We are moved by Mary of Bethany’s act of devotion to Jesus while at dinner at the home of the recently resurrected Lazarus. However, there was immediate and vocal opposition. Judas’ response might have been an attempt at deception. Did he really care about the cost of the nard or the poor that the proceeds could have helped? St. John made a parenthetical statement that dispelled all doubt. “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief” (John 12:6).
Jesus took Judas’ protest at face value and reminded him that the poor would be of perennial concern. What was of immediate concern was his impending passion, death and burial. Mary’s act showed that she was truly present to the power of the moment, grateful for Jesus’ raising her brother from the dead while simultaneously foreshadowing Jesus’ need for a proper burial himself.
Each Gospel account has some version of this story. St. Luke’s story is not connected to Christ’s passion and the woman goes unnamed. Additionally, she bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, causing great affront. The host of that dinner party, Simon, protests the violation of purity codes which in turn led to the pronouncement of forgiveness for the woman.
People at Simon’s dinner party pondered the act and following absolution theologically, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49) Not only did Jesus forgive her, he lets her touch him. Which was probably the thing that perplexed the dinner guests the most.
In either home, Lazarus’ or Simon’s, the extravagant act of love would likely have been a scandalous violation of the honor/shame system of the day. Forgiveness of sin was a presumptuous and blasphemous act. Both rattled people. The established authorities began to plot to kill Lazarus and Jesus.
This passage gives us an opportunity to reflect on the outrageous nature of God’s forgiveness. Jesus loved sinners, dining and working with them. This love was demonstrated profoundly a short time later when he willingly participated in the sacred violence of his own sacrifice. God, in utter faithfulness, raised him and in so doing, shares life forever more.
The Richard A. Towers is the Lower School Chaplain at the Episcopal School of Dallas