When I was younger and I heard this story, I always heard the perfume described as “a pound of pure nard.” Well, I had no idea what nard was, but it rhymed with “lard,” so I had a vision of Mary spreading a pound of lard on Jesus’ feet. After which, all the dogs in Bethany followed him around for the next several days.
Makes a lot more sense to talk about a pint of perfume, anyway. We might wonder how good a perfume could smell if it comes in pints, but remember that in these times, there weren’t many perfumes. Even the kind of eau d’cheapo that comes in pint bottles would have smelled good to them.
Except, it seems, to Judas. He asks why this extravagant gift wasn’t made to the poor, instead of only to Jesus. John tells us he was probably asking because he figured to take a cut of the sale before distributing the money to the poor. Charity begins at home, of course. But we know that because John tells us – none of the other people present besides Jesus would have known the reason behind Judas’ question, and some of them might have thought it was pretty reasonable.
So Jesus responds to the question. Lay off Mary; she’s done a very wonderful thing. She kept this gift to give to me to symbolize something about me, to anoint me for my burial.
Many Christians throughout history have mistaken some of Jesus’ meaning here. Judas’ question seems to suggest that there’s some kind of conflict between a gift like Mary’s and giving to the poor. And according to his question, the conflict should be resolved in favor of the poor.
When Jesus answers him, it seems like he’s coming down on the other side. The poor you will always have with you, he says, but you won’t always have me. Many Christians use this verse to justify massive spending on elaborate church facilities or lavish lifestyles for their pastors. They’re giving their best to God, by giving to make his house or his representative flashier than other buildings or other people.
This seems like a weird idea in the mouth of Jesus. We wonder why he would say it, when most everything else he says talks about the need to help the poor.
The conflict resolves when we understand that the sentence about the poor always being with us is actually a quote from Deuteronomy 15:11. The poor will always be with you, God tells the Israelites, so I command you to help them in their need. Offering gifts to God doesn’t conflict with helping the poor, Jesus says to his listeners. They complement each other.
Now that makes sense to me, especially in our modern world. Although many of us may not be rich according to our standards, by the standards of most of the rest of the world, most of us are very, very well off. Something as simple as clean drinking water puts as ahead of many, many people.
And it’s not hard to give enough to help people in need when you have an abundance. Remember the rich folks showering money into the temple treasury when the poor widow gave her last two small coins. Despite their questionable motives, their lavish giving fed more people than the widow did.
But if we think we’ve given enough when we’ve given to help the poor, Jesus wants us to remember Mary. She gave her best, not just enough to help someone get by. We remember the widow, who gave everything, not just a little bit.
When I think about this, it makes more sense to me than it does at first. When we give to those in need, we’re obeying one of the greatest commandments. We’re showing love to our neighbors in need, which we know we’re supposed to do. Of course, there are two commandments to look at, though. The other one – the first one – is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
If we simply give only to show our love of our neighbors, we forget why we, as Christians, care about those people to begin with. They’re God’s children, like we are, and God cares for them just as much as he cares for us.
But if we give only to show our love of God, we neglect his children entirely. We have to be ready to give to folks in need, and we have to be ready to give our best to God. Doing both helps us honor God as well as show what we call Christian compassion towards those in need.
Doing anything else leaves us one commandment short.