As you might imagine, the story continues that Mary and Martha (Lazarus' sisters) are overjoyed that Lazarus is back from the grave and seems to be hale and hardy rather than zombie-like and hungry for brains. This is a happy back-from-the-grave story. So, Mary takes some expensive perfume (which Jesus says she had been keeping for the day of his burial) and anoints Jesus' feet in gratitude. The version of this story in the gospel of John also has Mary wiping his feet with her hair. Judas gets angry about the wastefulness of the act, which the authors of John attribute to his greed. Jesus makes the comment that there will always be poor people and one might assist them at any time.
When this story appears in the gospel of Mark, it happens while Jesus is staying with Simon the Leper, and the woman's appearance and identity are unexplained. All of the disciples were upset, suggesting that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, and in addition to telling them that the poor will always be around for them to help, Jesus also remarks that the mysterious unnamed woman is preparing his body for burial. The authors of Matthew copied the gospel of Mark closely, but the gospel of Luke tells a completely different story. Here, Jesus is dining at the table of Simon, a Pharisee, and the mysterious unnamed woman (the suggestion here is that she is a habitually sinful woman, which perhaps means that she is a prostitute) enters and anoints Jesus feet with affection that must have seemed excessive to others at the table. Here, the woman dries his feet with her hair. There is nothing said about the poor or about burial; this time the story is used as a lesson about gratitude and pride.
(Incidentally, the gospel of Luke does include a story about Mary and Martha elsewhere -- without a Lazarus raising -- in which Mary sits adoringly at Jesus' feet while Martha busies herself with meal preparations. It seems rather odd that this detail would have been preserved, while the resurrection of their brother was too insignificant to retain. This sort of thing points to the gospel narratives being collections of stories assembled for a particular agenda rather than historical accounts in the way that we often think of factually accurate histories.)
Since the gospel of John was written decades after the other three canonical gospel narratives, one might wonder if the authors knew of the other written versions of this story and deliberately altered it for their own purposes. Perhaps it was commonplace to use such stories as malleable illustrations for larger truths. Some would argue that Jesus must have had his feet anointed by various women at various points in time, thus accounting for the different stories. On the one hand, the disciples should have gotten used to that behavior after awhile, but on the other hand it could have been increasingly annoying for random women to waste expensive perfume on your teacher's feet over and over again. In any case, if it was a common occurrence, we might expect at least one gospel narrative to include multiple stories about Jesus having his feet anointed. Each only includes one such instance, however, and it is conveyed as somewhat shocking behavior.
No, this is simply a story that different authors use for different purposes. This is not a historical account. Did people in the Ancient Near East anoint their bodies with perfumed oils? Yes. Some ancient tales even include warnings for living heroes descending into the land of the dead to abstain from slicking themselves up with nice smelling oils, lest they make the dead jealous. There is probably a considerable amount of symbolism in this story that is lost on modern readers, although that doesn't stop biblical commentators from suggesting any number of interpretations. Many of them seem quite content to argue back and forth about assumptions without any real evidence. That being the case, we may as well jump into the fray to find some useful insight for our own intentional lives, laying aside any assumptions about an actual event to unravel. Three distinct pieces of this seem worthy of consideration: the attitude that Mary expresses, the attitude that Judas expresses, and the attitude that Jesus expresses.
In this case, both Mary and Jesus might serve as our exemplars, while Judas obviously represents some fear-driven reactivity. Mary is obviously quite impressed with Jesus, and she's particularly grateful for the restoration of her brother's life. She was not overly concerned with propriety. We might even say she was overwhelmed with gratitude. Now she didn't do anything overtly shameful. She held to some societal boundaries. She did trample over what some individuals in the room considered the bounds of good taste. And she didn't care. She was appreciative enough that she did what she was comfortable doing to express her gratitude, and she was apparently respectful of Jesus' boundaries as well.
