In a world brimming over with hurt, I so often feel unsure where to direct my own precious and small resources to help, to heal.
Around me are so many people saying they know how to fix it, asking for my time, my money, my skills, my ear, my heart, offering a path – organisations, projects, causes.
How to choose? How much time I have spent weighing up how to do the most good, for the most people, in the most need.
To the extent that often when I have read this verse from John, I have resonated guiltily with Judas’ point of view about the extravagance of Mary’s giving:
The anointing of Jesus
John: 12 1-3 Six days before Passover, Jesus entered Bethany where Lazarus, so recently raised from the dead, was living. Lazarus and his sisters invited Jesus to dinner at their home. Martha served. Lazarus was one of those sitting at the table with them. Mary came in with a jar of very expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus’ feet, and then wiped them with her hair. The fragrance of the oils filled the house.
4-6 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, even then getting ready to betray him, said, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor? It would have easily brought three hundred silver pieces.” He said this not because he cared two cents about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of their common funds, but also embezzled them.
7-8 Jesus said, “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honoring the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You don’t always have me.”
Mary literally pours out her love. Judas responds with all the utilitarian, managerialist logic that is so in vogue right now in all the best nonprofit circles: the end/means arguments, the maximisation of good, the quantification of success. Judas’ motivations were off, we learn, but it has taken me a long time to realise that his logic was too.
It is all right there in the contrast between this, and Mary’s stunning act of intimate love and service for Jesus, her friend and Lord, as he sat in her living room just days before he was to take his final journey towards Jerusalem, and the cross. I started a list of adjectives to describe that one beautiful act of anointing, but it became unwieldy, so I have tried to distil the main things that impressed me about it on this latest, newly-illuminated reread:
- There was a cost and sacrifice to her actions, but also a joy and freeness. It was wholehearted.
- It was humble. A woman of honour, she uses not only her most precious possessions, but also her hair, on his dusty, road-weary, human feet.
- It showed an amazing perceptiveness, a sensitivity to the situation (quite Jesus-like in itself)… and a context-specific responsiveness to what that person needed, in that moment. Jesus honours her for this in v7/8.
- I liked how Mary also showed an awareness of what she herself had to give; her own resource-full-ness. She gave out of something she happened to be overflowing with. I think that helped with the free-ness.I am reminding myself to look to the Most High for my abundance, and to show careful stewardship to ensure I have enough left in me at the end of my everyday ragged life, to respond freely. It also helps me to remember Old Testament stories (e.g. 2 Kings 4) where God miraculously multiplies oil for people who have but a little.
- Both the ends (goal) and the means (method) in Mary’s giving, was relational. The act seemed to be like a natural overflow of who she was in relation to Jesus. How I’d love my giving to be like this! Even though I cannot give to God-as-Jesus directly, I know the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) stand flesh-and-blood in his place, and I can give for God, and to her, in relationship with them. Then I am not so much responding to “the poor”, as Judas said – a great, abstracted mass – but to “the person” God has placed in my path, in my living room… right in front of me in one way or another.
I still believe in wise and discerning giving. In a scope that goes global. In establishing strong and strategic foundations for giving. In the usefulness of digital and bureaucratic systems and technologies. But I have made some new resolutions to shape my giving more towards this example of wholehearted, humble, perceptive, responsive, resourceful and relational giving, even in and through the above.
My prayer, then: May we turn to God for our abundance (Psalm 23:5). May we find ourselves, in and through our Divine Beloved, pouring into the type of giving that spreads out through a room, a city, a hurting world, like a beautiful fragrance.
SUSAN WARDELL is a Social Anthropologist, Mother, Jesus-follower, Tree-hugger, Muffin Afficionado, and Writer. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.