Have you ever struggled to know what to give someone for their birthday or for Christmas or for some other event? I find this especially difficult when I’m attempting to give a gift to someone I’ve never given a gift to before. Often this happens with a new friend, or with someone who might be a potential friend. Their birthday shows up before yours and you worry about what to get them – you don’t want to get them something too cheap and insult them; but you don’t want to get them something too expensive on the off chance that they don’t really think of the relationship in the same way as you. Gift giving is never easy for we know that gifts send messages.
In John 12, Mary, Martha, and the recently raised Lazarus present Jesus with a gift – a great banquet. This party is an act of thanksgiving for what Jesus has done for them in raising Lazarus from the dead. The banquet, with Jesus at the head of the table, strikes most of the people present as an appropriate gift for such a miracle. But Mary, Lazarus’ sister wants to do more. So right there in the middle of that party, Mary takes out a jar of very expensive perfume, probably one of her family’s most precious possessions, and anoints Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair.
The onlookers are not so sure this is an appropriate gift. First, for a peasant family, you couldn’t really get more extravagant than this. This was a prized possession, something you save for burying your own parents, not something you pour onto the ground just to clean a friend’s feet. Second, Mary’s act embarrassed the crowd because of the incredible level of intimacy involved. Women did not let their hair down in public. They especially didn’t wipe a man’s feet with their hair either. We don’t mind seeing women’s hair in public today, but I’m guessing most of us would still be disturbed if some lady at Olive Garden started washing a man’s feet with her hair!
And yet Jesus wasn’t. He said bluntly to the party-goers, “Leave her alone.” For he knew that while it was possible to give inappropriately expensive and inappropriately intimate gifts in this life, Mary was not guilty of that crime. For a gift is inappropriate only when it misreads the status of the relationship, but Mary had read the status of her relationship with Jesus well. He wasn’t just a friend, or a powerful teacher, or even miracle worker. He was the Giver of life! And there’s not a gift we can give that’s a too extravagant or too intimate a response to that.