Judas and Mary. Two different approaches, two different
world views. Yet both of them were close friends of Jesus.
Mary brings an extravagance of love and passion. In an
action which is a forerunner of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet, she anoints
Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. The whole house filled with the
perfume of her gift. But Judas looks on with scorn and asks why such an
expensive ointment was wasted when it could have been sold and the money given
to the poor. Three hundred denarii was about one year’s wages for an
agricultural worker, which would be about $15,000 at current minimum wage.
This was not a small gift.
By now, Jesus’ friends must have known that his death was
approaching. After he raised Lazarus from the dead, the Jewish authorities
became very afraid that his activities would turn the Roman authorities against
them. Jesus had become a threat to national security and must be assassinated.
As his close friends gathered for dinner six days before the Passover it must
have been a bitter sweet occasion. Here was Lazarus, so recently returned from
the dead, and here too was Jesus, about to be taken from them.
It times of stress and loss, families tend to argue. And
it’s often about money and possessions. It seems that the family gathered
around Jesus was no different. The scripture doesn’t offer us a problem solving
model – a guide for how to make decisions in times of stress. Instead it offers
a contrast between Mary’s passionate love for Jesus and her impulsive decision
to use the perfume she has bought for his burial right now, today while he is
still here, with Judas’ apparent desire to get his hands on the money. The
author is very clear that Judas’ motives are less than pure. Judas sees the
situation as an apparently enlightened but possible crooked accountant. Mary
sees it as a woman deeply in love.
Jesus’ body was very important to Mary, and in a different
way, it is very important to us today. Our bodies are important because they
make us who we are. We are not just spiritual beings in a physical form – there
is an interaction between spirit and body which helps to create the people we
are becoming, just as the people we are becoming help to create our bodies. As
humans, we use our bodies to communicate, to create, to serve and to love. They
provide the way we connect and communicate even as they keep us apparently
separate from one another.
It was no different for Jesus. As a human he connected with
his friends through his body. He saw them with his eyes, spoke to them with his
mouth, heard them with his ears, touched them with his skin, and used his
muscles to serve them. Mary loved Jesus and she loved him as a fully embodied
person. She loved his body.
In the knowledge that somehow his life would be
foreshortened, Mary had spent a small fortune on precious nard for Jesus’
burial. Nard was a key component of the temple incense and is referred to in
the erotic Old Testament poem, the Song of Songs –
A garden locked is my
sister, my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
with all chief spices—
a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.
Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden
that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
and eat its choicest fruits.
Mary had bought nard with its overtures both of erotic love
and temple incense in order to have it ready for Jesus’ burial, but she can’t
wait. Perhaps with the premonition that something will prevent her using it for
his burial, she pours it onto his feet and daringly wipes it with her hair.
They are both covered with perfume and the house reeks with the scent of her
In her impetuous love, Mary is pointing to something that
will only become clear later. The religion of the day was focused on the temple
where sacrifices were made and nard was burned on the incense altar, but the
New Covenant would be centered on Jesus’ body and sealed in the blood of Jesus’
crucifixion. As time went by, in remembrance of his death and resurrection, his
people would symbolically eat his body and in doing so would be transformed
into him, specifically, into his Body.
Jesus’ body is not the totality of who he is any more than
my body is the totality of who I am. We do not get to touch his body but we get
to touch him, yes even to eat him, in the symbolic feast of the Eucharist. And
we get to touch him in the bodies of others. Jesus said “Whatever you do for
the least of one of my brethren you do for me” (Matt 25:40). Whenever we care
for another we are caring for Christ. Whether it’s offering hospitality, giving
a simple hug, making love, caring for a child or nursing someone who is sick or
frail, we are touching Christ.
Often we think about spirituality as something abstract;
contacting a beautiful inner energy; reveling in a sunset or experiencing a
sense of peace. But that is only half the picture, perhaps less than half the
picture. Spirituality is about bodies. It’s about how we live in them, how we
cherish them, how we bear with their shortcomings. A spirituality which ignores
the body is of little use in a world full of bodies.
Our cross does not have an image of Jesus’ body hanging on
it because our focus is on the empty cross, the image of Jesus’ triumph, the
image of resurrection and new life. But the danger of the empty cross is that
we conveniently forget the agony that Jesus went through. We forget that
resurrection did not come easily but after sweat, tears and as much pain as a
body can bear. We forget that our salvation was wrought by a man in a body
writhing in agony.
Let our empty cross not tempt us to turn away from pain and
pretend it is not real, or only temporary. Let us not let the empty cross tempt
us into thinking that spirituality is a mainly a good feeling that hopefully
lasts all week.
True spirituality is embodied. It is expressed through our
bodies and the way we care for them and for the bodies of others. Sometimes
that means living simply and frugally so that you can share what you have with
the poor, and God knows, enough of us humans are poor, - and sometimes it means
pouring all that you have in a lavish gift of passionate love to the Christ you
find in another.