“Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Mt 26:6-13)
And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mk 14:3-9)
Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (Jn 12:1-8)
Often these passages are used to derive a moral and political lesson. Quoting Jesus, politicians and pundits popularly use this passage as an explanation for why less attention, effort, and resources should be given to the poor and powerless. Instead, I think this passage has a lot to tell us about beauty, forgiveness, and desire.
Matthew is a biblical narrative, and so we will look at three layers of meaning in Matthew. The first immediate layer is easy to follow in this scene. Although Matthew does not tell us that the woman in this story is Mary the sister of Martha, we know from this same story being retold in John that Mary is this unnamed woman. This scene happened in Bethany, at the house of Simon the leper. From John’s account, it seems like Martha may be a servant of Simon’s.
In this scene, Mary anoints Jesus with very expensive oil. She poured oil on him. To us, these days, pouring oil onto someone at a dinner would be something that you would apologize for. To them, however, this was not that unusual. In Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9, the oil is poured on Jesus’ head, which symbolizes his kingship. In John 12: 1-8, the oil is poured on his feet, which symbolizes Jesus being glorified in his death. John also mentions that she used her hair for wiping up. This was also not unusual for a servant to use her hair to wipe up excess liquid from a dinner guest. Poignantly, Mark adds Mary’s tears to her anointing of Jesus. So, this is a profound act of worship by Mary that Jesus declares to be beautiful.
There were two different reactions recorded to this anointing of Jesus scene. The disciples were “indignant” at this waste of financial resources. This oil could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor. The second reaction was for Jesus to declare both that this was a beautiful thing and, quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11, that “you will always have the poor with you.”
We might also add our own reaction here. We often try to follow Jesus’ example to derive a moral rule. This rule usually gives us permission to spend resources on something we find beautiful or desirable instead of giving those resources to the poor, because those resources are not going to end poverty.
The logic of this argument is that since poverty is an unsolvable problem for us, we should not spend any more time, effort, or resources than necessary on trying to fix it. At the very least, giving to the poor should not significantly hinder resources for beautiful or desirable things. No matter what we do, the poor will always be with us. This logic makes sense to us, because it is the same logic that we use for a whole slew of problems we are unable to solve. Our secularist culture trains us in this logic. We live in a world of resource scarcity. So, one of our primary problems involves figuring out how best to use those limited resources.
What is the solution to hurricanes? Like the poor, we will always have hurricanes, because we cannot stop them from occurring. While a number of people have suggested using sterilization and eugenics to solve the problem of poverty, nobody has yet suggested we somehow stop the wind from blowing. So, what do we do about this problem of hurricanes that we cannot solve?
We respond in some combination of three ways. The first is to let those most affected by hurricanes cope with them most so that the rest of us can comfortably ignore them. After all, if you’re going to decide to live in hurricane prone areas, to some extent you get what’s coming to you. The second is to use insurance programs to spread the cost and risk of hurricanes around to as many people as possible. When those of us in non-hurricane prone areas learn that we often unwittingly help pay for this insurance, we understandably don’t like it. We don’t want to pay for things that we will never use, especially when we can see lots of other better uses for those funds. Our society’s third response is emergency response. When a hurricane hits an area, we send in emergency responders, relief workers, and truckloads of basic supplies. This crisis response mode is intended to ensure immediate survival. When rebuilding happens, financial resources usually flow to those who already have resources in the expectation that some surplus resources will flow to the poor and powerless. These three responses to hurricanes parallel our society’s dominant responses to poverty.
There is actually a fourth response that receives far less attention, effort, and fewer resources than the first three. This is the response that integrates hurricanes into the entire process, starting even before construction begins at the planning stage. In this response, decisions like where buildings can legally be built and how they are to be made take hurricanes very seriously into consideration. Evacuation routes are planned, built, and maintained long before they would ever be used. This response takes seriously the fact that hurricanes will always be with us and integrates them into the entire way of life in that place. Wetlands are restored or created to absorb floodwaters. Utilities are kept underground. Weather watching is habituated as a hobby. Everyone has an emergency plan and survival supplies. Everyone knows what to do, and everyone is able to safely survive the storm.
