John's Gospel tells of the exorbitant use of myrrh at a banquet Lazarus, Mary and Martha put on for Jesus. In the course of this celebration, Mary anointed Jesus' feet with precious myrrh, then wiped his feet clean with her feet. This gesture was criticized by Judas for its cost: could not the money have been better used to help the poor? For the Evangelist, this moment was enough; he tells us nothing else about the banquet. Why this story?
This story appears before Jesus enters Jerusalem prophetically, in the symbol of a king. The value of the story lies in the extreme value of a perfume of such value as myrrh. Myrrh was harvested from a plant in lands far from Israel; the rarity, labor costs and transportation expenses - all this made myrrh a very costly item, available in quantity only to the very wealthy and royalty. It is a type of perfume that the less-than-wealthy can afford only for such occasions as burial.
There is no doubt in the minds of John's readers that Mary's gesture was extremely expensive and would raise eyebrows. But the point that Mary and John make is simply that Jesus deserves this myrrh. He deserves it, as far as Mary is concerned, because of who she thinks Jesus is. To see Lazarus alive is to see Jesus in ever new light, a light that calls one to look steadfastly for the full identity of his person. And Jesus deserves myrrh, as John understands it, as a precious prophecy of the burial of the Lord. Following this story is the coming of the King to Jerusalem - to die, as John well knows. John is preoccupied with signs, the deepest meanings of events. Here is one gesture, fleeting no doubt, that signals something lasting and influential, like the odor of the myrrh. It is the Lord to whom Mary gives witness, and this makes the myrrh, costly as it is, very appropriate if not even unworthy of the Lord who stands before all in John's story.
John Kilgallen, SJ