Indeed we can ask about any offering we make to God three questions - is it generous? Is it genuine? And is it gentle? Mary's offering in this story is all three...
Unless we can understand her motivation, I think like Judas we will be left exclaiming over the waste, and thinking about all the other good things that could have been done with that money. Notice too that the gesture itself is generous - Mary assumes the position of a slave at the feet of Jesus. She shows no regard for propriety, reputation, or what people might think or say. Why? Because her action comes from the heart, from her personal love and gratitude that spills over in an act of reckless extravagance. Mary has found the pearl of great price of Jesus's parable and is prepared to give everything that she has, and all that she is, to hold that pearl in her hands for an instant. She knows, as all God's lovers, down the ages have known, that nothing, material or spiritual, can be held back for the sake of even a moment of union with the beloved.
We may not be ready for such a complete self offering. What is clear however is that as Christians we are called to be generous. And generous people see the world differently. Generous people act out of trust for others not suspicion. Generous people recognise that resources other than money can be shared, and are prepared to give others a chance, to give others the benefit of the doubt and due credit for their ideas. This is what it means to exercise generosity of spirit. Such generosity creates space for the other person whatever their needs at that moment may be. We live such busy hectic lives and it is easy for our attention to be spread too thin. There is a wonderful African greeting, where people instead of saying 'Hello' say 'I am here if you are here'. Isn't that beautiful? In other words they are generous with their gift of presence. And this is what Jesus means when he says to Judas 'you always have the poor with you, you do not always have me'. Mary's gesture enables her, and all of us who have read her story since, to be present with Jesus at this point just before his passion. Yes, there are many other things we could be doing- the poor are indeed always with us- but just now, just in this moment, her act of generosity invites us to stop, to be present with Jesus, and to offer our lives again in service.
So we need to foster a spirit of generosity in our self-offering. And self offering needs also to be genuine. Mary's offering was genuine because she was so thankful to Jesus for saving her brother, and for supporting her in her way of life and prayer. She felt understood by him and offered understanding to him in return. Whereas poor old Judas, he really does get a bad press! I suspect those words in brackets about him being a thief were added afterwards by someone who knew he had betrayed Jesus and wanted to blacken his reputation further. Let's just take his criticism at face value and assume that he actually did think that the money could have been put to better use. He still does not understand about genuine self offering, because those to whom he wants to give the money have no face.
There is a subtle difference between 'giving to the poor' and genuine self offering. So long as 'the poor' remain an anonymous entity, folk who are 'in need and different to me', and preferably a long way away so that I never actually have to look them in the eye, we may have offered our money, but we have not offered ourselves. Now do not misunderstand me. It is definitely better that we give what we can to those who need it most, even when there is no chance of ever meeting them face to face. The question is why are we offering our money and sometimes our time to support them? Is it out of a sense of duty, or moral superiority, or just in order to feel better about ourselves - or is it out of a genuine care for what is happening to them? Genuine care I think usually takes us to a place where we want to know more about those whom we are seeking to support, to hear something of their story, and leads us to pray for them on a regular basis and not just here in church. This is why it is encouraging for example to see more of us gathering for the mission breakfasts, not just to raise funds, but to foster a genuine connection that enables genuine offering.
Finally Mary's offering is so gentle. She caresses Jesus feet with the ointment, drying them with her hair in the most tender of actions - a gesture of farewell that Jesus himself will repeat when he washes the disciples feet. His body will soon be subjected to every possible cruelty and humiliation, these same feet pierced by vicious nails. But for this precious moment they are held gently, treasured and blessed. When we offer ourselves to God we offer all that is most vulnerable with infinite gentleness. And God receives that offering with equal gentleness. When our offering of ourselves, our time, our effort, becomes laboured, harsh, or driven, we can be sure that it is coming from a place of ego, of self advancement rather than from the gentle place of real self surrender. So in these final days of Lent, as we commit ourselves afresh to walk with Christ through Calvary to the joy of Easter, relax in the loving gaze of God; and may you offering of yourself be generous, genuine and gentle. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Lent 5 Year C, 13 March 2016