Before his last earthly Passover, Jesus has a meal with Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. We are told “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:15). And, during the meal, something amazing and unexpected (actually embarrassing) happens: Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and then wipes his feet with her hair. A word of rebuke arises. And Jesus replies with these words:
John 12:7 —
εἶπεν οὖν ὁ Ἰησοῦς· ἄφες αὐτήν, ἵνα εἰς τὴν ἡμέραν τοῦ ἐνταφιασμοῦ μου τηρήσῃ αὐτό·
“Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
Mary is the one who understands.
The way John sets the scene we understand as well. He says (verse 1): “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” Jesus is with his close friends, but it is “six days before the Passover.” As readers, we know where the story is going even if some of the characters in the drama do not. The shadow of the Cross hangs over Jesus. Passover this year will mean betrayal, rejection, condemnation, and crucifixion.
And, Mary knows this. She has come to terms with it. She anoints Jesus feet with “costly perfume made of pure nard” — part of the supply she had bought for the day of his burial. She knows there is not much time. He will not be with them much longer.
Thus, the display. And that is what it was: “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.” One of the old commentators writes “that the loosening of a woman’s hair was a mark of unusual self-abandonment…” Yes, we are told that Judas protested because he was a thief and wished she had made a contribution to the treasury instead — but, I can’t help but wonder if he and the others were more than a bit embarrassed just by the scene.
Displays of emotion are often embarrassing to us. And, what Mary did was excessive. It was expensive perfume. She wiped his feet with her hair.
There was a significant bond between Mary of Bethany and Jesus.
- According to Luke 10:38-42, once when Jesus was staying with them, and Martha was busy taking care of the arrangements of the meal, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, learning with the rest of the disciples. Martha protested. She wanted Mary to come and help — it seemed only right. But, Jesus said: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
- In John 11:17ff we read about the scene of mourning in Bethany after the death of Lazarus. Martha is quick to go out to Jesus and say: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It sounds to me like these were words of reproach — quite understandable in the bitterness of Martha’s grief. Jesus and Martha converse about the resurrection. It’s another of those dialogues — common in the Gospel of John — where the speakers seem to be talking past each other. But, then later Martha comes to Mary and says that Jesus is asking for her. Mary comes out to Jesus with the same message as her sister: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But, the effect is different. Now, it says Jesus is deeply moved: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Now He asks to see where Lazarus has been laid. It is after they say “come and see” that we are told that: “Jesus wept.”
- And, here it seems that it is Mary alone that understands what lies ahead for Jesus.
I’ve never understood why people have persistently tried to link Jesus romantically with Mary Magdalene. I just can’t see that. It just seems like complete silliness — there is no basis for it at all.
And, I honestly don’t care if Jesus was married. It appears from the Gospels that he was not — and that his itinerant way of life precluded marriage and family. But, beyond that, in principle, it doesn’t matter to me.
If people wish to persist in linking Jesus romantically to some woman named in the Gospels then the real candidate (based on what information we have) is Mary of Bethany. They were close. If people wish to speculate (against all other evidence) that Jesus was married — well, the likely candidate is Martha. She’s the one that felt the most free to correct him — and she’s always mentioned first, which may mean she was the older sister. (It’s our culture that links romance to marriage, in those days marriage was arranged and it was basically about procreation.)
Mary understands that the time is short. It is in this context that I understand his words in reply (verse 8): “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Soon there will be no more time for such displays of devotion.
Mary knew that death is what laid ahead for Jesus.
It seems to me that the rest of them were afraid to admit it.