesus justifies Mary’s act by saying “‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’”
On the surface, the remarks seem dismissive, callous, selfish even. But if we stop for a minute and imagine that we, too, are there in Bethany, Jesus’s words begin to make perfect sense. Bethany would have been the last stop on the treacherous Jericho road for pilgrims heading to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Tired, hungry, perhaps even the victims of robbery along the way, they would have been in need of assistance. Indeed, Jesus and his disciples were, even at this very moment, in need of the same charity as all those other pilgrims, having traveled themselves on the same road toward Jerusalem.
But it wasn’t just pilgrims and travelers who would find help in Bethany. Matthew and Mark’s Gospels both add the detail that the village was home to at least one leper, Simon, and one can assume there were more in Bethany who had been cast out from Jerusalem with him to fend for themselves. One historian has even gone so far as to suggest that the village was the site of an almshouse, where the poor would have been welcomed and taken care of.
In this detail of the story, then, we see that Bethany was home to the needy, the sick and the poor, and much of the purpose of the whole village was to take care of them. Within yards of where Jesus and the disciples were, signs of charity in action, of villagers doing the right thing, would have been going on even as Jesus was being covered with expensive perfume.
So the message is not that the poor should be ignored while money is wasted on an extravagant gift for an itinerant preacher. The message is that both tasks must be accomplished, and that the less fortunate must be provided for even as we celebrate an encounter with the divine.
Which brings us to Lazarus. As the story unfolds, John wants us to keep the detail of probably the most remarkable of all of Jesus’s remarkable miracles–the raising of Lazarus from the dead–firmly in our minds. John wants us to know that Jesus, like Lazarus, is not only on a journey toward death, but, like Lazarus, his journey will not end in death but in resurrection.
In that light, Mary’s act becomes an acknowledgement and a foreshadowing of the wondrous events that are about to happen. She has had a deep spiritual insight and knows that Jesus is about to embark on the same journey that her brother has taken. And she cannot let that moment pass without acknowledging it in a dramatic and remarkable way. Her use of the expensive nard marks Jesus as the Chosen One, whose death and resurrection will enable us all to overcome our worldly deaths and enter into spiritual bliss.
But there is one last important detail John wants us to note, a detail that does not escape even Jesus himself. The perfume that Mary is using now is the perfume that she bought to use on Jesus at the day of his burial. At the dinner in Bethany, however, she realizes that moment would be too late, and that the time to acknowledge Jesus is now, that the time to celebrate the divine is when it is right in front of you.
Seen this way, the cost of Mary’s celebration of the living Christ becomes insignificant, and Judas’s zero-sum game is refuted once and for all. Taking care of the needy, the sick, the poor—all that is a responsibility that never goes away. But recognizing the divine when we encounter it, and celebrating that moment, is a responsibility that never goes away too.
We hear it said every day that the devil is in the details. But today, in John’s gospel at least, I don’t think the details belong to the devil at all.