A few years ago, a church in my town built a huge new building. HUGE. I scoffed at their extravagance and complained about the expense. To make matters worse, I only agreed with 95% of this church’s theology. Until we were seeing eye-to-eye on all things theological, I felt free to judge how they spent their money.
In hindsight, I wonder if I was being like Judas. Given that he’s the villain of the New Testament, he’s probably not one I should emulate.
In the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem—to crucifixion—and he stopped in Bethany to visit his old friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. They held a dinner party in his honor. Martha served, Lazarus sat at the table with Jesus, and Mary sat at Jesus’s feet (John 12:2-3).
It seems Martha was always serving and Mary was always at the feet of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel we are told that Jesus stopped by their house on another occasion and there again, Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (Luke 10:38-42). When Martha complained that Mary should be helping, Jesus responded, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part” (Luke 10:41-42).
Similarly, when Jesus stopped in Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, Mary again sat at his feet. This time, she opened an extravagantly expensive jar of perfume, poured it on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (John 12:3).
The smell of the perfume would have pervaded the room, but it would have been especially strong on Jesus and Mary.
This time it was Judas, not Martha, who complained.
Judas was tantalized not only by the smell, but by the cost and extravagance of the perfume. He says, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
A denarius was a day’s wage; 300 days suggests this perfume cost a year’s earnings.
Indisputably, Mary was extravagant.
When Judas complains, Jesus (again) comes to Mary’s defense. This time he isn’t defending her from her sister’s complaints, this time it seems more serious. Here, Judas accuses Mary of choosing wasteful extravagance over helping the poor.
That’s what I did when that church built its multi-million dollar facility. I wondered, out loud, why they built a monument to themselves instead of spending the money to help people living in poverty. My complaint reflected my jealousy, not genuine concern.
Similarly, Judas, who will shortly betray Jesus for just 1/10 of what Mary spent (Matthew 26:15), complains about Mary’s choice.
In response to Judas’ complaint, Jesus tells Judas, “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8).
While some have used this as an excuse to avoid the hard work of helping people living in poverty, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. Instead, I think Jesus is saying: “Judas, as long as there are selfish people like you in the world, some people will be left in poverty.”
That sounds sort of like, “hey Beth, instead of worrying about what that church isn’t doing for the poor, how about you worry about what you are doing?”
Instead of being like Judas, I need to be more like Mary.
Judas accuses Mary of choosing a wasteful extravagance over helping the poor, because Judas didn’t understand what Mary was doing.
The cost of the perfume alone makes this an extravagant act, but there’s more to it than just money. Mary gave herself. It was an act of such remarkable devotion that it marked Mary for all time.
In response to this incredible act of self-giving, Judas says, “we could have sold that perfume and we could have done a lotta good for the poor. Way to go, Ma-ry!” Judas doesn’t see that a lot of good is about to be done. Jesus is about to go to the Cross and reconcile humanity to God.
Mary’s loving, generous, prodigal, act points to the death of Jesus because she perfumes him, as if in preparation for burial. But more importantly, Mary’s generosity and extravagant selflessness foreshadow the generous and extravagant self-giving act Jesus will perform on the Cross.
I need to emulate Mary, not Judas. Like Mary, I should be sitting at the feet of Jesus and finding ways for my life to carry the perfume of God’s extravagant love into the world.
What about you? Do you have one of those churches near you? Have you expressed wonder at their facilities or judged how they spend their money? What do you think Judas didn’t understand about Mary’s actions? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
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