A Woman, a Jar, and a Memorial Forever: Just Some Thoughts on Mary’s Act of Doing What She Could

Every now and then, a line from the Bible comes to me, at odd times it seems.  I awoke this morning with one such line in mind, that being from Mark 14.  It was the final week of Jesus’ ministry.  It was so fitting that all of these things would culminate during Passover week.  Jesus and his disciples were in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper.  Jesus, as was his custom, was reclining at table with these people of low estate and questionable reputation.  He was frequently found in the company of the likes of tax collectors—those traitorous Roman collaborators spoken of with derision by good Jews—and prostitutes and other “sinners.”  Once when he was asked why he and his disciples associated with this questionable lot, he replied, “Healthy people don’t need a physician, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ because I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.”  (Matt 9.12-13)

At Simon’s table, during the course of the evening, some woman (we learn it was Lazarus and Martha’s sister, Mary over in John 12), broke open the seal of a jar of very expensive oil, an ointment called nard or spikenard in different translations, and poured it on Jesus’ head.  Some of those in attendance—John says it was Judas himself—chided the woman for wasting the oil, valued at somewhere in the range of 300 denarii, or close to a year’s wages.  Ostensibly, this “conscientious” follower would have sold the oil to give the proceeds to the poor.  Realistically, he would likely have pocketed the money for himself, if the description in John 12.6 held true. 

On hearing this, Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me, because you will always have the destitute with you and can help them whenever you want, but you will not always have me.  She has done what she could. She poured perfume on my body in preparation for my burial. I tell you with certainty, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”  (Mark 14.6-9)

How could Jesus have said it was fine for the woman to have “wasted” this fine oil when it could have been used to alleviate suffering?  On the one hand, what was done was done, and there was no use chiding her over something that would be trivial in the greater scheme of things.  It was only oil.  But that had little to do with the situation.

But wasn’t it insensitive of Jesus to say what he said in John 12.8 and Mark 14.7, that they would always have the destitute with them, but they would not always have him?  It is never insensitive to face reality.  How it is done and how it is received may vary, but truth must be addressed and facts must be faced.

In saying that the poor or destitute would always be with them, Jesus was not making an excuse for Mary’s actions.  He was stating a fact.  And just because the opportunity for good (if it can be so characterized) that Judas pointed out was not taken does not mean that they would be forever absolved of their responsibility to the poor in the future.  Jesus said, “…and you can help them whenever you want.”

That line, “She has done what she could,” often comes to my mind.  Mary had done what she could to show her love and respect for this great man.  Jesus had raised her brother from the dead.  Now soon, he would be taking his place in the unknown.  In John 11, we are told Martha believed in the resurrection, and it would be likely that her sister shared that view.  She would believe that Jesus would live again. 

But to live again, one must first die.  And funeral practices in that time involved burial preparation, a crude embalming not nearly as elaborate or effective as Egyptian mummification, but necessary according to tradition.  Mary consciously or sub-consciously, intentionally or not, was preparing Jesus’ body for what would soon come to pass.   Jesus used the situation to underscore the nearness of his death, and the fact that these people that he had held so dear would be separated from him.  The prophetic act of anointing emphasized that what he had been saying was about to happen. 

Jesus stood up for Mary against her accusers and detractors, saying, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me….”  From this, I perceive an assurance that Jesus knows and appreciates those who genuinely appreciate and honor him.  The self-righteousness of the accusers was dismissed for the hypocritical superficiality that it was.  Mary’s act of selfless adoration was accepted and cherished. 

This sacrifice of so costly a gift assured Mary of a place in history.  “I tell you with certainty, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”  Her gift was given not out of fear or some misplaced sense of responsibility.  She traded Jesus this precious object of transient value for his gratitude and reflected, even amplified love—an outcome of infinitely greater worth than a jar of spikenard.  Her gift was offered in love for his temporal glorification.  This attitude, not the monetary value of the gift, got Jesus’ attention and won his eternal approval and respect.

Had she planned this before the dinner at Simon’s house?  Was it a spontaneous act?  We can’t possibly know her heart.  But Jesus did just as he knows ours.  Mary did on Earth what Heaven had already done and was about to do again: she poured precious oil on Jesus’ head even as Heaven had broken the seal of its most precious gift, the Son of God, when he came to Earth, taught us all how to live and love like God, and showed us that the way to glory is through humility and sacrifice. 

That attitude is what Jesus wants in his disciples even today.  He accepts those who are not afraid to honor him.  He exalts those who humble themselves.  He intercedes for those whose lives testify to his transformative presence.  Words are cheap.  Actions are dear.  Mary’s “sacrifice” of so precious a possession was no real sacrifice at all. She invested her precious oil in the glorification of her Lord. She extended to him a mercy to comfort him in his coming trial and suffering.  When we do that to even the least of Jesus’ brethren, we will have done the same to him.  I have no costly oil to give.  But I have a heart full of mercy that I can share. 

So thank you, Mary of Bethany, for doing what you could, and for honoring Jesus with a pure and unfeigned heart. What an example of faith, devotion, mercy and love. 

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