In a culture where conspicuous consumption is more the rule of the day, over and against other times when an extravagant gesture was very much out of the ordinary, we may not really "get" the impact that Mary's willingness to break a bottle of (very expensive) nard over Jesus' feet as those present at that meal did, back in the day.
Mary's gift is over the top, and it takes time to parse out just what is happening and then a little more to embrace just how much this intimate moment between friends has impacted us in our faith journeys.
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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "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 12:1-8I am convinced that what is happening here is a dramatic illustration of what it means for us to embrace Jesus' call to become a community of beloved disciples. When we join in the communal fellowship that is Church, we are almost immediately challenged with the judgments needed to navigate daily life, making choices that have a faithful integrity that is bound in humility and submission to God. Over and against our own appetites and diversions, to be a part of the beloved community means hitching our well-being and futures to yokes. These yokes are the binding ties that make my welfare, your welfare and the welfare of those we serve...one.
All well and good when we agree on what should be done to serve that commonweal state, right? What happens when someone expressed more need than the system can provide? What happens when resources are not (really, they never are) limitless? What conflicts rise when we get bound up in being more aware of the scarcity around us than bounty?
Conflict happens: the worst sort of conflict. Take Mary's moment with Jesus. She had saved that nard...perhaps it was left over and unused after being purchased for her brother's burial rites? Perhaps she had kept it for years in hope of using it one day at her wedding, or to anoint her first-born? Or perhaps this was the very thing she intended it for, the anointing of Jesus, and she used the pretense of a host washing her guests feet to do the anointing.
Whatever the case, she shocked the room. Most were overcome with the scent. Judas Iscariot, we are told, was scandalized. Never to miss an opportunity to vilify the man, the evangelist ascribes dark motives to his argument that the use of the nard was waste and that the perfume should have been sold and the money used to provide care for the poor. We, taking Judas at face value, might join him. It makes sense to use money like that for administration and outreach, yes?
But, Jesus counsels, leave her alone. This is her moment, and I will not always be with you.
And remember, you will always have the poor with you, even when I am not!
THAT'S the rub...gestures (dramatic and otherwise) aside, this is about understanding that we are called to both care for the needs of those in need and remember to be a community that tenders extravagant honors to those we love and embrace.
We we get hung up in scarcity, that "wisdom" of holding back dominates. It's like watching a "rainy day" fund just sit there....when it is raining. We forget to remember, really, that God is with us in Jesus...and is well-honored when we pour out our being as a libation offering. God is also with us when we remember that the extravagant act is not about conspicuous consumption but also about loving each other in the face of the poor and in service to them.
It's that moment when Mary snaps the neck off the vial and the fragrance fills the house....