I haven't been able to write for a long time. Sometimes illness wears on you, especially chronic illness. He has been leading me into difficult places I've never been before, and it's taken time to acclimate.
Then today, I came to a point in my reading schedule that revisited a favorite story.
And this came pouring out.
Mark 14:3-9, Mt 26:6-13, John 12;2-8
Mary has always seemed to me to be the one who “got” Jesus. She sat at His feet to learn all she could – perhaps a little in rebellion to controlling Martha (as the younger sister without a mother, Martha would always have had the upper hand.) Men and women never sat together or worshipped together, especially the unmarried ones. But headstrong Mary felt something for this itinerant callous-handed Nazarene, something that gave her hope, something that made Adonai seem touchable, lovable, something that spoke to her heart – so, she sat at His feet and listened.
Her brother Lazarus would have supported them. We are not told, but it seems all three were single. Their parents were both dead or the girls would be living with their father. If the mother had been widowed and still alive, Lazarus would, as the only son, have taken her in. Tradition holds that Lazarus was the rich young ruler whom, “…looking upon him, Jesus loved him.” Mk 10:21
I’ve always wondered where Mary got the ultra-expensive nard she anointed Him with that day. It is unlikely that she bought it for herself – all of her spending money would have come from Lazarus, and this perfume cost 300 denarii . A single denarius was a whole day’s wages. She would have had to scrimp and save for years, then spend it all in one glorious day for that one thing.
I think that it was a gift from Lazarus, her loving brother. Perhaps one day when they were in the market together he noticed her wistfully looking in the direction of the perfumiers. Or perhaps it was the one thing she had left of her mother’s. However it came into her possession, it was clearly a treasured object, sparingly used if at all. Perhaps it gave her pleasure just to look at it – alabaster is a very fine variety of marble. It was quarried in Egypt and carved into delicate and often quite beautiful containers for expensive perfumes, adding to its value. And when the time came, she would give her heart with that bottle of nard, released in its entirety from its broken alabaster container.
They were at Simon the leper’s house – a man most likely healed by Jesus, as a leper could not be in society with others. They were outcast, begging by the side of the road, and if someone approached they were to cover their mouths and cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” so no one would become ceremonially unclean by accident. No one touched them for the same reason – except Jesus, of course. Perhaps this dinner was in gratitude for his healing – obviously Simon was well off. Perhaps he had learned that his money was useless when it came to the important things – that money was, when you got right down to it, not important at all.
Women did not feast with men. They would have been in the banquet hall only to serve, not to mingle with the guests. Time-wise, this was “6 days before the Passover,” the last Passover Jesus would spend on this earth, the Passover where He Himself would be the sacrificial Lamb that takes away the sins of the world. Jesus is the “Lamb that was slain” of Revelation 5 who was worthy to take the scroll (the deed to planet earth) not because He was God, but because He was a man, and had purchased the right to the deed with His blood, the very deed that satan received from Adam the day Adam knowingly sinned to stay with Eve, thus valuing her more than he valued God.
What was in Mary’s heart that day? She alone of those who followed Him had realized He was soon to die. The commentators say she didn’t really realize what she was doing – but Jesus, Who certainly knew what was in her heart, said she was anointing Him for His death. She knew all right. She knew and her heart was breaking.
Everyone else was feasting, having a good time, Martha in there slaving away – only Mary, out of them all, “got” it. Did she suddenly realize, in the midst of everything, that Jesus had come to Bethany (about 2 miles from Jerusalem) to say goodbye? Was there something bittersweet in His eyes that she alone saw? Did their eyes connect at the moment she saw it – fear in her eyes, certainty in His? Was He savoring this last time of joy with those He loved? In less than a week He must drink a cup so foul He shrank from it – and all of His love and support would be gone. This was it.
Did she slip away to her home then, heart breaking, praying for a way to show her love, perhaps to bring Him a moment of comfort? Looking frantically around her room, her eyes fell on the breathtaking, intricately carved bottle of pure nard. He was going to die, He’d said, although no one had seemed to believe it – “oh, not You, Lord,” they’d said, and passed it off. But Jesus didn’t joke about such things and He didn’t lie.
He was going to die.
Well then, she may have thought, taking the bottle of fragrance in her hand, she would anoint Him for that death.
How long was the walk back to Simon’s? Was she trembling? Were her shoulders back, her face determined? Or was she tearful, aware of the notoriety her actions would bring?
We don’t know – Scripture doesn’t tell us. But I believe she was thinking only of Him – that she had to tell Him she believed Him, believed in Him.
