Summary: The significance is not in the cost but in the importance attached to it by Christ
MARY OF BETHANY
Have you ever done anything extravagant for love’s sake? The advertisements tell us to buy diamonds as an expression of love. All sorts of things are suggested at Christmas time to express our love for someone. Matthew, Mark and John all record this incident of Jesus being anointed with an expensive perfume. John (ch.12) tells us that the woman involved is Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. John places the incident as having taken place just prior to the beginning of Holy Week, whereas Mark places it at another time. The discrepancy is explained by the fact that Mark arranges his material in theological order and not chronologically. For Mark the conspiracy to kill Jesus (expressed in verses 1-2) and the betrayal by Judas (verses 10-11) provide a stark contrast to this act of love and devotion (verses 3-9). So our context in this passage is the plot to kill Christ and against this background Mary’s act of devotion comes vividly to the fore.
Verse 3. Mark tells us that the incident takes place in Simon the Leper’s house. We do not know who this man was. He may have been healed by Jesus – but he was certainly healed – otherwise he would not have been living in the village of Bethany, nor would anyone have come to have a meal with him. Added to this the retention of suffix ‘the Leper’ after his name hints at the fact that the disease was now a thing of the past. Again we can see how Jesus was not afraid to be seen with those who were, or had been, considered outcasts of society. Mark proceeds to tell us the kernel of the story – a woman (who we know from John’s account is Mary) comes into the room at which the guests, including Jesus, are reclining enjoying a meal. She has with her an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. The alabaster jar would have a had a long neck and have been sealed with wax to prevent the fragrance escaping. Mark tells us that the perfume is pure nard, a perfume which came from India and as he rightly explains was extremely expensive. In fact the value he places on it is 300 denarii, a year’s wages. The average wage being 1denarius per day. In order to use the ointment inside the neck of the bottle would be broken and the contents poured out. However an expensive ointment like nard would have been rationed and used over a longer period. Mark tells us that Mary breaks open the jar and pours the content over the head of Christ.
There is no holding back in her giving here. There is no reluctance to give all to Christ Jesus. Mary gives what is expensive and costly to her. She gives extravagantly without thought for self or for the opinion of others around her. Her focus is on Jesus and the anointing of His head as a sign of her love and devotion towards Him. She gives in order that she might be a blessing to Him.
Verses 4-5 - some of those present react with indignation to what they have just witnessed. Matthew records for us that it was some of the disciples, as well as the religious leaders, who display this indignation. John tells us that it was Judas in particular. Mark however focuses more on their reaction rather than who was involved. He deliberately uses the word ‘embrimaomsi’ when describing their reaction. This word does not just mean they are angry but that their anger was expressed as violent displeasure. They begin to show their displeasure at Mary for her act of devotion. They seek to justify their anger by pointing out the ‘waste’ and how the poor could have benefited from the money raised by selling the ointment. John reveals for us that Judas, at least, had ulterior motives for wanting to sell the nard. At Passover time it was common for gifts to be given to the poor – so Mary’s act of devotion was not only considered to be extravagant but also to contravene the religious conventions of the time of year. Not much has changed in 2000 years when someone does something extravagant as an act of worship to Jesus. Yet stop and think for a moment about the reaction of the religious leaders and the disciples. The disciples had enjoyed hospitality at the home of Mary and Martha on many occasions and yet here they are quick to condemn her. They knew her. They knew Jesus. They knew her devotion to Christ, after all He had raised her brother back to life and yet they are quick to criticise, to misinterpret and to condemn her actions. I find it striking that those who are ‘close’ to Jesus are the ones who are the most critical and condemning of Mary for this act of devotion.