The Sweet Smell of Love and the Stench of Greed

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

I have always been fascinated by John 12:1-8. I like it for its powerful irony.

This episode recounts the story when Jesus came to Bethany at the house of Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. Martha served as usual. Whereas Mary “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (John 12:3). Judas Isacriot was appalled by Mary’s gesture. He put on the mask of the generous one: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5). But the Lord unmasked his hypocritical attitude and told him squarely: “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:7-8).

Here we are! Standing before what is true and what is deceptive! The woman, who in the society of the time was not given the respect she deserved simply because she was a woman, anoints Jesus’ feet with an extremely costly ointment. Besides the physical fragrance of the ointment which, according to the Fourth Evangelist, ‘filled the entire house’ (see John 12:3) one could easily detect the spiritual fragrance of her extravagantly generous action.

Her extreme loving action says three things about her character. First, Mary shows us the extravagance of love. Real love never calculates. It spends itself on the one it loves. If Mary had any regrets at all in what she did they would have been centred on the fact that it did not have still more to give! Second, Mary’s love is humble. In those times it was a sign of honour to anoint a person on his head. Psalm 23 says: “Thou anointest my head with oil” (Psalm 23:5). Mary contented herself by anointing Jesus’ feet because, in her humility, she realized that it was not good enough for that act. Third, genuine love is not self-conscious. Since it is totally focused on its object love is completely immersed in what it loves. With the result that it does not follow what customs dictate that it must follow. In Jesus times no woman would dare going in public with her hair unbound. The latter would signify her immorality. But Mary did not pay much attention of what others around her might think of her. Since she loved Jesus above everyone else she did not care of others frivolous interpration of her loving action. She determinedly went ahead and “wiped [Jesus’] feet with her hair” (John 12:3).

Not the same can be said of Judas, the man, the apostle who cared so much for his reputation and worldly honour! He was one of Jesus’ closest collaborators. (What an irony!) In the character of Judas three things feature so strongly. First, Judas is heartily trusted by Jesus even though the latter knew that the treasurer was simply corrupt. Jesus did not cast him away! He kept him in the apostolic company. And, in this situation, he tried to bring him back on the right path not by viewing him with suspicion but by showing him full trust. He still expected the best from him. Second, as Brooke Foss Westcott commented: “Temptation commonly comes through that for which we are naturally fitted”. Thus, if Judas was aptly fit to manage the funds of the apostles’ circle the evil attacked him by making him believe that money is the most important thing in the world. Third, we can sorely see how a person’s mind can be easily corrupted by the perverse ideas s/he holds dear. In front of such an enormous act of love Judas simply dubbed it as extravagant waste!

This powerful gospel story is about the sweet of love and the stench of greed. Perhaps Etienne de Grellet’s advice is worth quoting here: “I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again”.

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