Just as Mary was entitled to operate within her own personal boundaries despite whether others agreed with those boundaries, Jesus was free to set his own boundaries. He could have said, "Um, Mary? I'm honored that you appreciate me so much, but I'm uncomfortable with how you're expressing it." He didn't. He recognized the act as something worth receiving with some intention. As difficult as it is for some of us to express appreciation and gratitude, it's even more difficult for some of us to graciously accept appreciation and gratitude from others. Perhaps it feels somehow vulnerable, no matter which side of unabashed appreciation we happen to be on.
For some folks, maybe it feels uncomfortable to observe effusive appreciation. The authors of John invent a reason for Judas to have reacted unfavorably to Mary's display, but we could probably come up with any number of reasons why a person might object. Some people might feel like they've been replaced as an object of affection. Or they may be jealous that someone is getting more attention than they are. Or they may feel like the appreciation is undeserved. Judas was afraid of something, and when we object to other people giving and receiving unabashed gratitude, we're afraid of something. The authors of John wrote Judas off rather quickly. We might care for ourselves better and get at the root of our fear. When we are able to deal with that, we are better able to celebrate with people who are celebrating.
Honestly, Mary's appreciation was a wasteful act. Yet, what good are the things we have if we don't use them to connect with the people around us? Gratitude isn't ever wasted. Honestly, Jesus' response was indulgent. Yet, we need to indulge a bit in affirmation. We need to allow room in our relationships for celebrating others and being celebrated by others. Gratitude, affirmation, and appreciation are not finite resources. They're not going to run out just because someone bestows a phenomenal amount on one person. Gratitude, affirmation, and appreciation are in abundant supply, as often as we care to express them.
It's important for us to anoint someone's feet once in a while, when it's a sincere act of gratitude. And it's important for us to humbly take it in when someone is appreciative enough of us that they choose to anoint our feet -- and to accept that gratitude for what it is. We long so much for human closeness, and we so often fearfully keep ourselves from it, that when we experience closeness with another person, we try to turn it into something it isn't intended to be. We might mistake genuine appreciation for a romantic invitation, or worse, we might be tempted to take advantage of someone who is expressing gratitude. The real potential for these reactions are one reason that people have such a difficult time expressing and receiving genuine appreciation -- it feels dangerous because we are so often unaccustomed to healthy human closeness.
Gratitude doesn't need to feel dangerous. It is vulnerable, to be sure. But we can choose to remain aligned with our own deep values about the inherent worth and dignity of every person and still give and receive appreciation. We can maintain the boundaries of our relationships and still celebrate others and be celebrated by them. The more we practice allowing gratitude and appreciation to be just what they are, the less dangerous they will seem. In other words, if we don't let our fears about our own worthiness get in the way, we can make it safe for others to express gratitude and appreciation toward us.
Another catch is that we can't really demand appreciation from others. When we start expecting effusive praise as standard operating procedure, not only is it less likely to be sincere, but it literally means less to us. On a certain level, we need peaks and valleys to make the terrain of our lives meaningful. We need moments of expressive gratitude and moments when we do what we do because it aligns with our principles, whether or not anyone notices or appreciates what we do.
One last piece of this story is worthy of mention. The Jesus character says that the poor will always be around. The people with whom we develop close bonds will someday be gone, but there will always be people in need. Mary had set aside that perfumed oil for Jesus. She was just using it before she had initially planned. In a sense, that nard was already his, whether he got the gift after he died or before. It's appropriate for us to be as lavish as we would like in our generosity.
At the same time, there will always be people in need. They are the more faceless characters in the story. They are mentioned, but they don't have names. They are a category, a population. As such, it's more difficult for us to feel connected to them. The poor are often a Them and not a part of Us. Perhaps there are ways that we can attend to the real physical needs of people around us who are under-served while still being unashamed in our expressions of gratitude to the people we appreciate. That might look different for each of us, depending on our locations and resources. Still, it need not be true that there will always be people in need. We can contribute to the well-being of people geographically close to us and contribute to the well-being of people who are emotionally close to us without either being compromised. Maybe learning to celebrate others and be celebrated by others without shame is one part of a bigger equation. Being generous in our gratitude and appreciation may open us to being generous in other areas as well.