Mary’s Lavish Gift

Often, when an event is familiar, people have a tendency to get careless about its essential meaning. We recount the events of Holy Week yearly; and instead of becoming more precious over time, the events of this week lose their significance, receding into dullness.

So today, experiment with me, if you will. Close your eyes and try to imagine some of the scenes retold in the Gospels as if you’d never heard the story before. (Come on, work with me here!)

The week-long Jewish holiday the disciples were preparing to celebrate was all too familiar to them; to some extent, they were going through the motions, entering Jerusalem (as they had done many times before) to participate in Passover.65776_passover_md

No, the festive atmosphere wasn’t lost on them. Like most religious holidays, this one included the requisite triumvirate − food, fun and fellowship. After their recent weeks of travel and managing the crowds that constantly surrounded Jesus, who would blame the disciples for hoping to relax over a tasty meal and a glass of wine?

It wasn’t going to be easy though. With the memory still fresh of those crowds who had vigorously welcomed Jesus at his entry into Jerusalem, an undercurrent of puzzlement gripped many of the disciples. The crowds had worshipped him, throwing palm leaves and their garments onto the ground, crying out Hosanna! Why would they act that way … unless they were ready to make him king? What else could it mean?

Added to this confusion, a growing dissension had cropped up in their midst. Peter was angling for a more prominent role. He’d already confronted Jesus: “We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?” (Matthew 19:27, The Message) Others were grumbling as well. James and John’s mother even proposed to Jesus that her sons should be the ones to be seated on both sides of him! (Matthew 20:20-28)

With seven days of feasting and celebration ahead of them, the disciples probably considered the familiarity of the events a welcome distraction from their usual concerns. Partake in a few quiet meals and good wine, renew old friendships with other observant Jews … and the perplexing questions could be postponed until after Passover.

At least, that’s what they might have thought. But of course, the week played out quite differently from what they’d expected.

Contrast the disciples’ mindset to another interesting character. Because she was a woman, her role appears to have been less prominent. Her name isn’t even mentioned in three of the Gospels; she’s just a woman. However, in John 12:3, she’s identified as Mary; yes, the same Mary who chose to sit at Jesus’ feet.

Mary’s presence on the periphery didn’t mean she wasn’t listening. In fact, she paid close attention to everything Jesus said. She’d heard him say: “I’m going to Jerusalem to die.” (Matthew 16:21, 17:22, 26:2) “They’re going to kill me … but on the third day, I’ll rise again.”

When Jesus and his disciples reclined for dinner one feast night, Mary went into action. She quietly entered the dining room and knelt beside Jesus. In the next moment, she pulled an alabaster vial from the folds of her dress and broke it. The pungent aroma of perfume filled the room as she poured liquid from the vial onto Jesus’ head.

A murmur arose around the table as disciples eyed each other quizzically. What’s this? A new twist for Passover?

Oblivious to all others in the room … except for Jesus, Mary continued, silently lavishing her perfume over Jesus’ feet, then wiping them tenderly, worshipfully, with her hair. The fragrance began to permeate the whole residence.

Before she’d finished, several of the disciples objected, indignant by this wasteful act! “That perfume could have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor!” Such profligacy! Perhaps Peter’s earlier grumble had begun to resonate with the others. (We left everything to follow you! Where’s the payoff for us?)

Jesus immediately rebuked them. “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.” (Matthew 26:12) Had any of these men listened to him when he was talking about his death?

In serving Jesus Christ, I often find myself thinking cost/benefit ratios when I mean to be pursuing worshipful action. It’s almost impossible to worship extravagantly when I’m seeking to identify what might be the payoff for me. Jesus, on the other hand, was extravagantly resolute; though knowing he would die in Jerusalem, he steadfastly entered the city. (Luke 9:51)

For National Poetry Month, I offer this retelling of Mary’s extravagant gift, a poem reproduced from an 1880 hymnal and written by Charles Lawrence Ford.