Updated: Apr 6, 2022
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
(John 12:1-3, NRSV)
Six days before Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples in the upper room of a dwelling in Jerusalem, Jesus was the guest of honor for a dinner party at the home of his dear friends, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. We’ve met these three siblings before when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Mary and Martha were upset with Jesus for taking his dear sweet time to get to their house after receiving word that Lazarus was sick, and so they blamed him for Lazarus’ death. Jesus demonstrated his miraculous power by resurrecting Lazarus.
You may also recall how, on another occasion, Jesus was the guest of honor at this same house when Martha asked him to chastise Mary for not helping her prepare the meal. Something I read recently offered a new interpretation of this scene, stating that Mary may have been traveling with Jesus as one of his disciples. So, instead of helping Martha in the kitchen, she was hanging out with the other disciples listening to Jesus teach as they waited for dinner. While this is only conjecture, it’s an interesting thought to consider.
At the dinner party referenced in John 12, Mary opened a container of expensive perfume and rubbed it on Jesus’ feet. Then she wiped his feet with her hair—an added gesture of love and devotion. She used so much perfume that the whole house filled with the smell of pure nard. The treasurer for Jesus’ ministry, Judas, was annoyed that Mary would be so wasteful with such expensive perfume. While he seemed to base his objection on his concern for the poor, John’s gospel spells out that he was agitated because he was skimming money from the treasury to keep for himself.
Jesus rebuked Judas for his miserly grip on the ministry funds (see John 12:5-6) and praised Mary for her devotion. Since the next day was his triumphal entry into Jerusalem that would lead to the cross, he even hailed Mary as a prophet who could sense his impending death (see John 12:7). In John 12:8, Jesus asserts the urgency of the moment as he tells Judas that there will always be opportunities to care for the poor, but since Jesus’ death was imminent, Mary “has chosen the better part.” Just like Jesus told Martha, “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:41-42, NRSV)
Expressing our passionate devotion to Jesus is always the better part, even if it seems extravagant or wasteful. Yes, we need to care for the poor, but we must ground our charity by first worshiping God.