The Gospel of John begins the account of Jesus Christ's crucifixion in chapter 12 with a scene that many of us are familiar with--a woman breaking a jar of expensive perfume over Jesus's feet, wiping and cleaning them with her hair. In Jewish custom, it was a great honor to be anointed with oil at a party--it symbolized that you were the honored guest, and all who attended the party and came in contact with you would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were being honored by the aroma from your anointing.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Unsurprisingly, after this wonderful act of devotion to the Lord, Judas Iscariot objected:
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
It is amazing that Jesus permitted someone who He knew was going to betray Him, and who was stealing from the disciples to participate in ministry and to have the kind of responsibility that he did as the money keeper. Surely, if anyone knew that Judas was stealing from the money bag it would have been Jesus Christ. Yet, instead of outing him and expelling him from the group, God permitted Judas to remain in the Twelve in order to fulfill His ultimate plan. Even though repeatedly Judas's true nature manifested itself through his words and actions, Jesus does not turn him out
If Judas had not been included in the Twelve, God's Will would have still been manifested, and Christ would have still died in order to save the world from its sinful condition. But, someone else would have ultimately needed to betray Him. One of the other Disciples would have needed their eyes blinded to the Truth so thoroughly that they could have committed the kind of evil that Judas did--in order to fulfill prophesy; in order to fulfill what ultimately must be done for the benefit of all.
The Bible doesn't give us a clear explanation as to why Judas Iscariot was chosen to fulfill the betrayal. It doesn't explain why he was initially included in the Twelve and why he was permitted to remain. It doesn't explain why Jesus allowed him to handle the money being the untrustworthy character his name is synonymous with even to this day. But, I imagine that it was done to fulfill God's perfect plan.
Sometimes it is difficult to see God's hand in the unfolding of our lives. Sometimes, bad things happen to us and evil prospers and it is hard to wrap our minds around why. This is especially true for those of us who have suffered tremendously in our lives at the hands of religious people, religious institutions, and religious zeal in general. Our minds try to rationalize what seems irrational--how can a God look down upon my suffering and do nothing about it? Why do the wicked prosper, while the sincere and innocent get crushed at the hands of their oppressors?
I wish I had an answer.
But, I believe that God does in fact have a plan to make beauty from the ashes. Even in this moment in scripture--Judas is speaking from the wickedness of his heart about the material value of this oil, attempting to sell his selfish pursuit of personal gain as a concern for the poor. But, Jesus takes the opportunity to answer this naysayer and teach us profound spiritual truths:
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Jesus praises the action--in all its extravagance as an act of love and devotion to Himself. Mary anointed Jesus for His burial, which He reminds the disciples once more is swiftly approaching.
It seems very strange that Jesus would state in so absolute terms that we will 'always have the poor' in verse 8--certainly, it would be Christ's plan to eliminate suffering! Certainly, as the savior of the World, He would want His people to eliminate inequality above all else. But we see here that Jesus knows that poor will always remain upon the earth--that though we do get the sense that this isn't the 'ideal' it is an unavoidable truth. Why is that?
I have a few possible explanations. First, that man's nature does not change. Just as Judas in this very passage spoke of doing things for the poor but in reality sought personal gain, there will always be those that seek to selfishly benefit from the goodwill of others. Charity scandals are still occurring to this day--CEO's of non-profits make enormous salaries off donations given in sincerity to help the hurting; 'trustees' skim from the top of offering plates, and distribution of goods and services for the poor are based on factors outside of need--who knows who, what color/ethnicity/gender/social position is the recipient, etc. Where there is the wickedness of man there is prejudice and inequity--where those remain, there will be some who suffer.
Second, there are, and will always be illness, natural disasters, and other things that can destroy the stability of any of us at any time. We cannot fully eliminate the poor in any society because we cannot prevent the occurrence of these things. There are times when, for no fault of their own people find themselves in desperate need.
We know Jesus had a heart for the sick and the needy. We know that He did not promote the accumulation of personal wealth for wealth's sake, and we know that He was constantly telling those with much to generously give--in some cases, to sell everything they owned and give it to the poor. But, we see here what seems to be a contradictory statement. Instead of giving to the poor--instead of using the wealth this Spikenard could have yielded to feed the bellies of the hungry, Jesus allows for the extravagant. He allows (and honors) Mary for anointing Him in this way.
Perhaps, there is more to this than meets the eye. Maybe, in addressing this extravagance in this way Jesus is teaching us something not only about the reverence due to Himself, but also about the plenty many of us in Western Society get to enjoy on a daily basis. After all, the poor will always be with us, He says. Why bring this up at all if the only point is that the action is one of devotion to Christ?
Is it possible that Jesus was teaching stewardship is not always radical giving? Is it possible Jesus was teaching us that honoring God can look different depending upon the individual?
For me, this passage demonstrates that God calls us all individually, and that we all have different things to do in our lives for the Lord. Some are called, like the Rich Young Ruler, most of the Twelve, and Paul the apostle to lives of radial servitude following the Lord--a life devoid of personal belongings and lives of constant and complete giving. But some, like Mary, are called to different forms of stewardship. Mary was honored as a woman who gave abundantly in order to bless our Lord--but her giving looked completely different than the others. Joseph of Arimathea is another case in point. He maintained a wealthy household, and was known as a rich man. He loved the Lord and is known for his generosity, providing the Lord with a tomb at His death. Very little else is known about the man from Scripture--but he is described as an honorable man and a disciple of Jesus Christ, and he did something generous and necessary. But, his giving looks different than that of, say, the Apostle Paul.
The importance was never placed by Christ upon the greatness of the sacrifice. Those who sacrifice more are not counted more righteous in His sight--though are certainly called blessed! The point then is not to give the most--but to always give. It's not to always give all we have to the poor--but to give to the poor. It's not to always anoint Jesus Christ with oil--but when the opportunity and the Spirit leads us to, to do so with a cheerful heart.