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 Jesusâ€™ 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, â€˜Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?â€™ (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, â€˜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.â€™
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
A pound of nard! This is not a modern pound but a Roman pound, which is about three-quarters of that â€“ roughly 12 ounces; and the sum Judas mentions as its commercial value would have been equivalent to 10 monthsâ€™ wages for a labourer. If you suspend judgment on Judasâ€™ motive for objecting to Maryâ€™s gesture, itâ€™s still pretty shocking, and probably many of us would be inclined to make the same objection, though with the idea of really using the money to help the poor. Whatâ€™s going on here?
Well, for a start, Jesus is visiting his friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha; this may be another version of the visit Luke tells us about, when Martha serves, as she does here, and Mary sits at Jesusâ€™ feet. In both cases, Mary is represented as devoted in a different way from her sister: sheâ€™s focused, apparently, on Jesus as Lord, whereas for Martha heâ€™s an honoured guest but not, it seems, anything more. Yet itâ€™s Martha who, after the death of Lazarus, made that stupendous declaration of faith: â€˜I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the worldâ€™. Theyâ€™re a formidable pair, these two women.
I suspect Iâ€™m not the only person who sometimes feels more like Martha and sometimes more like Mary: wanting to do something for the Lord or just wanting to pour out everything precious as an expression of love and faith.
And really, we need both in the Church. We need people whoâ€™re ready to carry out all kinds of practical tasks, including those that are part of the liturgy â€“ so ministers, readers, singers â€“ and those that are essential to the context of the liturgy: keeping the church clean, managing parish finances, arranging the flowers â€“ all that sort of thing. And we also need people whoâ€™re ready to devote their time and energy to prayer: our contemplative nuns, of course, but also the many lay people who tap into the contemplative streak in their nature and devote part of every day to personal, private prayer â€“ to sitting at the Lordâ€™s feet, like Mary. Maybe the key word is generosity: depending on your temperament, on your circumstances, on the needs of the community, youâ€™ll be generous in different ways.
And itâ€™s worth reminding ourselves that what counts for Jesus is not the amount in itself: Mary spent 300 denarii on spikenard, the widow in Mark 12 and Luke 21 gave only two copper coins, but sheâ€™s praised by Jesus because, for her, that is immensely generous.
This week, we remember the most generous act of all, Jesusâ€™ gift of his life on the Cross. The least we can do is repay him by giving what we can, in every way.
Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.