It was a couple of days before the Passover Jesus and his disciples had gathered for a meal at the home of Simon the Leper in the village of Bethany, three miles outside Jerusalem. Neither the identity of Simon the Leper nor the purpose of this meal is given by Mark. Simon was probably one of the lepers that Jesus had healed and the meal was perhaps given as an expression of thanksgiving.
After the meal was finished, everyone was relaxing around the table; a woman anoints Jesus with a bottle of perfume. Mark does not share the woman’s identity, but we know from John’s gospel that it was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who were also from the village of Bethany.
Mary takes what was likely her most precious earthly possession, breaks the jar, and anoints Jesus by pouring a year’s worth of wages over his head. The beautiful aroma filled the room. This anointing was an act of extravagance; an extraordinary expression of love, adoration, and sacrifice for Jesus.
Not everyone was impressed with this act of extravagance. Mark does not name those who reacted negatively to the “waste” of perfume, but Matthew tells us that it was the disciples and John tells us that Judas Iscariot led the charge. They protested by asking, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” His indignant objection seemed pious, but he didn’t really care about the poor; he was the treasurer of the Twelve and had a habit of dipping into the money bag for his own selfish purposes.
What did Jesus think about this act of extravagance? We would expect him to react the same way as the disciples, but he doesn’t. He immediately comes to Mary’s defence. Instead of condemning her, they should have commended her. Her action of anointing Jesus was a beautiful expression of her love and gratitude toward him, and she should not be berated for it.
In addition to being an expression of love and devotion, Jesus interpreted Mary’s act as an anointing of his body beforehand in preparation for his burial. Typically, bodies were anointed with perfume after death, not before. Time for such an expression of love and devotion while Jesus was with them was running out. On the contrary, opportunities for helping the poor would continue. And indeed, Jesus’ prophecy is still being fulfilled: we are still talking about Mary’s act of devotion 2000 years later.
The above event is traditionally understood as an incident which depicts the devotion of the woman with an alabaster jar. But the story projects more than just that. It depicts two types of Spirituality which people practised and still practice, which are as follows:
A. Spirituality of Poverty
This notion of Spirituality is visible in the acts of the chief priests, the scribes and the disciples. Theirs was a Spirituality of Poverty; a Spirituality, which did not have any depth or relevance. A Spirituality of Poverty as reflected in the acts of the above people depicts the following:
Although they were religious leaders, they practised a Spirituality of Deception. They were on the lookout for an opportunity to trap Jesus, who emerged as a threat to their leadership. Secretly, using deceptive means they were adopting schemes and strategies to trap Jesus. They were not straightforward in their dealings.
They were so selfish in their thinking and attitude that they were not able to appreciate the other. They always looked at the other from their narrow and parochial perspective, which always sounded negative. Their selfish nature did not allow them to realise the power of the Lord which has led to the transformation of many lives. They just could not bear the name and fame the Lord was getting from people. So their only wish was to eliminate him from the scene.
A Spirituality marked by deception and selfishness without an eye to see the good in the other does not last long. Such Spirituality lacks permanence and is forgotten because their faith and works do not have any impact on people. Instead of enabling people to grow spiritually knowing God and standing for the values of God, they through the practice of a Spirituality of Poverty destroy people inculcating in them hatred and animosity. Their understanding of God and People is very conservative and hence does not promote growth or development but destruction.
B. Spirituality of Extravagance
Along with the Spirituality of Poverty, there is also the portrayal of a Spirituality of Extravagance. This notion of Spirituality is visible in the act of the Woman with the Alabaster Jar, which has got again three features:
The story very clearly communicates that the act of the woman stemmed out her deep devotion to her Lord. She would have experienced her Lord very personally in different moments of her life. Luke describes the woman as a sinful woman and if so, she would have experienced real deliverance from her sinful life and hence she was completely devoted to her Lord who led her to a life of transformation. If the woman is Mary in line with the record in John’s Gospel, then Mary did experience her Lord as the Lord of life over death raising her own brother Lazarus from death to life. So she was filled with gratitude and in turn deep devotion to her Lord, which prompts her to engage in the act what she did.
Her devotion to her Lord led her to sacrifice the most costly possession she had. Without counting the cost, she came into the house, broke open the alabaster jar and poured the pure perfume over her Lord. According to Luke, the woman brought an alabaster jar of ointment and began to wash his feet with tears, kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. For the woman, the Lord meant everything. Her own reputation did not matter. She was prepared to make the most costly sacrifice to her Lord even at the risk of the criticism of people.
This Spirituality of Extravagance does have a permanent impact. The Lord himself reacted to the noble act of the woman by saying “Don’t rebuke the woman; she has done a beautiful thing for me…wherever the Gospel is preached she and what she had done will be remembered”. Today we remember her as the Lord has already said. The woman continues to inspire people with her life of devotion and sacrifice, thus bringing in a permanent impact on many broken lives enabling them to experience that life of fullness which the Lord has come to offer.
There is a beautiful Danish film called “Babette’s Feast” which won the Academy Award for “Best Foreign Film” in 1987. It is the perfect illustration of the Spirituality of Extravagance. The story is set in 19th century Denmark and centres around two sisters who live in an isolated village with their father, who is the honoured pastor of a small Protestant church. Although they each are presented with a real opportunity to leave the village, the sisters choose to stay serve their father and their church. They always ate a meagre meal of bland fish soup so that they could use their modest resources to help people in need.
After some years, Babette, a refugee from the French Civil War, arrives at their door, begs them to take her in, and commits herself to work for them as maid/housekeeper/cook. Sometime after their father dies, the sisters decide to hold a dinner to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. Meanwhile, Babette unexpectedly wins the lottery and implores the sisters to allow her to prepare the meal. Although they are secretly concerned about what Babette, a Catholic and a foreigner, might do, the sisters allow her to go ahead, but the church members all agree in advance not to enjoy the meal.
Babette purchases the finest china, crystal, and linen with which to set the table and imports the most luxurious ingredients from France. Then she prepares the feast of a lifetime, with the perfect wine to complement each of the six courses. The church members simply cannot resist enjoying the meal and the whole experience transforms their lives—old conflicts are healed, old prejudices pass away, old memories are celebrated, and new relationships begin. After the feast they discover that Babette was the famous former Chef of the Café Anglais the most prestigious restaurant in France. They also discovered that the meal cost 10,000 francs, the full amount of her lottery winnings. Babette sacrificed everything she had to show her love and devotion to her friends. She, like Mary of long ago, knew and practised the Spirituality of Extravagance. It is this Spirituality of Extravagance that the Lord is calling all to engage in.
Rev. Dr. M. Mani Chacko, Ph.D( Lond.)
The Bible Society of India
Bangalore – 560 001