Holy week is right around the corner. As such, I want to take a few days to unpack and reflect on one of the stories that comes to us in the Gospels that took place days before the original Holy Week.
Love Makes You Do Weird Things
If you’ve ever watched the CBS comedy “How I Met Your Mother” then you’re likely familiar with the main character, Ted Mosby. Ted is, as they say, a hopeless romantic. Constantly searching for “the one” (hence it taking 9 years to finally meet The Mother). With each new potential “one” Ted throws himself in with no regard for things like reason or logic. No date is too early for Ted to confess his undying love.
Part of the fun of “How I Met Your Mother” is watching the crazy things that Ted does for the people he loves. Big, extravagant gestures meant to convey the depths of Ted’s feelings were often met with laughter and a dash of disapproval from his closest friends.
Often times Ted would go a bit crazy in his efforts to show his affection.
Over the top.
All (to quote U2) “in the name of Love.”
Mary of Bethany reminds me a lot of Ted Mosby.
John tells us the most about Mary, as well as her two siblings: Martha (the busy-doer), and Lazarus (the back-from-the-deader). These three siblings, according to the Gospels, seem to be incredibly close to Jesus. I get the sense, for instance from John 11, that these might be some of his best friends. Sure, they didn’t make the cut for the 12 disciples, but sometimes your best friends are not the people you work with.
Mary, especially, had a close place in Jesus’ heart. In fact the only time we ever see Jesus weep in the Gospels is when he sees how broken Mary is over her brother’s death. You could kick the tar out of Jesus (and people eventually did), but he wouldn’t shed a single tear over it. But mess with Mary? Waterworks, baby.
So when you get to the story in John 12 of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, you need to hold in mind the special relationship that these two shared. Otherwise it won’t make as much sense.
1 Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. 3 Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. 4 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, 5 “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” ( 6 He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) 7 Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” -John 12:1-8 (CEB)
I’m going to take the next couple days to make three observations from this story. I hope you’ll follow along.
The first is this…
Adoration Over Application
Perhaps the most common observation from this story is that Mary chose an act of pure adoration over practical application.
In Mathew and Mark’s account they say that the disciples were discussing amongst themselves about how wasteful Mary was being. John mentions that Judas voices what likely everyone else was thinking, what a waste! We could have done so much with that money!
Jesus tells everyone to “leave her alone!” Matthew and Mark record a detail of the story that John left out, as Jesus adds, “She has done a good work.” Other translations read, “a beautiful thing.”
In other words Jesus says, “what you call wasteful, I call beautiful. What you call a misuse of resources, I call a good work. What you say is ridiculous and outlandish, I say is appropriate and wise, since I won’t be around much longer.”
It was so beautiful an act that Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus predicted that “wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
John said Mary had 3/4 pound, or about a pint, of pure nard. An ointment so expensive it would have cost about a year’s worth of wages back then.
A Lot of Money for a Little Moment
Okay, let’s contextualize that a bit.
The 1950’s gave us many things in American culture and one of those things is a ridiculous notion that you should spend 2-3 months salary on an engagement ring for your beloved. Many people strangely still accept this as a general rule.
Now, while this seems absurdly extravagant in my opinion, at least we’re talking about something that will be worn every day for the rest of their life.
So in that regard you could maybe justify such a price-tag.
But imagine taking your salary for one whole year and then buying something for somebody that will be enjoyed for a singular moment. Not worn every day for years and years, but one experience with it, and then gone. An entire year’s salary.
For instance, consider buying this 1951 Bottle of Penfolds Grange from Australia. It is a Shiraz and Cab blend that will set you back a cool $50,000.
Imagine buying this bottle and then, during your next dinner party, you pull it out, uncork it, and pour a giant glass only for your beloved to drink. Meanwhile everyone in the room is aghast and whispering among themselves that this must have cost you more than you make in a year! (Because, well, naturally everyone at this particular party happen to be wine connoisseurs, so they know all about the Penfolds Grange). Just picture the looks, the stares, the thoughts. I am certain people would be thinking “what a waste” and questioning your judgment to both buy a bottle like that AND to pour it all out for one person.
Sometimes love just doesn’t make sense.
Is It For Others, You, or God?
I wonder if you have ever done something that you believe, on some existential level, is out of obedience to God, but the people around you thought you’d lost your mind?
Or perhaps it’s less about obedience and more about just wanting to demonstrate your love for God or your commitment to follow Jesus? And it might seem so lavish or over the top, it might appear stupid or ridiculous to other people. And yet you do it anyways?
I think Mary’s example here says to us: Don’t worry what other people think of you. Their discomfort is not your concern. They will say what they will. Your devotion is between you and God.
Mary’s absurdly beautiful act of devotion is really problematic for our sensible, modern minds, isn’t it?
At times we might be able to tolerate small doses of over-the-top-ness from people in their pursuit after Jesus. We might have space for the occasional act of devotion by our friends and family. But if it gets too absurd, or happens too frequently, don’t we sometimes end up seeing them as super-religious or a bit nutty? We have a category in our brains for “those” sorts of people, don’t we?
Outrageous acts of love, worship, and devotion, like what Mary did that day, are not commonplace in our religious frameworks.
So I make this observation of how Mary chose to adore her friend instead of be practical and helpful with her resources, but if I’m being honest I’m not really sure I know what that means. Meaning, I don’t know what to do with this part of the story.
How does it apply, if at all, to my own life?
It’s like this story just sits there, as this incredible testament of love, to just remind us that “love” in God’s Kingdom doesn’t always make sense.
I find myself partly inspired by it, and partly annoyed by it.
And yet there there it remains. Just as Jesus predicted. A story still being told long after it happened. An incredibly extravagant waste of money that Jesus calls “a good work.”
Which brings to mind the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said “let your light shine before all people so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
So maybe we just sit with it, and whisper a “thank you” to Mary of Bethany for this timeless good work that stands as a beautiful moment of giving glory and adoration to God.
Yeah, it’s absurd. No one is arguing that.
But like Ted Mosby shows us, when you love someone you don’t play by societies rules of what is proper or practical.
And this extravagant act of adoration stands as a timeless testament to just how life-changing, boundary breaking, and heart opening it was for people to follow Jesus.
Perhaps you and I could afford to be a bit more absurd in our love for our Lord, no?