Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his study of Christology (Christ the Center) with the thought that any study of Christ must begin in silence. When we understand who Jesus is, what he taught, how he lived and ministered, how he died and rose again, we must first simply be silent.
I spend a lot of my time around seminarians, people training for various forms of Christian ministry. These students too often become so caught up in their studies that they loose the sense of mystery. God lands up on the lab table and gets inspected and dissected. This also happens to seasoned church leaders. We get so caught up in the next task, the next crisis, the next sermon or Bible study. We get so busy that we miss the wonder of what we are offering to others. The awe is gone, but not so for Mary.
Jesus is on his way to the cross. In Bethany a dinner party is held for Jesus in the hometown of Lazarus whom Jesus had just raised from the dead. Other dinner parties are mentioned in the gospels with some similarities (Mark 14:3-9=Matthew 26:6-13, Luke 7:36-50). We have meet Mary and Martha before (in John 11 and in Luke 10). In Luke 10, Martha is serving, and Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus. The same picture is found in John 12. The family dynamics must have been interesting!
In the course of this party, Mary brings out an expensive jar of perfume (worth a day-laborers wage for an entire year), and pours it on Jesus feet and then dries his feet with her hair. It is an act of extravagant worship. Feet, hair, and perfume: These are signs of utter humility and great devotion. Mary is caught up with who Jesus is and lavishly worships. Recall David dancing as the Ark was entering into the City of David (1 Chronicles 16:24)!
John tells us that the scent of the perfume fills the room. It cannot be contained. It is as if the fragrance, this good news, fills the whole world. Paul reminds us that we are the aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14). Jesus said that stones will cry out if there is an attempt to squelch good news (Luke 19:40).
In Luke 10, it is Martha who protests the attention Mary gives to Jesus. Here it is Judas who objects, couched in the insincere language about concern for the welfare of the poor. Judas may be speaking for many at the party who find Mary’s actions extravagant and embarrassing. Jesus rebukes Judas. Jesus discerns a deeper meaning in Mary’s action.
This perfume poured on Jesus feet is normally used in times of festivity and gladness, but here Jesus notes that this perfume is offered in preparation of Jesus’ death. Mary’s action is prophetic. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to suffer and die for the world.
At first glance Jesus comment about poor seem out of character. These, however, are not words of resignation (the poor will always be here), but rather words of commission. Following Deuteronomy 15:11, this is a call to continue to reach out to the poor beyond this act of extravagant worship (see Stone, Evangelism after Christendom p. 216). Still, right now, in this moment before Jesus steps into his final week, it is right to pause, and for Mary to show her devotion.
The devotion Mary shows to Jesus is extravagant but it is not sappy. Feet, hair, perfume: there is something very earthy, simple, and heartfelt about act. This is humble worship that wells up from the deepest parts of Mary’s heart. Some authors have recently urged Christian worship song writers to move beyond the individualistic, me-centered worship songs.
(See Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, chapter 12, and Brian McLaren (http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/2005/06/an_open_letter_to_songwriters_265.html).
Eugene Peterson urges us to move beyond a hermeneutic of suspicion, important as it is, to a hermeneutic of adoration. Peterson writes: Look at the world with childlike wonder, ready to be startled into surprised delight by the profuse abundance of truth and beauty and goodness that is spilling out of the skies at every moment. Cultivate a hermeneutic of adoration—see how large, how splendid, how magnificent life is (Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, p. 69).
Mary was overwhelmed by this sense of adoration. She was coming to understand this love of Christ that is wide and long and high and deep (Ephesians 3:18). May we too move beyond dissection and be silent and still (Psalm 46:10) before the Lord. Ministry must emerge from this place.