Seeking What We Already Have
Our Lenten journey this Sunday picks up the story of Jesus at a dinner party at the home of Martha and Mary in Bethany – a village just a few miles southeast of Jerusalem (this will become Jesus’ home base during Holy Week). Their brother, Lazarus (whom Jesus had just raised from the dead), is also there. John points out that things are rapidly coming to a head and events are about to turn ugly.
In John’s Gospel, the passage immediately preceding today’s reading we learn of the developing plot against Jesus by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. They are alarmed by Jesus’ growing popularity, which would certainly draw unwelcome attention from the Romans. Just for good measure, Lazarus is included in this conspiracy in order to silence all of Jesus’ adherents and other members of his fan club. So, today, the clock is ticking, and Jesus has just six days to live.
In today’s Gospel, Mary is seen taking a container of oil of nard (oil extracted from a balsam tree), breaking it, and anointing Jesus’ feet with the expensive perfume. Afterwards, John reports that she wiped his feet with her hair.
Anointing another with oil has always had deep spiritual significance: sometimes it is enacted at the coronation of a monarch. In the Jewish world, it was a symbolic action announcing that the person anointed was especially favored by God. In the Old Testament, prophets anointed future kings. Samuel so designated the future King David. When Mary anointed Jesus, she may have been signifying that he was a king, the Messiah. Mark’s gospel hinted at this in pointing out that what she had done would always be remembered (Mk. 14:3-9). Judas, who would become Jesus’ betrayer, objected to what he saw as a waste of money. He reasoned that the money should rightly be given to those in need — and in his rational determination, he had a point.
Judas was particularly aware of the uses of money, as the organizer of the group who traveled with Jesus, and who took charge of the money they carried with them. Perhaps he was the one who paid for food and lodging in funds drawn from the contributions of their wealthy supporters. In a bitter aside written long after Jesus’ death, the writer of John’s Gospel suggests that Judas was not honest in this task (13:10-11).
But here Jesus defends Mary’s apparent extravagance. He must have known he was in great danger, and that the journey he was on would end in a terrible death. Being fully human, he certainly perceived the likely consequences of his outrageous actions among the people. And he had many enemies who surely would bring him down if they were able.
Mary also perceived the danger that Jesus was in, and maybe she sensed that he faced a tragic future. She offered her gift as a comfort and reassurance to him, and perhaps as something more. She believed he was the Messiah and applying the nard ahead of that revelation granted her participation in its truth. We view here a gift from the heart of Mary that may have defied rational justification. But it clearly had Jesus’ blessing.
We too seek Jesus’ approval and assurance that there is a way —beyond reason — that leads to eternal life. It is at the heart level that we come to accept his sacrifice for us and kneel, as Mary did, before him in gratefulness.
So it is for us some 2,000 years later; we find ourselves kneeling at the foot of the cross – where the ground is level for all of us, begging for mercy and discovering to our astonishment that what for which we are asking has already been granted; moreover, it has been ours before we could ask or imagine. Such is grace – how much more do we find ourselves at Jesus’s feet asking for what has already been given to us.
Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.