She entered Simon’s house, walked to the banquet hall. Her eyes were on Jesus only as she walked to Him. Did He see her then? Did His eyes shine with delight, knowing that her heart was giving to Him all that she had to perhaps buy Him one moment of comfort?
All the noise and hubbub slowly ceased at the sound of the alabaster breaking. She poured the oil on His head, a woman alone in a roomful of men. Then, as John alone adds, she walked to His feet and anointed them, too.
By now everyone was staring.
The room filled with the aroma of the costly fragrance.
Then, in an act of worship, she uncovered her head. Gasps all around – for a single woman to do this in the presence of unrelated males was akin to going topless. But she went further. In an act only done in the presence of a husband, she let her hair down, releasing the heavy coil, letting the silken tresses fall, and then bent over His feet, using her hair to dry them.
This act of undeniable intimacy would have had the room abuzz with righteous indignation. Scripture doesn’t tell us this, but I believe she was silently crying, the ache in her heart distilling itself into salty, silent tears of worship that ran unheeded down her face.
Into this personal, intimate act of sacrifice and surrender comes a cutting voice, condescending, denigrating.
“A whole year’s wages, wasted!” Judas spat out,”Why wasn’t it sold, the money given to the poor?”
Note not a word was said about what would have been considered wanton behavior. The only outrage in the heart of Judas was concerned with money. The others chimed in with him, but John tells us that the words belonged to Judas.
The response of Jesus is immediate and commanding.
“Leave her alone! Why do you trouble her?” He says. In the Modern Language Bible it is translated “Why do you embarrass her?”
Can you imagine how Mary felt in that moment? She has laid herself bare, as it were, to give Him the tiniest bit of comfort and understanding, and now Judas has soiled what she meant as a pure kindness. She must have wanted to crawl under a rock. Here she meant to ease His heart and all she’d done was embarrass Him.
But Jesus then puts things into a Godly perspective: “She has anointed me for my burial,” He tells them – a fact that they have all industriously refused to believe or act upon. “The poor will always be around. I won’t. She has done for me a mitzvoh (a blessing, a good work) She did what she could,” He says, perhaps giving Mary a reassuring smile.
Mary listened to Him, when no one else did, and she gave Him the gift of believing what He said. Several times Jesus tells His disciples “I have so many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now.” They simply couldn’t listen.
They believed, of course - believed that He was Messiah, the Anointed One who would free them from Roman rule and set up His Kingdom (presumably with them as His trusted officials – they often argued about who would be the greatest in His kingdom.) They just didn’t listen. In their book, Messiah would be a victorious conqueror - and anything else just didn't fit in with their scenario.
Out of all of them, there was this one young woman who not only believed, she listened and, Jesus says, “She did what she could.”
And then, Jesus revealed a little bit of His own heart. The only time in 33 years He said this of anyone or anything, He says, “Whenever this gospel is preached anywhere in the whole world, what she has done will also be told, as a memorial to her.”
I can only imagine what relief flooded Mary’s heart. He understood. And she had done a good thing. It had meant so much to Him that it would be told again and again, down through the ages as a memorial to her.
But I don’t think any of that mattered to Mary. What mattered was Jesus. And she had blessed Him.
The fragrance in her hair – and in His – would have lasted for days, perhaps even unto the cross.
I find it interesting that for Judas to be reprimanded publicly – and that for a woman – would have been insulting and most embarrassing. The image he’d sought to create for himself of someone so kind-hearted and benevolent to the poor had come crashing down around his ears – he had been made to look obtuse and money-grubbing, a public unmasking.
Iscariot means, “the man from Kerioth,” a small town in Judea about 20-some miles south of Jerusalem, whereas everyone else was from the Galilee, north of Jerusalem - and Judas is always identified that way, sort of like an outsider. Perhaps Judas felt he never fit in. It is possible he never really believed in Jesus as God, he just thought He would eventually become a powerful religious or political leader leader – and Judas would be His friend. He’d all but salivated over the “wasted” 300 denarii, and this country bumpkin had publicly embarrassed him for it. Did his pride smart under that rebuke and simmer, unresolved, growing in importance in his mind?
In the gospel of Mark, the next verse is chilling.
“Then Judas…went to the chief priests to betray Him to them.”
In Matthew it says, "And from that moment he began to look out for an opportunity to betray Him."
And so I ask myself: -
Am I believing in Him, acting on what I believe and blessing Him?
Or am I betraying Him – selling Him for far less than 30 pieces of silver, to save something as usless as my pride?