“Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. ‘But not during the festival,’ they said, ‘or the people may riot.’ While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her harshly. ‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’”—Mark 14:1–9 (NIV)
The story of Jesus being anointed in Bethany carries so much weight. First, this anointing is recorded in Mark 14, Matthew 26, and John 12. Now, what’s notable about this, that’s often missed, is that in John 11 Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. A few weeks later, Jesus returns to Bethany (John 12) the day before riding into Jerusalem for Passover—just six days before His crucifixion and burial.
In today’s passage, they were having dinner in Jesus’ honor at Simon’s house, a former leper—who may have been healed by Jesus—after He resurrected Lazarus. It’s likely Simon was a relative or close friend of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
Here, Mary, Lazarus’ sister, takes about 12 ounces of pure imported spikenard oil valued at around 300 denarii (approximately $60,000 today) and begins anointing Jesus’ head (Mark 14:3) and then His feet, and then wiped His feet with her hair (John 12:3). It would have been extremely rare for a woman in that era to own something so valuable, so some commentators assert that the jar of perfume was a family heirloom, which would add sentimental value to the perfume’s monetary value.
What was her motivation? It’s likely a combination of 1) overwhelming love, gratitude, and devotion to the One who raised Lazarus from the dead, and 2) as Mark 14:8 indicates, because Mary had listened to Jesus’ teachings, she had an inkling into what was about to happen to Him, as indicated when He says she anointed Him in preparation for His burial.
In John 12, we see Judas—the keeper of the money who was also a thief—grumble to the disciples about it, causing them to become indignant and then “harshly” rebuke Mary. But Jesus corrects Judas and the others and commends Mary’s actions. One commentator states, “His comments were an indirect revelation of His deity, for the only commandment that is more important than loving our neighbors is the commandment to love God (12:28–34).”
Friends, there will always be moments when we must give of ourselves to care for the needs of others (we’re commanded all throughout Scripture to care for the needy and vulnerable), but nothing can supersede our intimacy and devotion to Jesus. This act by Mary is the very essence of this Gospel’s key message and exemplifies the pure fragrance of true discipleship: We are to hold nothing back from Jesus, submit, surrender, and sacrifice all to Him, pour it all out before Him, and go from there. And listen, when we give what we value to our Creator, He receives it gladly and uses it for His glory. How do we know this? Because Jesus honors this when saying, “Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Pause: Why did Jesus tell the disciples that Mary’s actions were correct? What does this tell us about Him and about following Him?
Practice: Sometimes, like Judas and the disciples here, we can either hold something back from Him or refuse to submit to certain scriptural truth under the pretense of righteous actions, or we can criticize others for it. Ask the Lord to search your heart and reveal these areas. You may already know what they are . . . If so, repent and submit to Him in these and all areas of your heart and life. I know it takes time and won’t happen overnight, but I implore you, fellow Christ follower, to take the first step of submission!
Pray: Jesus, I know it’s right to give you my first, my best, my all. You are worthy of it all. Help me to not hold anything back from You, to not live with any false righteousness or pretense about why I’m holding something back from You. Help me to discern and walk in step with Your Spirit in all things and not be swayed by outside voices or distracted by trying to work for You. Instead, let me be found in You and then be used by You as You will and work in me! Amen.