My question is what would you do knowing or being led to show your appreciation for someone who would do the untinkable for you? Be led by The Spirit, Amen.
Before we go on, we pray:
Teach me to do Your will, for You are my God; may Your good Spirit lead me on level ground. For Your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life; in Your righteousness, bring me out of trouble. Amen. Psalm 143
A little boy learns that his friend is leaving and he wants to give a parting gift to show both his sadness and affection. One of the things they did together was collect baseball cards. It seemed like the perfect gift, so the little boy scanned his collection trying to find the perfect card.
Then he came to all of his Bo Jackson cards. He loved Bo Jackson, and so did his departing buddy. It felt perfect. But then, when his heart was drawn to his favorite Bo Jackson card, it no longer seemed like the best idea. “Not that card,” he thought. It was his most expensive card. It was his favorite. Maybe another card would do.
There was a woman named Mary with a similar conundrum. We read of her story in all four gospels (maybe). Jesus was coming over for dinner and she wanted to show her appreciation and love for him. How do you bless someone like Jesus? How do you show love for him and gratefulness? Would anything be enough?
I can picture it now. Mary going through all of her possessions. She ruffles through everything…nothing seems to fit. Nothing quite does it. And then she sees it. The most valuable possession in their house. A family heirloom. Expensive perfume. Pure nard extracted from an Indian or Arabian root. It was worth about a year’s worth of wages. It’s the best things she’s got…what will she do? Would she use this perfume on his feet?
She gave it to Jesus. And her act is a picture of worship. It also is sandwiched by a picture of the wickedness of both Judas and the religious leaders of the day. Her devotion gives us a peek into not only devotion, but it also shines a spotlight on our bent toward idolatry. This story can teach us a number of lessons, but I have chosen four.
Where Do We Find This Story, and What Happens?
The story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet is found in four places in the New Testament…maybe. I say “maybe” because she is only named in the gospel of John (John 12). She is an unnamed woman in Matthew 26 and Mark 14, but it is clear from details in the story that these coincide. What is not clear, and has been the topic of some debate, is whether or not the anointing that takes place in Luke 7 is the same as these stories. Are they all Mary? And if so, which Mary are we talking about?
We know that it is a Mary in John 12. Let’s start there and see if we can tie these accounts together or determine if they are separate events.
The event in John 12 takes place near Bethany and six days before the Passover. It is Mary and Martha (the sisters of Lazarus) who are serving. And it is this Mary, Lazarus’ sister, who anoints Jesus with perfume. She breaks an alabaster flask of expensive perfume and pours it on his feet. The story closes with Judas indignant that this money wasn’t spent on the poor. But Jesus rebukes him and likens it to burial preparation.
In both Matthew and Mark, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is unnamed and it is stated that the event happens at the house of a leper named Simon. The details of the perfume, the conversation with the “disciples” or the “some who said to themselves,” and the location of the event are so similar that it must be the same event.
Luke 7:36-38, though, is much different. We read of a sinful woman who anointed Jesus with perfume while she is at the house of a Pharisee named Simon. No leper could ever be a Pharisee. Also, there is no argument about the cost of the perfume. And the woman is commended differently. Here the story leads to a discussion about forgiveness. Because of these details, I’m inclined to believe that this Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, is not the same as the “sinful woman” of Luke 7.
Why Does Mary Do This?
The text is clear that Mary does this to “prepare him for his burial.” She is giving to Jesus “what she could.” It is an act of worship. The gospel writers want us to see that this woman — the same woman who sat at Jesus’ feet in the gospel of Luke — had insight into what was about to happen to Jesus. The disciples, on the other hand, seemed to be blind to what was about to take place in the life of Jesus; they are still thinking about glory. But Mary sees this as the somber moment it is and she wants to display the worth of Jesus, by busting up her most expensive possession and spilling it upon Jesus.
4 Things We Can Learn from This Story
There are many lessons to learn from this story, but I have chosen to focus upon these four.
1. Mary’s devotion is intentionally contrasted with the Pharisees, Judas, and the disciples.
It pains me to include the disciples in that rebuke, but they are there right alongside Judas’ displeasure at spending the money in such a lavish way. Most of our focus, though, falls upon the Pharisees and Judas. It is a display of the confused hearts of the disciples — but the wickedness of both Judas and the religious leaders of the day.
The gospel writers loved to juxtapose examples of faith alongside examples of how not to respond. As you read this story, don’t only notice Mary and her devotion, also notice those on the sidelines and those responding to this act of love. Their response can give us insight into the bent of our own twisted hearts.
2. We will always smash lesser loves to acquire a greater one.
Just as Mary would smash up her most valuable possession (expensive perfume) to lay at the feet of Jesus, so also Judas and the religious leaders are willing to destroy Jesus in order to get their true treasure. Judas wanted money. The religious leaders wanted the approval of the people. Judas even hides behind theology in order to make his idolatrous grasping seem sanctified.
Mark is the only gospel writer who tells us that Mary breaks the entire flask. She doesn’t just dabble a bit on his toe — she breaks the entire thing. Jesus deserves every ounce of her devotion. This perfume is a lesser love compared to her love for Jesus. And we will always smash lesser loves to acquire a greater one.
3. Devotion to Christ leaves a lasting legacy.
There aren’t many kids named Judas. Judas is synonymous with betrayal. His legacy is connected to his darkest hour. And his darkest hour came about as an expression of the degeneration of his heart and dedication to Christ. This wasn’t just a mistake — this was a character issue for Judas. He left a legacy of death. But this woman, we are told, will always be remembered when we tell the gospel story. Which legacy would you like to leave?
But I think it’s important for us to understand that she did not pour oil out on Jesus’ feet because she wanted to be remembered as a Jesus-lover. She did it because she actually loved Jesus. Leaving a legacy probably wasn’t on her mind. But that was what was governing the motivation of many of the Pharisees — and probably even Judas. Devotion to Christ will leave a lasting legacy, but ironically focusing on that legacy instead of focusing on Christ will probably leave you more like Judas and the religious leaders than this dedicated woman. Focus on worship.
4. Death lurks over this story.
As we read this story and think about Mary’s devotion, we must not forget the words of Jesus. She is preparing him for burial. Judas and the religious leaders were grasping for power and Jesus was laying it down. There is a somber tone to this story. Yes, he will be resurrected. Yes, her devotion is beautiful. But the backdrop is a painful story. Jesus will be betrayed in only a matter of moments. I appreciate these words of John Witvliet:
“For those of us who follow Jesus, it is tempting to be attracted by a vision of the Christian life that is filled with warm hospitality and even extravagant worship, but that has no real room in it for a suffering and dying Lord or for the dying-to-ourselves way of life into which Jesus calls us.”
Because death lurks over the story of Christ — just as certainly as resurrection — we must be reminded that our worshipful devotion to Christ will often require not only the smashing of our lesser loves — like expensive perfumes — but also our very lives.
Does Jesus have your treasure? Is Jesus your treasure?
Mike Leake, Author
Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and his writing home is http://mikeleake.net