Have you ever been part of something profoundly special that was nearly spoiled by some unkind words? Whether a heartfelt wedding toast interrupted by a crude joke or an important Bible study that is sidetracked by ugly political fighting, words have the power to bless and inspire but also to undermine and injure. As we read in this week’s Gospel, Mary is doing a beautiful thing for Jesus, but then Judas attempts to undermine her actions in order to enrich himself. I beg the preachers this week to side with Jesus and the Gospel writers and not to bother Mary, as she has done a beautiful thing.
We need to remember that Jesus knows this family very well. He returned Lazarus to life (John 11). He welcomed Mary as his disciple and stopped teaching the disciples at his feet to give Martha a private lesson on discipleship (Luke 10). It’s not difficult to see why Jesus loves this family. I follow the many interpreters who understand that Martha, along with her siblings, ran a combination poorhouse and hospital from their home. The name “Bethany,” according to theologian Jerome and the Syriac Bibles, means “House of the Poor.” The Qumran documents tell of three towns, just east of Jerusalem—exactly where Bethany is located—that were to be a residence for people with leprosy (11Q Temple 46:16-47:5).
When Mark (14:3) and Matthew (26:6) mention the story of Jesus’ anointing—though not naming Mary specifically—they locate it in the house of Simon the Leper, probably a massive building meant to house all those who couldn’t enter Jerusalem for purity reasons and were too poor or sick to return home. Theologian Brian Capper notes that the home, after which Bethany was named, combined care for the sick and support for the poor just out of sight of Jerusalem on the pilgrimage route that most Galileans took to Jerusalem (“The Church as the New Covenant of Effective Economics,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church; January 2002).
When Jesus was about to die, one of his disciples and good friends, who dedicated her life to serving the same people Jesus served, did something beautiful for him.
A combination poorhouse and hospital is exactly where we would expect to find a rabbi from Galilee whose ministry was about healing the sick and preaching good news to the poor. We would expect Jesus to enjoy residing with Martha, the master of the hospital (“Martha” is the feminine form of the Aramaic word for “master”), and her two younger siblings. When Jesus told his disciples that the poor will always be with them (John 12:8), Martha, Mary and Lazarus already knew that. The women had probably foregone marriages and families to take care of all who needed them. They were living out the full verse from Deuteronomy that Jesus quoted: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (15:11). This family had dedicated their lives to fully opening their hands to the needy and the poor.
It’s in the context of this dedication that Mary had kept a Roman pound of perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet. Was this a gift from one of the wealthy donors to the hospice? Did Mary scrimp and save to purchase the perfume herself? We simply don’t know. But we do know that when Jesus was about to die, one of his disciples and good friends, who dedicated her life to serving the same people Jesus served, did something beautiful for him. She made Jesus’ body smell good before he would smell of death. She touched him tenderly and with the softness of her hair before he would be beaten and nailed to a rough Roman cross. Judas sought to undermine her gift and question if she was really dedicated to serving the poor. But his hypocrisy could never tarnish her gift.
Maybe more than any of the 12, I think Mary of Bethany understood what Jesus was about to go through, and she did the best she could to comfort him in advance. Loving and caring for the suffering, poor and dying is how she spent her life, after all. And when her rabbi was about to suffer and die, she did what she could to love and care for him through it. May we follow her example.