We are now into the last few days of Jesus’ life, and he is preparing to celebrate his final passover with his disciples before he is betrayed, handed over to the authorities and crucified. Jesus is in Bethany, enjoying a meal with friends including his host, Simon the Leper, and (as we are told in John 12) the siblings Lazarus, Martha and Mary who have featured in several different stories in the gospel accounts.
One of the women at the meal (John tells us that it was Mary) approached Jesus with a flask of very expensive ointment and poured it on the head of Jesus while he was at the table. Without doubt, this was an act of incredible devotion. The ointment is believed to have been worth around a year’s salary for a labourer! This would be the equivalent of blowing her savings in one shot, and yet her love for Jesus meant that she did it without hesitation.
Seeing something like this happen could cause different responses. There is the obvious appreciation of the devotion being shown, but there are also questions that could be asked about the wisdom of ‘squandering’ such an expensive resource in this way. This second response was the disciples’ instinct and they were apparently indignant about the wastefulness, suggesting that the money could instead have been given to the poor.
It is easy to sympathise with the disciples here, but we must see what is happening. They have taken upon themselves the roles of critics of the devotion of somebody else. They could just as easily have sold their own possessions (we know they still had the family fishing business and Peter owned a home) but this didn’t come into the conversation. Giving to the poor served as a convenient ‘what about’ in critiquing the woman, but nothing more than that.
Jesus’ response is not meant to be dismissive of giving to the poor. It is true that there will always be the poor with us, and they should be a priority for us. Jesus has been clear about this on many occasions. But he did want them to see how beautiful this act of devotion the woman performed was. He considered it his preparation for burial and promised that wherever the gospel is preached, this deed will be remembered (as indeed those same disciples who initially objected have ensured that it is by including it in the gospel accounts).
Both devotion to Jesus and serving the poor matter. This is a story of devotion, and in it we see that Jesus is taken aback as Mary pours out the most valuable thing she has. Her life is changed and the memory of this deed becomes her legacy. We too are invited to pour ourselves out for Jesus, and when we do, life will never be the same again.
Some Key Points:
- This woman poured out what she had in devotion to him.
- It is easy to critique and criticise the devotion of others.
- Jesus sees this kind of devotion as beautiful and he loves and affirms it.
- Pour Out What You Have – This woman was willing to give everything she had in her worship and devotion to Jesus. Challenge the congregation to think through what extravagant devotion would look like for them.
- Do Not Critique the Worship of Others – The problem with the disciples in this story is rather than looking to the heart of what the woman is doing, they offer an analysis of how she should express her devotion differently. Where is there a temptation for us to critique rather than appreciate the worship and devotion offered to Jesus by others?