Monday, April 6, 2009

Why Was This Oil Not Sold And The Money Given To the Poor?

In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims, in typically poetic language, the manner in which the Messiah will arrive. He won’t shout, he won’t raise his voice in the street. (This echoes his simple but triumphant entry into Jerusalem yesterday.) He is coming, the prophet tells us, to establish a new covenant, to open the eyes of the blind and free captives from confinement, and release those who sit in dark dungeons. We, his disciples of the present age, are aware of what would be the cost paid for that ransom.

The disciples of Jesus were surely not thinking of confinement in dark dungeons as they gathered at the table prepared for them by Martha, the sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the tomb. They must have been surprised when Martha’s sister Mary came to the table, knelt at the feet of Jesus, and began to massage his feet with genuine aromatic nard. One of their number was particularly disturbed, Judas Iscariot, who held the common purse.

”That perfumed oil must have been worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the proceeds given to the poor?” John, the evangelist, comments: “It wasn’t because he was concerned for the needy that he said that. It was because he carried the cash, and used to steal from the money bag. Jesus said, “Let her be. Let her keep the oil for the day of my burial.” There will always be poor and needy people among you. But I won’t always be with you.”

The people of Bethany found out that Jesus was there, and gathered in front of the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They didn’t come to listen to Jesus’ teaching, though; they wanted to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.

The chief priests had not only put a price on Jesus’ head, but they wanted to kill Lazarus as well, because so many people were becoming believers in Jesus because of him. In that light, Mary’s gesture of anointing Jesus’ feet is revealing. The question Judas raises is a good one, in spite of his ulterior motives: Would it not have been good to sell the perfumed oil and use the proceeds to help the poor? Of course it would. But Jesus himself affirms that what Mary did was even better. Why did he say that, since he had such great concern for the poor and the needy?

My sense is that Jesus calls us to imitate him in his offering. He certainly did not lack concern for the material welfare of the poorest members of society. But he also made it clear that the gift he sought from his disciples was not a gift of material wherewithal, but a gift of self. The perfumed oil, the coins in the money bag, are not what Jesus is looking for from us. The gift he seeks from each of us it nothing more or less than the gift of self. For it is giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. And, in the gift, and in the forgiveness, it is in dying to our self-centeredness that we are born to eternal life.

There is only one anointing strong enough to meet death, and that is the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the love of God.  There is something both exemplary and lasting in Mary's anointing of Jesus at Bethany.  It was above all a concern to keep Christ alive in this world, and to oppose the powers that aimed to silence and kill him.  It was an act of faith and of love.  Every such act can have the same effect."  (Pope Benedict XVI)

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