Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” - John 12:1-8
There are few passages in scripture packed with such beauty and truth as this intimate scene. While Matthew and Mark place it in the house of Simon the leper, and the woman who anoints Jesus is unnamed, John places it in the home of three beloved friends with Mary as the anointer.
Mary’s selfless act has propelled her to be the ideal picture of Christian discipleship in that she spares no expense preparing Jesus for his death. In the coming chapters, we will also see the price Judas is willing to make as a pivotal role in his death too. But for now, John paints him as someone who is just out for himself.
As beautiful as this scene is, and what it sets in motion, I feel like the author makes an unfair comparison between the two by adding negative commentary that has left the church with a distorted view of someone Jesus loved and trusted.
I say this not to diminish Mary’s heroic act. But to suggest that we shouldn’t be so quick to make Judas a villain. I mean, what do we really know about the two?
John tells us Mary is the sister of Martha and Lazarus. They live in Bethany. We don’t know when and where she first met Jesus. Or how long they’ve known each other.
The Bible that suggests, however, they are close. When Mary’s brother is deathly sick, she sends word for Jesus to come. When Jesus finally shows up, after Lazarus has died, they comfort one another.
We also know that Mary is also one of the three women who go to Jesus’ tomb after his death. But when she meets her resurrected friend, she mistakes him for the gardener.
If we only had this dinner party to go by, we might assume Mary comes from a well-to-do family, because she possesses a gift that would cost the average worker an entire year’s salary to purchase. It’s possible that her family was patrons of Jesus’ ministry, which might explain why Judas grandstands about wasting money.
As the one in charge of the purse, it would make sense that he didn’t want the group to seem frivolous and financially irresponsible. His questioning of Mary’s generosity would have been valid from this point of view.
Jesus had built much of his reputation on caring for people who were outside the socio-economic safety zones – men without status, widows who lost all they had, children who were hungry. Perhaps Judas was more concerned about the optics of what the public might think then he was about stealing for himself.
And this makes me ask, what do we really know about Judas? We know he was an Apostle, hand-selected by Jesus. As one of the Twelve, he would have been a close companion with our Lord. Like Mary, we don’t know when or where he met Jesus. How he was called, or what he did for a living.
In some ancient texts, the name “Iscariot” refers to people from the village of Kerioth. Other documents define it as “dagger-man,” which has left some scholars to believe Judas was part of a radical fringe group of Zealots, who sought to incite war against the Romans believing it would trigger the coming of the Messiah and establishes His Kingdom.
But in the Greek Bible, “Iscariot” is translated as “betrayer.” That’s the one that seemed to stick.
I think John wants us to compare ourselves to these two seemingly opposing characters. The truth is, Mary and Judas were very much alike. Both were students of Jesus. Both were very close to him and served his ministry. And of course, both play a pivotal role in preparing Jesus for his death.
John would have us believe that Judas has no redeeming qualities. While Mary is the obedient one who did what God was calling her to do. If Mary understood who Jesus was and what was about to come, isn’t it possible that Judas did as well? After all, his actions set in motion the events that would bring about salvation to humanity.
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Although the Church has constantly cast Judas in bad light, the Bible seems to suggest what he did was done in great obedience to what Jesus asked of him. On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus turned to Judas at the table and told him to “do quickly what you must do.” (Jn 13:27)
We might prefer to think of ourselves like Mary, a studious, ardent follower of Jesus who will spare no expense for his mission. But aren’t we also a little bit like Judas too, in that Jesus is asking us to participate in his ministry in a way that might seem a bit foolish, if not costly?
Though Mary and Judas play important roles in Jesus’ story, we are not called to compare ourselves to either one. Instead, we are called only to identify with the Anointed One who stands between them. Just as Jesus knew they were both uniquely made, he knows we are all equally called to do the will of God.
It doesn’t matter if you are a saint like Mary or a sinner like me, Jesus has tasked us all to be vessels of God’s mercy and grace; to be the visible presence of God’s redeeming love in every space we find ourselves in. As disciples of Christ Jesus our goal is to emulate his way of living into the will of God, by the love we give to one another.
God does not compare us. God simply loves us. So we can go do likewise. We are unique but love makes us similar. It creates equality. It breaks down walls and eliminates distances.
In Christ, God came to love on us as one of us. On the cross, Christ displayed the extravagance of what the incarnation is all about. It was there Christ emptied himself like a bottle of expensive perfume. Anointing us with true freedom, true salvation, and true happiness in solidarity of God’s steadfast love.
Mary’s extravagance reminds us that God spares no expense when it comes to us. Judas’s actions might be more calculated, but his extravagant gift of obedience reminds us of our own calling.
If he was good enough for God to use to usher in salvation, then so are we. We need to remember that as we stand in Anamesa, between Mary and Judas.
It’s in this space our Lord is calling us to do what to some might seem frivolous or a waste. But in God’s kingdom, nothing is wasted. If God can turn a betrayal into a generous act, then imagine what God can do when you show kindness and mercy to someone in need.
In that space between Mary and Judas, there are others in that room. Each one the Lord has entrusted to share the treasures and riches of God’s grace and love to all. This is not a story of comparison. It is an invitation to follow Jesus, who sought out the poor and sinners as a shepherd lovingly seeks his lost sheep.
To follow the call of Jesus Christ is to emulate his actions: to provide and care for those in need, those who society might deem unworthy or unsuccessful. If we are going to follow and emulate Christ, then we must be very generous with our love, our time, our resources. And use what we have to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.
Like those gathered around this Bethany table, we must be a strong community shaped by the hope of Christ Jesus who lived out God’s love in all righteousness and works of love; by going out into the world and clothe the naked; feed the hungry; console the afflicted; aid the imprisoned; and free the oppressed.
Like Mary, we must be willing the give. Like Judas, we must be willing to do.
Both are disciples who remind us that Jesus is a gift of God. A gift given to the world that did not request him, yet he acts entirely for our benefit – revealing the generous and frivolous grace of God who loves and saves both the faithful and the unfaithful, the obedient and disobedient, the sure footed and the doubtful alike.
Just as there is no end to the boundaries of God’s love for us, there is also no expense that God is unwilling to honor to make sure we know just how valuable and priceless we are both here in Anamesa…and in the world to come.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”