Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson
One of the most interesting features of this gospel story is its location: between the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a little interlude of sorts, a family dinner not unlike other family dinners in the past — except, of course, now they were harboring fugitives and enemies of the Empire and the religious establishment.
Unlike a similar story in Luke, the story of a woman anointing Jesus with extravagantly costly oil is not about a stranger with a bad reputation, but it is a family argument, a sister pitted against a disciple of Jesus.
Just as in the other story in Luke about Mary, though, Jesus defends Mary’s choice. In Luke’s story, her choice is to be a disciple, to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn, leaving her sister to do the “women’s work,” being transgressive in her role. Here, she decides to lavish the gift of her affection and service in a physical and materially costly way. . .also transgressive in its own way.
Even though John reads back into this story hints of Judas’ betrayal (in ways that would feed anti-Semitism for millennia), the story is really about Jesus’ extended family of choice having an argument, not unfamiliar to all families, about priorities, generosity, and duty.
If you are poor, have ever been poor, or have ever lived with poor people, you know this argument and all the impulses. The grinding discipline of poverty yields several conflicting impulses — sometimes, just to deny oneself everything for the sake of survival; or counter-intuitively, to spend that little extra cash impulsively on a luxury, just to feel like one is not trapped or constantly deprived. To do something so seemingly irrational is to break out of the prison of feeling like one has no choices.
The other phenomenon, however, is to give extravangantly to another in need, or to a cause, unreasonably, as an expression of one’s dignity and humanness. It is not that poverty makes one more virtuous, but, as Jesus often taught, poverty gives one the opportunity to risk giving beyond “proportionality,” to give deeply with risk, trusting in God. This is the story of the widow’s mite, of the boy offering his meager fish and bread, and so many other gospel stories.
When liberation theologians talk about “the epistemological privilege of the struggling poor,” this is what they mean, what Jesus meant: being poor gives you the opportunity to see God’s provision first hand, to see what your generosity, paired with God’s, can do to help a neighbor or a stranger. Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic anarchist/socialist, became a Catholic because she said, “so many poor are Catholic — they must know something!” She also said that the Church drove her to the communists, but the communists drove her to God!
Mary’s heart was overflowing that day, and she didn’t give a damn how much that oil cost. Jesus risked everything — his own life — to heal and bless others, and to raise her own brother from the dead. All of their lives were threatened now (as you see in the verses following this passage), and what were they holding on to this oil for anyway? He was tired, and for a moment, safe in their home, maybe relaxing just a little bit before the next ordeal. She would offer soothing, anointing oil; she would offer love and tenderness to One whose days were numbered on this earth.
In so doing, she was throwing off, for a moment, the tyranny that poverty can be and exercising her authority as a disciple and friend of the One who had made her heart soar with his teachings, who healed her broken heart of grief.
Jesus does not allow her to be rebuked for this. That his words, “You will always have the poor with you,” have been distorted to mean that crushing, structural poverty is beyond our ability to change is madness! Jesus taught and lived solidarity with the poor, the outcast, those whose hopes had been crushed. He became poor, and in so doing, “let the poor say ‘I am rich!'” For a minute, he allowed himself to receive her gift that empowered her and comforted him. To give and to receive, extravagantly, is what makes us fully human and fully divine.