The meal at Bethany served by Martha seems to be an ordinary meal but in reality it is extraordinary. To begin with, John explicitly says that it is six days before Passover. This puts the meal in the context of the most solemn festival of the Jewish year. For another thing, Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead, is present. The imminent offering of the paschal lamb and resurrection are both brought together. Even more extraordinary is the extravagant anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious perfume by Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. Jesus interprets Mary’s action as a preparation for his burial, which he seems to expect is imminent, thus tying his death with the both the Passover and Resurrection. Judas’s protest over this “waste” shows that the hostility against Jesus has reached the inner circle of his disciples.
All four Gospels have a story of a woman who pours expensive ointment or perfume over Jesus, but the differences are striking. Matthew and Mark are very close parallels. Just before the Passover and Jesus’ Passion, an unnamed woman enters the house of Simon the Leper, who lives in Bethany, pours the ointment and dries Jesus’ feet with her hair. The disciples as a group protest the “waste.” This is much the same story as in John except the host is different. (Mt. 26: 6–13), Mk. 14: 3–9) Luke tells the same story except that it is placed much earlier in his Gospel and is not connected to the Passover and the Passion. (Lk. 7: 36–50) That the anonymous woman is called “a sinner” adds a sharp edge to the story. The host is Simon and he is identified as a Pharisee. He grumbles that Jesus should have known the woman was a sinner and elicits a famous parable on sin and repentance. The woman in Matthew and Mark, like the sinful woman in Luke, is so froward with Jesus that she too is considered a loose women if not a sinner. Mary of Bethany in John is more respectable and is a hostess rather than an intruder, which gives the story a very different feel from the other three, but this respectability makes the gesture all the more shocking. Respectable women don’t act this way.
It is intellectually interesting to piece together the symbolism in John and the relationships between the four versions of the story. If we let all of this seep deeply into us, it can be quite spiritually stimulating. But what really connects the women in all four versions is the extravagance of the woman which is warmly commended by Jesus. Even if we are shocked by these women (or woman), we should be even more shocked at ourselves over how little we care about Jesus. Are we like Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his table but showed no affection? Are we like the apostles who complained about the waste? To this day, we tend to look down on this woman, thinking the worst of her, when Jesus would have us look up to her as an example of apostolic zeal. It is worth noting that in Luke Mary of Bethany is the one who sits at the feet of Jesus listening to this teaching while Martha (as in John) serves the meal. Here, Mary of Bethany shows her ardor but in a more contemplative way.
Isaiah proclaims God’s promise to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” In this generosity, God is pouring Godself out as extravagantly as the women with the ointments, and surely God does need see this extravagance as“wasteful.” (Is. 43: 19–21) When Paul writes to the Philippians that he is pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” his words gush out like ointment flowing out of control. (Phil. 3: 12–14) Bob Dylan expresses this gush in his song “Pressing on” which repeats these words over and over with greater and greater intensity that becomes overwhelming.
The women and Paul return the overflowing love of God back to God while the rest of us sit back and grumble at the unseemliness of it all. Do we not realize that the women who let their hair down and gush out their love for Jesus will also gush out that same commitment to Jesus who is present in the poor? Meanwhile, the complaining disciples, and especially Judas, don’t really mean to help the poor or anybody else. More importantly, do we not realize that on the Cross, Jesus’ blood will pour forth as did the ointment poured over him? It isn’t that all of us have to be as emotional as these women and Paul, but we do need to be as deeply committed to Jesus so as approach the deep commitment Jesus shows to us. We should take to heart Leonard Bernstein’s directions to a choir and orchestra: “Give me everything you’ve got, and then a crescendo.”