Charitable giving is good. Devotion to God is even better. And giving that proceeds from the extravagance of a fully devoted heart is the best of all.
In the gospel of Matthew, at the end of his final discourse before the events of the Passion, Jesus teaches that in the last days, his followers will be revealed as the ones who consistently cared for the needy without looking for a reward (Matt 25:34-40; see earlier post). This lesson is the culmination of the repeated message: Keep watch, be ready. Understand what time it is. When I come back, I want to find you doing the things that I have given you to do.
Reading between the lines of Jesus’ parables in Matthew 23-25, one gets the sense that those he characterizes as wise, faithful, or righteous not only do the right things, but for the right reasons. They take their responsibilities seriously, as a matter of devotion to their Master. And the story that follows seems to suggest that the disciples still don’t quite get it:
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matt 26:6-13, NIV)
Mark and John each have their own version of the story, and there are some conflicts in the accounts. But some of John’s details round out Matthew’s story in important ways: the event happens in the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, immediately after Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb; the dinner is a celebration in Jesus’ honor; Mary is the unnamed woman who anoints him; Judas is the one who objects to the act, because he’s an embezzler (John 12:1-6). John makes no mention of “Simon the Leper,” but it’s possible that he was the siblings’ father, and the home was or used to be his.
This makes sense of the extravagance of the gesture. Mary had sat at the feet of Jesus to drink in his teaching (Luke 10:39). Despite her devotion, she seemed confused when Lazarus died because Jesus had not been there to heal him (John 11:32). But then Jesus, whom Mary and Martha no doubt already believed to be the Messiah (John 11:27), raised Lazarus from the dead, putting the exclamation point on his claim to be “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
It doesn’t take much to imagine the incredible gratitude and worship in Mary’s heart. And could she be so close to Jesus without somehow knowing what he had already tried to tell his disciples, that he had come to Jerusalem to die? Whether or not she fully understands what she’s doing, her devotion is unmistakable, and she knows that this is the time to express it wholeheartedly.
John gives us Judas’ hypocritical motivations for objecting. But Mark and Matthew would have some of all of the others being taken aback as well, probably grumbling among themselves in a way that Jesus wasn’t meant to hear. Their reaction, to an extent, is understandable. They’re not rich men, they’re used to living simply as they accompany Jesus, and they would have learned from him first-hand the importance of compassion for the poor. In a sense, their objection is religiously correct.
But it misses the point.
Despite the fact that Jesus has reminded them that he will be crucified in two days (Matt 26:2), they are tone-deaf to Mary’s sense of urgency and the timeliness of her sacrificial gift. They are still in religious accounting mode, calculating what Mary’s act will cost the ministry; Mary, heedless of the cost, wants only to give to Jesus.
And Jesus, without downplaying the importance of compassion for the needy, accepts her offer of worship, because the time was right. That, Jesus says, will be Mary’s legacy.
What kind of charity will be ours?