Mark 14: 3-10
3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money.
|Jesus in revolutionary mood|
This story has intrigued me since I first read it years ago. A couple of things: firstly, her action with the nard was outrageously extravagant to the point of being offensive. A tiny amount would have produced a very nice effect at more than half the cost. Secondly, Jesus seems to become suddenly blase about the poor. His words are suggestive of an ideological stance that willy-nilly accepts the socio-political and economic constructs that support mass poverty. Thirdly, why should this story, above all stories, be one that is remembered in connection with the spread of the gospel? That is, there is very little to be found in the story of forgiveness, or of helping one's neighbour, or speaking in tongues, etc. Fourthly, the comments of those present (whom John informs us were led by Judas Iscariot) actually make good common sense. Jesus didn't need a years wages worth of perfume poured on his head, and the money raised could have helped a lot of people.
I think that the reason why this story is so closely associated by Jesus with the spread of the gospel is that it exposes us very strikingly to the way in which the gospel is offensive to both common sense and conventional morality. Mary's act of generosity flies in the face of even the most generous human action through being so excessively wasteful; it's the gift that gives over and above any conception of need. As perfume it is wholly a non-essential luxury product, and as a consumer product it is worth a fortune. Lavishing such a non-essential, expensive good even on Jesus exposes the cramped meanness at the heart of much that passes for generosity in human terms. I'm not just referring to a few quid in the collection plate, or tithing, or whatever. Mary's act must have come from the Holy Spirit himself, poured out in her heart. It was a supernatural, superabundant act of which she would have been incapable, no matter how much she loved Jesus from her natural self. That is precisely why it is a GOSPEL act; it does not represent how much she loved him, or how generous she was, etc; but rather it represents Mary being caught up in the love of the Father for the Son through the Holy Spirit. The gospel is the invitation to become a participant in this extravagant movement of love. A little sprinkling of oil would never do. Not least, more evidence that Mary was acting under the Holy Spirit's guidance is that her action was likewise prophetic of Christ's impending death and burial. That her action should be prophetic of the cross, Christocentric, and offensive to good manners/sense to boot means that what she did was done from within the very heartbeat of the gospel.
Incidentally, while the last verse makes Judas specifically look bad, it also casts judgement on the kind of human-inspired generosity that purely human love and understanding veer towards.