Is there a parallel response to poverty for this fourth response to hurricanes? Yes. The first ten verses of Deuteronomy 15 that precede Jesus’ quotation from verse 11 outline a system of debt forgiveness and common flourishing that would result in everyone being able to survive the storms of life. After commanding this jubilee of freedom from debt, Moses says
“But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today” (Dt 15:4-5).
Why then does it say a few verses later in verse 11 that “there will never cease to be poor in the land?” Isn’t that a contradiction? This is so, because just like in the hurricane example, nobody actually does what is commanded. Smart urban planners and managers want to keep everyone safe and secure by integrating hurricanes into every facet of civic life. They know how to do it.
The problem is that the people do not want to do that. It is too onerous and expensive. People living on the coast want big wraparound decks and great views, and public safety officials do not know how to change what people want. Rather than ugly bunker-like hurricane proofing, they want beautiful big windows. Resources are limited. You cannot have both hurricane proofing and lots of big windows. So, we go with the windows.
This same logic works with jubilee and the other economic rules of the Torah that integrate poverty and powerlessness into every facet of civic life. The people don’t actually follow this law. It is too great a burden to sacrifice this much for something you do not really want to do. Rather than open-handed giving to the poor, they wanted very expensive oil in alabaster flasks. Resources are limited. So, we go with the alabaster flask of very expensive oil instead of giving to the poor.
We do not follow the law. We sin. There is sin, and so there is poverty. This leads to a follow-up question that follows this same logic. Since we cannot keep the LORD’s commands, why should we spend our attention, efforts, and resources trying to follow them? For many contemporary Christians, the answer seems to be that we should not really bother. The burden of even reading through the LORD’s commands might itself be too great. Plus, Jesus himself in this Matthew 26 passage seems to tell us that it is alright to go with the alabaster flask of very expensive oil instead of giving to the poor. Maybe the law no longer applies to us. We are already forgiven, after all.
Paul in Romans 6:1-2, however, gives a different answer. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” How do we reconcile this apparent conflict between beauty and poverty, given that we ourselves never seem to have enough resources to fully satisfy our desire for either one? If we follow what read in Matthew 26 about the anointing of Jesus, it seems okay to opt for beauty, at least so long as the beautiful thing is also appropriate. If we follow what we read in Matthew 19 about the rich young ruler, it seems we should opt for giving to the poor. What do we do? Scripture seems to say two different things. It seems that we are stuck.
One of the keys for making sense of Scripture is to remember who we are. Humans are desiring beings. We are also profoundly sinful. This means that our sinful nature affects everything about us, including and even especially, affecting our desires. We so often want the wrong things. Our desires, the things that spur and motivate us, lead us astray time and again.
What if our conundrum about Scripture is telling us that our heartfelt sinful desires are not aimed at what they should be, and that if they were, the conundrum would not be there? What if it is not Scripture presenting us with this conundrum but us bringing this conundrum to Scripture? What if what we find beautiful is not actually beautiful? What if we believe about giving to the poor is not actually giving to the poor with an open hand?
Well, what is beauty then? Is that not, as we are so often told, in the eye of the beholder? How could my take on beauty possibly be wrong or misaligned? Similarly, how could I misunderstand what it means to give to the poor? That seems so simple. Consider Deuteronomy 17:14-20.
“When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.
“And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.
These instructions are given for potential Israelite kings. A king would be a person with enough power and resources to be in a position to choose between beauty and giving to the poor. What do powerful men, like a king, desire? Apparently, they desire to acquire wealth, have horses, boss people around, and have many wives, which is basically money, sex, and power. Maybe you can relate.
That is the default sinful state of desire for such a man, and the instruction here is not simply that he should definitely not pursue those desires. Instead, and this may seem odd at first, he should copy and then repetitively re-read the law every day of his life. What?! Powerful men are always busy. Powerful men have people to copy and read for them. Powerful men are not usually scholars and do not want to spend their days rereading the law. They do big important things.
Transformation of Desire
Why is the instruction to those with power to regularly and repetitively spend time in God’s word? So that they “learn to fear the LORD” and not have their hearts “lifted up above their brothers.” Devotional habits like this shape head learning and heartfelt desires. This habit helps the powerful man to appreciate the beauty of the LORD’s plans and laws. It also recalibrates his desires from sinful self-serving to longing for shalom. In other words, this Spirit-directed habit transforms the powerful man’s understanding of beauty and fuels his desire for the beauty of shalom.
