The gospel reading for today is the story of Mary anointing Jesus with costly perfume. (John 12:1-8) Jesus and the disciples were once again together in the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. The author of the Gospel of John brings to the readers’ attention that Lazarus was the one raised from the dead. I’m sure the occasion was a happy one, maybe they were celebrating Jesus’ role in that resurrection. The text announces that the dinner was in Jesus honour.
This story is also recorded in the other gospels. Today, I’m only going to focus on the Johannine account. Although many details are different —for instance the woman is unnamed in two accounts —it is clearly the same tale.
I think the most important thing to note is that Mary did the unexpected. She stepped outside the acceptable role for women of the day. It is easy to miss the impact of this in the familiarity of the story about Martha and Mary. Often, we read it as if Martha took the role of service and Mary the more spiritual route, like these were their permanent roles.
I prefer to think of Mary’s action as an aberration. She stepped out of role and did the unexpected. It was noted as such as it caused a reaction from the disciples. Maybe it even sent a shockwave through them. A powerful woman stepping out of her place!
Mary anointed his feet with costly oil. This is a powerful prophetic action which is almost unequalled in the gospels.
The story tells us that Mary had purchased the perfume to “keep it for the day of [Jesus] burial” (8). Yet, she chose to anoint him that day. I repeat — a powerful prophetic action which is almost unequalled in the gospels.
I often wonder how Mary felt. It certainly can’t have been easy for her to do this. It is never easy to go against the status quo. Maybe it is worth realizing how hard this action must have been for Mary. Yet this one deed, this significant anointing, caused her to earn her place in history.
There is also a sort irony in this story. One worth pondering for the last weeks of Lent. At a celebration for Lazarus who was “raised from the dead” (1) Jesus was anointed for his own death.
I want to glance briefly at the role of Judas in this story. He queried whether the perfume should have been sold and given to the poor. The writer of the gospel notes in parenthesis that Judas wanted to steal the money. However, they would not have known that at the time. I often wonder if it wasn’t merely a later attempt to show that Judas was always bad! If not, why let him handle the finances? Imagine if Peter or John had been the ones to query whether the money should be given to the poor. Would it have sounded different?
Jesus message had consistently been to side with the poor and marginalized, yet here he was lauding Mary’s action. Clearly, this shows the importance of this one prophetic action. In this story, this single action takes precedence over caring for the poor. This is not a light thing. Another part of this story well-worth reflecting on.
Mary performed a powerful prophetic act. She stepped out of her expected role. She broke the stereotype of how a woman had to behave. Mary, and a few other women like her, made the gospel relevant for women. She helped to form and change Christianity, and continues to do whenever her story is revisited.