12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Reading the room is an important skill. Imagine you enter a room. You see 3 people: two are laughing and talking with each other and one is staring at their phone with an angry look. Does this quick information tell you anything about how to communicate with the people in this room? How well can you “read” the feelings of the people in that room? Who is happy? Who is tense? Who bristles with anger or glows with warmth at every comment made by one individual? This skill to understand the mood in the room and how receptive the people are is the skill to “read the room.” When we read the room right, we understand emotional currents, power dynamics and unwritten rules and assumptions guiding the situation.
We have all been part of something profoundly special that was nearly spoiled by some unpleasant words and actions. It could be a heartfelt wedding toast interrupted by a crude joke or a vital discussion side-tracked by ugly political fighting. All because someone lacked emotional intelligence and the ability to read the room.
Judas is pretty poor at reading the room. His timing is totally off. Mary is doing something significant. Instead of noting the importance of what is going on, Judas questions her actions. He accuses Mary of wasting perfume that could have been sold for a market value equal to one year’s salary. He is indignant at such an extravagant waste of resources. He seems totally out of sync.
Can we blame him, though? That perfume did worth a lot of money! But still, the author of John’s gospel questions Judas’ intention. Is he using the poor as a weapon? Are poor simply a means to an end for Judas? Does he really want solidarity with the least or is his espousing of pious language a sign of shrunken philanthropy? Especially when he is stealing money from the common purse, as we are told.
What Mary did was unreal and completely out of the ordinary. If we leave aside John’s description of Judas’ motivation for a moment, it’s not hard to understand why he objected. It is a ridiculous amount of money to squander in one moment of devotion. There is nothing normal about her action. Why use such a costly perfume to clean someone’s feet?
We do not know about her motivation, but we do know that the story of Jesus is full of unexpected outcomes. We get what we don’t expect. There is nothing ordinary about it. Sinners are welcomed while righteous are turned away. The poor are blessed while the wealthy are offended. People expected a mighty messiah like king David; what they got was a Galilean carpenter. They expected the messiah to lead revolution against the Romans; what they got was a crucified messiah. And just when they thought that crucifixion is the end of the story, it turned out to be the beginning of a new movement.
One of the most shocking and unexpected things for today's story is that a woman anoints Jesus. Things like this doesn’t happen in the first century world of Jesus. Men anoint men. Samuel anoints Saul to be Israel’s first king. We see the same practice down the Church history. Male Popes anoint male emperors throughout western history. But here, Mary – contrary to all the expected cultural practices – anoints Jesus.
The story of Christianity is filled with such shocking and surprising outcomes. The God of the Bible loves to do surprising things through the most unexpected people. The season of Lent, as it will soon come to an end, is a prime example. The climax of Lent eventuates in the Easter celebration, reminding us of the divine surprise, as death is expected to have the last word, until Jesus is raised from the dead.