Instead of using other people to help him get more security and status, the king comes to see the beauty of shalom and community with his brothers. Notice that this copying and daily reading of Scripture is not done in isolation. The king does at least part of this habitual process “in the presence of the Levitical priests.” Even kings need teachers and a community of practice from whom they can imitate and learn. This instruction for people with power is to fully participate in the LORD’s process for making men out of monsters.
What about the disciples? The first response from Jesus has nothing to do with money or the poor. This act of anointing is beautiful. Don’t trouble Mary about this. She obviously already knows this is beautiful. This is why she does this, with tears no less. Jesus also recognizes this beauty. Yet, the disciples do not see this beauty even though it is right before them. They do not know real beauty when they see it.
How does a person, like one of these disciples, come to recognize true beauty like this anointing when they see it? By following the transformative discipleship training outlined in Deuteronomy 17. Immerse yourself in Scripture. Then, as Jesus points out to the disciples in Mt 26:12, they will come to recognize the grand story and this beauty when they see it. For the time being, however, their characters are not far removed from arguing over who will sit on which side of Jesus, and they are at this point in the story just about to betray and deny Jesus.
Learning to Drive
What about us? How do we come to recognize the grand metanarrative and appreciate real beauty? Surely, there is more to it than this habitual process. Remember how you learned to drive a car. You probably had a small driver’s manual. The written directions and rules for driving are not hard to understand. Yet, even though you learned those written directions and passed a test to confirm that book learning, you were still not a licensed driver. You only really learn how to drive a car after you have practiced driving a car again and again. The more that you drive under an ever-widening array of conditions, the better a driver you become.
You also learn how to drive from watching and imitating the people around you. Drivers from areas that rarely experience snow or ice take a different approach to preparing for and driving through wintry conditions than do drivers from areas with a lot more snow. You learn, at least in part, the importance of giving yourself extra time, having snow tires, and leaving extra room between vehicles from living within a community of drivers that regularly drives through snow. Through this process and this community environment, we become more sensitive to and aware of the needs of good winter driving.
Repeatedly immersing yourself in Scripture and applying that to an ever-widening array of life experiences, will help transform you into a more aware disciple. Importantly, just as with driving, this habitual Scripture reading should happen within a community of believers. Through this process and community environment, we become more sensitive to and aware of the beauty of shalom and the LORD’s plan.
Metanarrative: It’s a Wonderful Life
Remember the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life in which George Bailey is sitting in that very short chair in Mr. Potter’s office, and Mr. Potter offers him a job? The job would give George lots of money and opportunity, but it would entail that the Bedford Falls Building and Loan be closed down. George, of course, desires the fancy clothes, money, and trips to Europe that he would get with Mr. Potter’s job. He has longed for those things his whole life. Much of what this movie has presented to us about George Bailey’s desires and ambitions to this point has been about his frustrated striving after these desires. Now, he is presented with this real opportunity to get them.
What does George do? He shakes Mr. Potter’s hand, and, startled, pauses to think, remember, and imagine. He thinks about his values. He remembers his Bedford Falls neighbors and his father. He imagines the destruction of shalom that would result from closing the Building and Loan. Then, he refuses Mr. Potter’s job offer. Would a younger George Bailey have done the same? What affect did the day in and day out habitual operations at the Building and Loan over the years have on his character? I think that, at least in part, it was through these that his character grew into the man he was always meant to become. Now, in Mr. Potter’s office, George Bailey has developed the character to recognize and see true beauty. True beauty does not ultimately reside in fancy clothes and trips to Europe. True beauty resides in shalom, however, small and circumscribed. His desire to save that beauty from certain destruction is now much stronger than his desire for fancy clothes and trips to Europe.
So also did Jesus’ disciples like Peter come in time to see the beauty in Mary’s anointing of Jesus. Peter came to recognize that his desire to save even his own life mattered less than his desire to faithfully play his part in the LORD’s plan. May we take time as disciples of this same Jesus to develop our characters so that we too come to recognize and desire the beauty of shalom and the LORD’s plan in our lives and neighborhoods.