In order to understand what’s going on in this text, we need to know what previously happened with this family. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha lived together in the town of Bethany. Lazarus became very sick. Jesus was told Lazarus was sick but he waited a couple days to go to him. Jesus told the Disciples that Lazarus would die so that they would believe.
Jesus and his Disciples went to Bethany but Lazarus had already died. Martha met Jesus on the way. She said to him, Lord, if you had come earlier, my brother would not have died. Jesus told Martha that He is the resurrection and the life and whosoever believes in Him will live. Martha confessed that she believed He was the Messiah. Mary came out to Jesus then took him to Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus wept.
Jesus ordered the stone rolled away from the tomb. Jesus prayed and ordered Lazarus to come out. Lazarus came out of the tomb alive. Many of the Jews gathered to mourn believed in Jesus. Because of this, the Pharisees began to plot to kill Jesus. Jesus withdrew from Bethany into Ephraim. The Pharisees gave orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should report it so that He could be arrested. The Gospel doesn’t tell us how long Jesus was in Ephraim.
The time for the Passover came. Jews from all over were traveling to Jerusalem for the celebration. Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The Disciples warned Him that it was not safe for Him to go to Jerusalem, but He was going anyway. On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus and His Disciples stop in Bethany to visit the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Bethany is just 2 miles from Jerusalem.
Lazarus, Mary, and Martha held a dinner in honor of their guest, Jesus. Martha served the dinner. Lazarus ate with the others – this tells us that Lazarus was really alive. After dinner, Mary poured a pint of nard of Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. The perfume of the nard filled the room where they were reclining.
This was a rather scandalous act. Normally, a woman would never touch a man except her husband and children; then only in private. Here, Mary touched a man, who was not her husband, in public. Second, a woman would never allow anyone other than her immediate family to see her hair. Here, again, Mary shuns social norms and lets down her hair.
Judas is concerned that this very expensive perfume should have been sold and be given to the poor. The Gospel writer takes the time to tell us that Judas has been stealing from the purse and foretells the reader that Judas is about to betray Jesus. Jesus rebukes Judas and tells him to leave her alone. Her action is one that Jesus will repeat in just a few days when He washes the Disciples feet in Jerusalem before the Last Supper. “Mary’s act of love and courage and extravagance is the model for His own” hospitality.
Mary loved Jesus and is loved by Jesus. She believes in Him. She has seen her brother raised from the dead. Her elaborate gift is surely an act of thanksgiving for the gift of her brother’s life.
This was no small gift. The perfume would have cost one year’s wages for a manual laborer. Mary and her family are wealthy. Some believe Mary funded much of Jesus’ travels. Even, if they were wealthy, this perfume was a great sign of Mary’s dedication to Jesus. Rev. David Lose suggests “it is a ridiculous amount of money to squander in one moment of devotion.”
One has to wonder. Is this gift a sign of her gratitude for Jesus’ resurrection of her dead brother Lazarus? Is she ignorant of the cost of her gift because she is so profoundly adores her Lord?
Anointing as king
In one sense, Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet is prophetic, if not priestly. It is a prophetic sign that points to His Kingship. A prophet, in the Hebrew Scriptures, would anoint a king as a formal announcement of his call to the throne. The prophets and priests would use oil as a sign of consecration for a Divine purpose.
Mary kneels before her King as a priest would after anointing Him for God’s service. Mary recognizes Jesus is King and devotes herself to His Kingdom. She knows exactly who he is and the kind of honor he is due.
Anointing for burial
Mary’s act was prophetic in another way. Their household would have connections to the elite in Jerusalem. Mary would have been aware of plans to arrest and kill Jesus. She would likely know that His death would be by crucifixion by the Romans, since that is the method of death used when the intention is not to just kill a person but to squelch what they stand for, to kill belief in them, to kill any possible continuing movement by His followers. Crucifixion would not allow for proper burial. Often the bodies of the crucified would be left on the cross for scavenger birds and animals to eat the flesh and later the remains would be thrown in a pit.  If she believed this to be the case, her act of anointing Jesus’ feet would be a prophetic anointing for burial.
One has to wonder. Is she aware at some deep level that Jesus will not be with them much longer? Does she give all she has while she has the Lord with them? Is her action of abundant generosity what discipleship looks like?
I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to you about giving. Usually, when we think about giving, we think about our monthly or weekly tithe. This may conjure up memories of what we have been told over the years about giving. Many will have memories of the Biblical teaching that suggests 10% of our income should be given to the church. This is what the Old Testament says about giving, 10% of our first fruits. That is, 10% off the top, of your best.
I think the New Testament gives us a new vision of giving, like the one from today’s story. The gift Mary gives is not said to be from her income. Mary purchased this perfume with the intent of using it for Jesus’ burial. This was an expensive gift given for a specific purpose.
It’s difficult to translate that into a model for how we should give to the church. One could make the assumption that as faithful Jews Lazarus, Mary, and Martha would already give their appropriate tithe to the Temple. Mary’s gift was in addition to what was already expected of a faithful Jew.
One could see this gift as Judas did. It is a very valid point of view. The costly perfume could have been sold and given to the poor. Jesus did, after all, acknowledge that they poor would always be among us and in need. Jesus did not say that selling it for the poor was a bad idea. Jesus simply reprimanded Judas for condemning her for her action.
Perhaps giving is not always practical. There must be some connection between the call to be wise with our gifts and the call to reflect Mary’s extravagance and generosity. Rev. David Lose suggests that this text is directed to us who “shrink back from such unconventional and excessive outpourings of faith, love, and service.”
Are we to always think like Judas and practically manage our finances? “Under what circumstances would I rejoice in such a generous outpouring [as Mary’s gift]? What other acts of love do I label as unconventional, wasteful, or improper simply because it is beyond my comfort zone?”
Giving is not simply a commandment. As we give our gifts, we acknowledge that what we have is a gracious gift from God. We give back a portion of what God has given to us as a trust that God will continue to give to us. The Old Testament sets forth a way to acknowledge our gifts from God. The New Testament challenges us to take giving above and beyond the commandment. The New Testament calls us to give extravagantly and abundantly as a response to the abundant life we receive through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by our generosity that we revere God’s gifts and hallow His name.
 see Exodus 40:15; 1 Samuel 16:12