Extravagant devotion (part 1)

It’s wonderful to know that God loves us, to rest and luxuriate in that knowledge. It’s uplifting to sing praises and remember what Jesus sacrificed on our behalf.

But it’s not just about what we get out of the deal. Sometimes, our devotion will cost us something. And Mary of Bethany gives us a memorable example:

Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” (John 12:1-8, CEB)

Let’s begin by addressing what for many is a source of confusion. All four gospels have a story of a woman anointing Jesus with perfume. Are they all referring to the same event? Luke’s tale (7:36-50) is of a so-called “sinful woman” who seems to be seeking forgiveness from Jesus and receives it. The incident takes place early in Jesus’ ministry, probably in Galilee. Most likely, therefore, Luke is writing about a different event than the other three evangelists.

Mark and Matthew’s accounts (Mark 14:3-9; Matt 26:6-13), on the other hand, are quite similar to each other, and most of the details can be used to round out the account we get from John. The major differences are as follows. Mark and Matthew speak of an unnamed woman pouring perfume on Jesus’ head (which would be appropriate to the act of anointing), and place the incident after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. John, rather, speaks of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet, and locates the incident just before the Triumphal Entry.

Why such differences? We can only speculate. But there’s no need to worry that the differences count against the actual historicity of the event. Matthew, Mark, and John weren’t writing for the New York Times, and each could be expected to tell the story in his own way. John, in particular, may have wanted to draw a closer connection between this event and the ones that followed.

But far more important is what the stories share in common. All three emphasize the shocking extravagance of Mary’s act of devotion — a gift worth roughly “a year’s wages” (literally, “three-hundred denarii”).

When was the last time you tithed like that?

Yeah, me neither.

We’ll come back to Mary in the next post.