By Ellen Ceely
"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 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 (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (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, '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 12:1-8 (NRSV)
Mary and Judas Iscariot are a wonderful and striking comparison of how our words and actions reveal what’s in our hearts. However, they also illustrate how easy it is to create rules around what “holy living” should look like and what “wasteful living” looks like.
Mary chose to anoint Jesus’ feet with an extraordinary amount of costly perfume. Not only did she anoint his feet, but she used her hair to wipe them. Feet were not something anyone of repute wanted to touch at the time. Feet were dirty and gnarly, and only the lowest servants were supposed to touch someone’s feet. Mary’s actions show a heart of humility. She saw herself as Jesus’ lowly servant, and she saw him as someone worthy of the expensive perfume. Her money could’ve been used for several other things—including Judas’ suggestion of helping the poor. But Mary chose to honor God with what she had in a way that contradicted convention.
Judas’ words appear harmless, even righteous on the surface. Even though the author noted Judas was a thief, we would likely ask the same question: why wasn’t this money used to benefit the poor instead of pouring expensive perfume all over Jesus’ stinky feet? Wouldn’t it be more holy and righteous to help those in need rather than buying something like perfume to clean Jesus’ feet?
Judas had obvious intentions: he wished the money had gone to the common purse so that he could take some. I think he also wanted to feel better about himself. He figured his words would sound good and might bring a rebuke from Jesus for the woman kneeling at his feet. His heart was proud and vain. He valued money and feeling superior to others more than he valued honoring God.
As he repeatedly does, Jesus takes the rules humanity created around him and tosses them out the window. The heart behind the action matters just as much as the action itself. Mary’s act of worship in anointing his feet is far more righteous than Judas’ performative pretense of loving and caring for the poor. Jesus points out that Judas has always had and will always have the poor. He could do something to help them at any moment. But he will not always have Jesus. Mary understood this, but Judas did not. Even in Judas’ greed and impending betrayal, Jesus is still trying to reach him. He’s still trying to help Judas realize what Mary has already grasped: in Christ is where we find a true treasure.
Are there things you say or do that you believe are holy? Do your actions match your words? If not, consider why you do the things you do. What’s the goal of your heart? Is it anchored in the treasure of Christ? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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