March 25, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
The gospel today comes from John 12:1-11.
Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. Then Judas the Iscariot, one [of] his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions. So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” [The] large crowd of the Jews found out that he was there and came, not only because of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too, because many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him.
We have in this scene a vivid contrast between abundance and scarcity. John, more than the other gospel writers, inflates his words with multiple meanings. His gospel is intended to be read both literally and metaphorically. That is especially true of today’s reading.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus apparently were Jesus’ closest friends. They were devoted to him and he relished his relationship with them and enjoyed their hospitality, allowing himself to rest and relax. They were exceedingly generous in lavishing attention, love, and the good things in life upon their friend. Their love and desire to be with Jesus knew no bounds.
John Shea in The Relentless Widow points to the Song of Songs, which Solomon wrote to describe the sublime, mutual love between the Lord and his people. “For the king’s banquet my nard gives forth its fragrance. My lover is for me a sachet of myrrh to rest in my bosom.” Mary could think of no better way to express her love for Jesus than to lavish something of great value upon him; not just on any part of him but on his feet — the most unattractive, calloused, dry part of his body. Even his feet were dear to her. She used her hair to wipe his feet so that the fragrance would remain with her for a long time, keeping the memory of the moment and of him as close and vivid as possible. It reminds me of when my mother died many years ago and I often went into her closet to smell her clothes, to vivify her memory in that most personal, lingering sense. I think Mary understood that Jesus’ death was imminent and she wished to have something of him to keep close to her heart. The love they shared was at a mystical, spiritual level just as Solomon tried to depict in his song. That’s the nature of the relationship that Jesus wants to have with us.
Judas is the contrast, representing the poverty of the spirit that lacks love. The phrase “You always have the poor with you” is often quoted without its context or used in its literal sense. Certainly, Judas was speaking literally of the poor because his relationship to Jesus remained at the superficial level. His role was the keeper of the purse; he was all business, bottom-line focused, practical. He represented the secular while Mary was the spiritual. His spirit was characterized by scarcity while hers radiated with abundance. I think that Jesus was referring to this difference in his reply to Judas. While he spoke to Judas on the literal plane, he also appealed to his heart. I think he was speaking of the poor in spirit, not really the poor in pocket. Those who love the things of this world and those whose love of Jesus knows no bounds. Those who wish to hold on to, to hoard, the treasures of this life and those who are willing to give everything out of love of Jesus.
I wrote a column years ago that comes to mind (http://develop-net.com/articles/on-abundance.html) about this quality of abundance. The orientation of abundance that Mary demonstrated gives rise to joy even when suffering and loss and grief are near. As Paul reminds us, God gave us life to live abundantly, to the utmost, with generosity and thankfulness. Living abundantly is giving myself wholly in love to Jesus and, by his example and teaching, to all people. I cannot see or hear or smell Jesus as Mary did, but I can keep the sights and sounds and smells of those in my life as “a sachet of myrrh to rest in my bosom.”
This reading at the beginning of Holy Week seems fitting to me — a mark of God’s abundant love for us and the joy we can experience even as suffering, death, and grief intrude.