An interesting legend appears at the beginning of Mark 14 that becomes transformed as the Jesus myth evolves in the first and second centuries. A woman approaches Jesus while he is staying in Bethany with Simon the leper, and she anoints Jesus with expensive perfumed oil. This is the kind of thing that must have implied extravagance, based on the incredulous reaction of others present, but within the context of the narrative, it is also interpreted as a harbinger of death. Corpses were anointed with perfumed oils (if the family could afford it) to keep the stench from overwhelming people who would perform burial ceremonies and rites of departure. The indignant people witnessing the extravagant display claim that a lot of poor people could have been helped if that perfumed oil had been sold, and Jesus reprimands them, saying that they would always have poor people to help. Between the lines, he may have been implying that they didn't really seem to be overflowing in compassion for the poor as a general characteristic, so their attitude was not only misplaced, but was also dishonest. In the story, Jesus makes the display of affection about his imminent death, and the reader is told that this is the straw that broke the camel's back for Judas, who determines to give Jesus up to the Pharisees (which is a bit odd in that everyone seemed to know where Jesus was, especially since he always had crowds pressing in on him).
The author(s) of Matthew copy the story fairly closely from Mark, but a few details get embellished. Here, instead of it just being "some people" getting indignant, it is the disciples themselves who are upset by the woman's action. This fits with the trend of how the disciples are often portrayed in Matthew, as never quite understanding what's going on. When Judas decides that he's had enough in this version, he asks what's in it for him, and the authors of Matthew give an exact payment: thirty pieces of silver. This is probably a misreading or flawed contextualization of an Old Testament passage, but this too is typical of Matthew.
In the gospel of Luke, the story of the woman is detached from the prelude to the passion narrative; the opening verse of Mark 14 flows right into Judas' decision to betray Jesus. Since there is now apparently nothing to prompt this sudden decision on the part of Judas, the authors of Luke attribute it to Satan. Some people still seem to prefer this explanation for harmful human behavior, and we've discussed at length how this compromises personal responsibility. Suffice to say that, if there was a historical Judas who committed a historical act of betrayal, he probably had very human fears that prompted him to do so, not some supernatural possession that overpowered his own will.
The story of the woman who anoints Jesus still appears in Luke, it's just much earlier. In the Luke version, Jesus is not at the home of Simon the leper, but at the home of a Pharisee. The author of Luke takes the opportunity to have the Jesus character offer a teaching about forgiveness and grace, and we'll explore that more when we properly make our way through Luke.
Even the gospel of John has a version of this legend, once more in the context of the approaching Passover celebration during which Jesus will be arrested and executed. However, in John, although he is back in Bethany, Jesus is not in the home of Simon the leper, but with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. This story may be an amalgam of the story of the woman who anointed Jesus and another story of this Mary, sister of Martha, that is told in Luke. In John, the only disciple who seems upset by Mary's actions is Judas, and his character is directly maligned by John in a way that the synoptic gospels only imply. At least we see here that he isn't compelled by a supernatural agent.
Incidentally, the value of the perfume begins at over a typical worker's annual wages in Mark, is just "a large sum of money" in Matthew, is not even mentioned in Luke, and is reported again as worth almost a year's wages in John. Just a detail, perhaps of some significance in the transmission of the tale. The extravagance of the gesture is probably more useful to keep in mind.
This legend is often made to be about elevating the character of Jesus, and it is sometimes used as encouragement for making sacrifices that might seem extravagant, for the sake of religious service. If the word "God" is acknowledged as a way that we talk about a part of ourselves, then perhaps serving the values of our deepest most noble selves is worthy of a bit of extravagance. At least in the Marcan narrative, the major idea seems to be about generous hospitality and a willingness to celebrate and be celebrated.
The tendency to think of the Jesus character as a historical figure who was beyond the ken of mortal human beings has been one of the most damaging perspectives of Christianity. If Jesus were seen as an exemplar of genuine human characteristics, there might be something toward which people could aspire. When concentration is placed on mythical miracles and a deity-demanded god-man sacrifice, there is little in that portrayal of Jesus to emulate, which makes the gospel narratives only as useful or useless as any other mythical tale. If there is something to Jesus' behavior and attitudes that can be seen as characteristically human, though, this story tells us a few things about how we might examine our own lives, even as people who have no interest in supernaturalism. After all, this story just has people as characters.
First of all, there is a bit of hypocrisy in the reactions of the onlookers. They probably aren't spending extravagant amounts of money on the poor, yet they are willing to tell this woman how she should have used her resources. Thus, the lesson here is, clarify your values and bring your own actions into alignment with your values. Don't try to force other people to live by your values, especially if your own actions are incongruent with your beliefs. It's one thing to be righteously indignant about another person's driving on the road when you obey every traffic rule and keep other people's safety in mind; it's another thing to insult other drivers who are behaving exactly as you typically behave on the road. Except that this woman was even going above and beyond what the devoted followers of Jesus did.
Which is a second lesson. This woman acknowledged something praiseworthy in the Jesus character. She was generous in her display of affirmation, and honestly she was extravagant in her celebration of this admirable person. She didn't seem to be expecting anything from Jesus, and he was willing to be celebrated and appreciated. Certainly, there is a balance to be struck in our lives, but experiencing wholeness in life involves being willing to both served and to be served, to celebrate others and to be celebrated by others. We often err on one side or the other out of fear about what it might imply about ourselves or about other people. The woman in this story was fearless -- at least in her actions. No one really knows what she might have been feeling.
A third lesson in this story is about how we judge other people's behavior. When we see other people being completely authentic in their celebration and hospitality, or in their reception of other people's celebration and hospitality, sometimes we feel ashamed that we aren't that authentic. Maybe some of the other people at this gathering weren't wealthy enough to buy perfume that cost a year's wages. Yet, instead of being inspired or delighted by this person's authentic affirmation and affection, they were critical.
For whatever reason, fear sometimes causes us to hate it when other people succeed and to love it when they fall. We love to point out people's faults, but we are reluctant to praise their strengths. This has nothing to do with other people and everything to do with how we see ourselves. We cannot live authentically by our deep passions or intentionally by our guiding principles if we are caught up in lies about ourselves. When we feel shame, we often like to think other people should feel shame too. Shame is not useful, particularly when it is based on lies about who we are or who we are supposed to be. And it certainly isn't a useful means of helping others be the best possible versions of themselves.
Thus, if we are to put something from this legend into practice in our own lives, our goals might be to draw on something from each of the characters featured: the woman, Jesus, and the onlookers. From the woman, we learn that we can be extravagantly authentic in our celebration of other people and in our hospitality (service) toward others. From the response of the Jesus character, we learn that we can be celebrated by others and receive hospitality from others without getting caught up in shame or obligation. From the reaction of the onlookers, we learn that some of our habits in judging others and ourselves get in the way of our being the people we most want to be in the world. We can celebrate and serve alongside others, or we can genuinely appreciate their actions without participating in them, when we are more at peace with ourselves.
All of these goals of being require that we spend time with ourselves, recognizing what is really most important to us and growing in our capacity to dismantle the fears that keep us from living into those values. The more we are willing to keep these things in mind, the more we might notice opportunities to celebrate and serve, and the more we might gracefully receive celebration and service. When we are able to bring our actions and attitudes into alignment with our deep guiding principles, our experience of the world becomes altogether different.