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The Only Thing Necessary 

A Lent Reflection for Holy Monday, March 25 by Anna Wagner 

Lectionary reading for 3/25/24: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 36:5-11; Hebrews 9:11-15; John 12:1-11

Selected passage for reflection: John 12:1-11


John 12:1-11 NIV

12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.[b]” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you,[c] but you will not always have me.”

9 Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.


The woman anointing Jesus in this extravagant way is identified as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus who was raised from the dead a chapter earlier, as well as the sister of Martha who had eagerly served Jesus when he came as a dinner guest to their house which is retold in Luke 10. It’s the same woman who had sat at Jesus’ feet and listened and learned from him, instead of doing what a woman should: help her sister cook and set the table. Yet, Jesus’ evaluation is surprising and contrary to the customs of the times: He says that this, what Mary is doing, is good. It’s the only thing necessary

This is the woman entering Simon the leper’s house. She is not interested in doing what is necessary anymore, if that was ever her concern. It’s not about fulfilling requirements for her. No, she longs for her love to be seen and known, to let it overflow. To be extravagant. She is a lover who loves, not merely a servant who obeys. 

I imagine Mary soundlessly sneaking into Simon the leper’s house on bare feet, carefully making sure no one can see or hear her. After all, she was not invited, yet she arrives in the middle of dinner, as the guests are laying down by the table eating. She is an interruption, a nuisance. A woman. I imagine her focused on one thing, and one thing only, in spite of this: To show her beloved that she loves, and that she loves abundantly. 

No one asked her to come to anoint Jesus, and no one asked her to use perfume that expensive. The money could almost certainly have been spent in  more practical ways. It may have provided hundreds of meals for the poor, maybe could have helped build a house for a family in need. But kingdom mathematics don´t work like that. What is beautiful is not always what is practical. What is beautiful, and what Jesus sees in this woman, is a heart that holds nothing back. Not even something as valuable as this perfume. It may have been her entire retirement fund, a future secured. Jesus didn’t ask her to give him that either. What Mary did came as an offering from her own heart and on her own initiative and Jesus honored that. He is not hung up on what is the most practical, or on what it means for Mary to obey God and fulfill God’s requirements. What Jesus sees is someone who loves and because her heart is full of that, she wants to give the Beloved all she has. In that desire she cannot help but go above and beyond any minimum requirement, because it’s not about what’s “enough” anymore. It’s not about the arbitrary lines we have drawn between what is sufficient and what’s not. It’s about the Beloved. And that’s what makes her act so beautiful. 


It can be hard to read a story like this and not think that our response ought to be as similar to this woman’s as possible. But if we do, we have already strayed from what the story is meant to show us.  It is not about what things should look like or the minimum threshold for proving our love.  Our goal is not to outdo her either.  In searching for a formula of what or how to give of ourselves or defining the boundary of “beyond the necessary,” we miss something.  We miss what Mary knew in the depths of her heart and what Jesus was so grateful for: that Love is more beautiful than all of that. 


Lord, we pray not that you show us how to give, and what, but we ask that you show us more of who you are. As we respond to that with our love, may you receive us for what we are, and may we know that our gifts are not valued based on what use they make or how much love they show. They are merely received as the love we want to offer you. 

About the Author 

Anna Wagner hails from Sweden and works as a Swedish and English teacher for immigrants in Malmoe, Sweden. That’s where she now lives with her American husband and two kids. 

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