How can Jesus be a generous guy and then say it is okay for this woman to pour expensive oil on his head when it could have been sold and proceeds given to the poor? That does not sound very generous at all.
And yet this story may be one of the great stories of Jesus teaching about true generosity in any Gospel.
It is worth noting that generosity is often understood as when we give. We talk about being generous givers of which we generally are good at especially this time of year. But there is also the idea of being a generous receiver.
We tend to think that it is better to give than to receive, however it really is just as important to be able to give as it is to receive.
If we cannot receive something from another person, if we think we don’t need anything from anyone, if we are uncomfortable when someone gives us something and we don’t have anything to give back to them - then we are not very generous receivers.
Giving is an act of grace and receiving is an act of humility. It is humbling when someone gives us a gift is it not? We have been conditioned to think that we are not worthy of receiving gifts. We say things like, “I don’t need anything.” or “You really shouldn’t have.”
We say things like this, I think, in part because we don’t want to feel that humbling feeling we have when we know that someone went out of their way, used their resources, in order to give us a gift to say, “I was thinking about you and I wanted to give this to you and say I love you.” It is humbling when someone looks you in the eyes and shows you that they love you.
In the story of the woman anointing Jesus we get Jesus teaching his disciples both how to give and receive generously.
First, when Jesus says “For you will always have the poor with you.” He is alluding to Deuteronomy 15 - specifically the verses where God commands the people how to give generously:
7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour.8You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near’, and therefore view your needy neighbour with hostility and give nothing; your neighbour might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. 10Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’
When Jesus says, “For the poor will always be with you” he is using one line to invoke the entire teaching. It is like if I say, “she was a Good Samaritan”. If you know the parable of the Good Samaritan then you know what I mean. Through didactic teaching Jesus is articulating how to be a generous giver.
But like I said, it really is just as important to be able to give as it is to receive. And Jesus was a generous receiver.
Jesus does not turn the gift away. He does not say to the woman, “Hey, I am the Son of God, I don’t need anything.” or “You shouldn’t have. I did not get you anything.”
Jesus recognizes that this woman went out of her way, used her resources, in order to give him a gift to say, “I was thinking about you and I wanted to give this to you and say I love you.”
It is humbling when someone looks you in the eyes and shows you that they love you.
Because it is just as important to be able to give as it is to receive.