When Mary broke the perfume jar on the feet of Jesus, the response was swift: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold,” Judas asked, “and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” (John 12:4-5)
This (as most things do these days) immediately reminds me of Cain and Abel, standing at their altar. Cain has neatly laid out his grain offerings, carefully measured and bound and ready to be presented. It was perfectly obedient and organized. Abel then shows up, dragging a lamb behind him by a rope. “What is that?” Cain demands. “A lamb,” comes Abel’s discreet reply. “I know it’s a lamb, but why are you — no, you can’t be serious! Don’t be foolish! This is wasteful, Abel! God doesn’t demand this! Why offer something so valuable?”
Why does Abel offer the best of his flocks and herds? Why does Mary break the perfume jar and anoint Jesus’ feet? Religious professionals like Judas and Cain cannot understand this kind of religion. It is a response of pure thankfulness, an offering that says, ‘The very best I have belongs to You, Lord, because of what you have done for me.’
Abel’s attitude, and Mary’s, stands in contrast to the “proper” religious attitude, the Cainite who expects God to repay him for his service and sacrifice. God does not pay claims to Man (Job 41:11). He therefore would not speak well of Abel’s offering if it were just an animal offering as opposed to Cain’s vegetable offering — a squab instead of a squash. He looks on it with favor because Abel was converted. His sacrifice was made as a freewill offering of love and gratitude. Cain’s, by contrast, was made as a duty, a tithe. Cain was solidly in this world. To offer anything more than God required was foolish. Judas was a worldly man as well: the broken alabaster jar represented a horrible squandering of valuable resources. He had forgotten the lesson Jesus taught at least twice; as he said to the disciples in the boat,
“Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
When one appreciates God’s grace, one moves from religious observance to extravagant wastefulness. It’s the passageway from the religion of Cain to that of Abel.