"Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard , anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, said, 'Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?'...Jesus said, '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.'"
--John 12: 3-5, 7-8
When I was a kid one of my favorite writers was O. Henry. I enjoyed him because 1) his stories were always short, and I have a very narrow attention span, and 2) his stories always had a twist ending, the best kind. So at the beginning of each year in school I would flip through our Literature book and would always get excited when I would see that an O Henry tale was on the schedule.
One of his stories of which I am especially fond is The Gift of the Magi. You may remember it from your youth. A young American couple, Della and Jim, were very poor but very much in love. Each had one unique possession--Dellas' hair was her glory, when she let it down it almost served as a robe, and Jim had a solid gold watch that had been passed on to him by his father. On Christmas Eve Della had exactly $1.87 to buy Jim a present. So she chopped off all of her hair, took to the wig shop, sold it, with the proceeds bought a platinum chain for Jim to use to attach his watch to his waistband pocket. When Jim came home that night and saw Della's crew cut, he stopped, as if stupefied. With a solemn look he reached in his pocket and handed her his gift--a set of expensive tortoise-shell combs with jeweled edges for her hair, which he obtained by selling his gold watch. Each had given the other all there was to give.
An artist's depiction of the final scene from The Gift of the Magi.
That’s an amazing show of love. It's sacrificial love. It is the same kind of love that is shown in our Gospel reading from John. Here we see Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead just one chapter before, offer Jesus all that they have. Martha, a very practical woman, gives Jesus all that she can, which is the work of her hands. She honors Jesus with her abundant hospitality and her ministry of serving him and his friends at the table. It is the kind of ministry we offer when we set the holy table and gather around it to share in the Holy Eucharist, and the kind of ministry that you show when you invite someone into your home and share a meal and conversation with them. Mary, meanwhile, offers all that she can to Jesus. She takes her most precious possession, a pound of costly perfume made from pure nard. If Judas' statement is correct, and this perfume is valued at 300 denarii, then that means it is worth about a year's worth of wages, as one denarius was a day's pay. Mary takes this prized possession and uses it to anoint Jesus' feet, the same way one would anoint a body with perfumes before a burial. The text says that the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But so many of the statements found in the Fourth Gospel have two meanings; and so while it's true that the house was filled with the perfume's aroma, it is also true that the house was filled with the love that both Mary and Martha poured out for Jesus.
Mary anoints Jesus' feet while Martha serves the guests at the table.
Like the characters in O. Henry’s story, Mary and Martha give all that they can to Jesus: Martha gives her time and talent, and Mary gives her most treasured possession. This is the kind of love that we are expected to have in our own hearts—the kind of love that gives nothing less than everything. This love is a sacrificial love, one that compels us to give of our very selves for the sake of someone else. That’s not just a clergy thing, and not just a laity thing, but an everybody thing. We’re all called to embody that same sacrificial love. That is the Gospel Truth shown to us by the abundant love poured forth by Mary and Martha.
There is another Truth to be learned from this text, however, and that is that we must not put off an opportunity to show an act of love, or we may very well miss the chance to do it again. As I often stay in my funeral blessings: "Life is short, and we do not have time to gladden the hearts of all those we meet; so be swift to love and make haste to be kind." Life is an uncertain thing; we think to utter some word of thanks or perform an act of love, but we put it off, and often the word is never spoken and the action is never taken. Jim and Della did not miss their chance to do something special for each other, even if the outcome was not exactly what they hand in mind. Mary and Martha did not miss their chance. They saw the opportunity to do something for Jesus, something only they could do. Mary especially did this—anointing Jesus' body before his death. She seized that opportunity when it presented itself.
We might ask, well, what about Judas’ complaint regarding giving the money to the poor? After all, a jar of nard worth a year’s wages could do a lot of good. Jesus did, indeed, tell Judas rather infamously, "You will always have the poor with you." This rebuttal, though, has nothing to do with the poor themselves, but it has to do with the circumstances of the moment.
Taking care of the poor was something that all folks in Jesus' time understood. Deuteronomy 15: 11 gave the mandate to take, saying” You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.” This was a given. Caring for the poor was essential to following God. To do this work was something that should be done at any point, and Judas knew that when he gave his ill-natured complaint. What he is suggesting is something that they would have been doing all the time! Jesus was letting him and the others know that that was not what this moment was about. This was a moment for Mary to open her heart and to show her devotion to Jesus; and this was the kind of moment that had to be done right then and there, before the Cross took him into its cruel arms. So Mary did what she could, gave all that she had, and didn’t waste her opportunity to show her profound love for her Lord.
Paul says in the letter to the church in Philippi, "I want to know Christ." What a statement?! Who doesn't want to know Christ?! Well this is how we know Christ, by giving in love, by giving no less than all that we can, and by seizing the opportunities that we have to do that kind of giving. This is the kind of giving O. Henry shows us in The Gift of the Magi , the giving Mary and Martha show to Jesus. The giving of the whole self for the sake of love. It happens in our places of worship, but more importantly, it happens out in the world among our brothers and sisters who need it most. We dare not miss our opportunity!