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.
Mark 14:3 (NIV)
In today’s chapter, Jesus was at a dinner party given in His honor. Mark wrote the shortest of the four biographies of Jesus, and his efficiency in story-telling requires that details be left out in order to get to the heart of the matter. In this case, however, I found that the omission of certain details also reduced the power of the moment.
Mark states that “a woman” anoints Jesus with some audaciously expensive perfume. John, who was present at the dinner party, explains in his account (John 12) that the person Mark calls “a woman” was Mary, the sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus had just raised from the dead. The other thing we know about Mary is that much earlier when Jesus paid a visit to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus she had been chastised by her sister, Martha, for not helping with dinner (see Luke 10). Mary was intent on sitting near Jesus and listening to Him while Martha dutifully prepared supper. In John’s account of the dinner party, Martha was once again focused on serving. Mary was focused on Jesus.
I had a couple of observations as I contemplated the scene this morning.
Jesus said that Mary, in anointing him with the perfume, was preparing Him “for burial.” Because of the lack of modern embalming methods, bodies were covered in perfumes and ointments that would counteract the stench of death that the body would emit relatively quickly. Yet, Mary’s act is happening a couple of days before Jesus would be arrested and executed.
While #TheTwelve and Jesus’ other followers are deaf and defensive to Jesus repeatedly insisting that He would suffer, die, and be resurrected, Mary embraces what Jesus has been saying. She shows faith and trust that no one else did. Her act metaphorically tells Jesus, “If this is what must be done, then I’m in. I’m going to trust you, that it will be just as you said. Allow me the honor of preparing you for what you say you must do.”
Mary does this immediately after she witnessed Jesus literally calling her brother out of the grave. Mary was standing there when Jesus said to her sister Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Mary’s anointing of Jesus also symbolically says “I believe. I believe you are the Resurrection and the Life. I believe you will die and that you’ll be raised from the dead just as you said.”
It is, ironically, Judas who questions the “waste” of the expensive perfume (worth an entire year of typical wages in those days) which he says could have been sold and used for more “practical” purposes. Jesus rebukes Judas sharply. To paraphrase: “Judas, shut up and leave Mary alone. This woman understands what I’m doing better than you and the other eleven.” I can’t help but hear the echoes of Jesus repeatedly asking #TheTwelve in previous chapters: “You still don’t understand?” It was Mary, who had been intent on watching and listening to Jesus, who saw it better than anyone else. It was this rebuke that sends Judas over the edge. He leaves the dinner party to arrange his betrayal.
I also hear the echoes of Jesus’ repeated admonition, “If you have ears to hear.” Mary’s spiritual ears were wide open to hear what no one else heard. Her spiritual eyes saw what no one else did. She was the only one connecting the spiritual dots between what Jesus had said and done raising her brother from the dead, and what Jesus said was going to happen to Him. And, she was the one who had been intent on sticking close to Jesus to watch, listen, and learn.
In the quiet this morning, I find it poignant that the person who seemed to “get it” was a woman outside of #TheTwelve. In those days, women were considered second rate to men. They were often treated as possessions and they typically had little education or social standing. It is a recurring theme in the Great Story for God to choose and to use the least, the youngest, the broken, the weak, and the marginalized to demonstrate His power. At the beginning of the Great Story is was “the woman” who was blamed for Adam and Eve’s disobedience. In this case, it was “a woman” who understands what Jesus is doing. In a few days, it will be “the women” who first hear of the resurrection. It will be “the women” who are the first to believe it. It will be “the women” who are entrusted to share the good news with #TheTwelve. I believe that there is an important lesson for me in this.
I have observed along my journey that even today it is often “the women,” like Mary, who show a greater interest in and sensitivity to the things of the Spirit, as well as a greater understanding of what God is up to. I have come to embrace that I have a lot to learn from them. I also have come to embrace the reality that it is sometimes those whom I’d least expect who get the things of God better than I do. Mary reminds me that in this spiritual journey, humility is required.