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
If you have two shirts, Jesus says, give one of them away. If someone is in need of shelter, shelter them; if someone is hungry, feed them. This is the basic message of charity; this is what we are told about Jesus when we are children, and it is a message that is renewed endlessly as we grow up. So, it is one of the many shocks visited on us in this reading that Jesus responds to Judas by saying, “The poor are always with us.” In Howards End, Henry Wilcox says the same thing, when he thoughtlessly causes the downfall of Leonard Bast. I think E.M.Forster was probably getting Henry to echo Jesus, but for me, paying attention to this story sometime after I read Forster, it was the other way round. And if Jesus sounds anything like Henry Wilcox, then Something is Wrong.
Judas protests at the profligacy of pouring all the expensive perfume onto Jesus’s feet, and asks why it wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor. It’s an argument we might expect Jesus himself to put forward, but here we are guided towards thinking that because that sneaky Judas is suggesting it, it hasn’t got any validity. The trouble is that it has. There is a pretty unimpeachable moral argument that says that we shouldn’t spend money on sculptures if we can spend it on kidney machines, that as long as there are people suffering, we ourselves have no real right to frivolity or indulgence. It’s an argument that John knows holds water, perhaps, and therefore he makes sure Judas is the one who says it. The implication is that we can disregard it this time, because this time the person making the point has a hidden agenda.
There’s an apocryphal story that during the Second World War, someone suggested that all spending on the arts be cut completely, and that Churchill replied “For what, then, are we fighting?” He didn’t say it, in fact – it was really that Kenneth Clark had suggested shipping our most precious paintings over to Canada, and Churchill had said no, that they were to stay on British soil. The point still illustrates the strong but often unspoken feeling that there has to be something more in our lives than the absence of suffering. We have to keep, and nourish, and uphold that for which we, and others, suffer. There will always be a pious person to say that we shouldn’t build a concert hall if we could build another hospital, and to some extent they are not answerable. But if we are relieved of our suffering and find that there is no music, no poetry, no art, no wonderful fragrance filling our house, then we might discover a different kind of suffering.
Mary is not giving away all she possesses to the poor. She is doing something else.
I can’t think of another place in the Bible where Jesus is loved so evidently as here; usually it is Jesus who is doing the lion’s share of loving. We are always enjoined to love God, and love our fellow men, but here we see it happen. It is striking that it is at this house that Jesus seems to lay down his burdens. Here, where Martha serves as usual, and Mary is again to be found at his feet, he accepts kindness as well as his dinner; he accepts friendship and love. In this scene he is very human, with his ordinary visit, and with his rebuke to Judas. Yet he is also divine: he is eating his dinner with a man he has brought back from the dead. Both his divinity and humanity are acknowledged by Mary in her act. She is not going to sell the oil to help the poor, because what she is doing is perhaps more perfectly Christian. What she does is both an act of kindness to a man who is weary, and an act that glorifies God, an act of praise. I don’t think we can experience love unless praise is embedded in it. When Mary pours the oil over Jesus’s feet, and then wipes them with her hair, what she is doing is as fully a part of Christian practice as helping the poor. If we forget this, we become poor ourselves. With the wealth of her costly perfume, but also with the wealth of her whole being, her whole body and soul, she is enacting the joy of praise.