Passover is approaching, and Jesus and the disciples have returned to Bethany. The town had recently made the headlines as the place where Jesus had raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. A dinner is therefore being given in Jesus’ honor, in the home of a man named Simon the Leper; Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, are playing host. While Martha busies herself with waiting on the guests, Lazarus reclines at table with Jesus.
But Mary…passionate, devoted Mary. At some point in the festivities — perhaps even at the beginning when the guests’ feet should have been washed — she gets down on the ground and produces a jar of ridiculously expensive pure nard. The woman who had sat at Jesus’ feet now anoints them. And in a further, socially awkward act of devotion, she lets down her hair and wipes off the excess. The air is thick with perfume.
Jesus quietly accepts her humble and sacrificial act. But others aren’t pleased. Mark says that some unspecified people were angry at what seemed like such an extravagant waste (Mark 14:4). Matthew says it was the disciples (Matt 26:8) who were mad. John specifically points the finger at Judas, whom he accuses of being a sneak-thief who would rather have seen the perfume sold so he could embezzle from the proceeds (John 12:4-6; one wonders at what point John figured out the truth about Judas).
Jesus responds to the objections: “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 12:7-8, NRSV).
Mary, it seems, knew something that the others didn’t. The disciples knew it was dangerous for Jesus to be anywhere near Jerusalem. Bethany was uncomfortably close, the news about Lazarus had spread, and trouble seemed imminent.
But Mary… Whatever the reason she had first acquired the perfume, at whatever cost, she seemed to think that the dinner party was a good time to use it, to lavish it on her Lord while she still had the chance.
There can be no question that Jesus championed the cause of the poor, the destitute, the downtrodden. Indeed, the hypocrite Judas capitalized on the fact, questioning the political correctness of Mary’s act, and looking for some way to gain personally.
Jesus, however, would have nothing to do with such a charade. He knew the Father’s plan, and took the long view. A year’s wages would not solve the problem of poverty; Jesus’ followers would continue to be called to minister to the poor into perpetuity.
But whether they knew it or not, the moment of crisis was upon them. Mary’s act of devotion was therefore not only generous but timely. Over and over, people had tried to arrest or kill Jesus, but his hour had not yet come.
That was about to change.