|The Anointing with Oil and Tears|
by Sadao Watanabe, 1979
The story of a woman anointing Jesus with expensive perfumed oil is one of those rare stories that appears in all four of the gospels, in one form or another. Each gospel includes its own unique features, but the version in John 12:1-11 is perhaps the most detailed. There is lots here to examine in a Bible Study and some fascinating questions to follow off the main story.
And that's so tempting. Some of them are fascinating and worthy of more attention. But, resisting the urge, can we look at the big picture for a minute?
A woman anoints Jesus with expensive oil. The response made by the those watching - represented in John's story by Judas - is that this is a wasteful extravagance that could have done so much more if it had been sold and the money used for the poor. Jesus replies that she is anointing him for burial and the poor, unlike Jesus himself, will always be with us.
Okay, so there's the two main features of the story right there: the woman's extravagant gift and the question of its practicality.
Bearing in mind that Mary didn't say anything about why she was doing it - it's Jesus who suggests the reason, foreshadowing what was to come in the next week - everyone watching is left with their own judgement of it's value. And some would undoubtedly agree with Judas, despite the personal motivation John ascribes to him. And why not? Isn't caring for the poor a cornerstone of the ministry to which Jesus leads us?
Some, however, might have first have been moved by the the great love and devotion shown by Mary's actions: an unexpected gift, an act of kindness and humility, freely given.
Are we, then, asked to choose between the value of the act of giving and the gift itself? Or are we asked to consider the value of Jesus, the recipient of the gift, and the value of feeding the poor? Surely, practicality and common sense make those answers easy.
If only practicality and common sense were also cornerstones of Jesus' ministry. But they're not. Love is. Living a life of love, as Jesus showed us, isn't always about common sense. Nor can it be judged for its practicality. Living a life of love constantly challenges us to put love before cost. Living a life of love constantly challenges to care for all, not to make choices based on values we may want to ascribe to those we consider more or less deserving.
I don't believe this story tells us that extravagant love and care of the poor are exclusive of each other. Rather, they are intrinsically linked. In living the life of Jesus, we are often faced with the difficult choices invited by a practical world. This story reminds us: love more, judge less.