As we read through the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ, there are many minor and seemingly insignificant events. Yet when it comes to the life of Jesus Christ, there is no such thing as an insignificant event. One of those events is given to us in three of the four Gospels, and takes place just before the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday: the annointing of Jesus by Mary in the house of Simon the Leper. Just the heading of the paragraph is intriguing enough, for we know that no leper would be allowed to live in a house within any town or city — they were forced to live outside of town, usually by the town garbage dump. And also the presence of Lazarus, who not too long before this day had been wrapped in grave clothes and laid in a tomb for four days — now that whole account would intrigue just about anybody! And yet, even with both of those unusual parts to this biblical account, the main point of this story surrounds Mary—why did she pour such an expensive, rare and precious ointment over Jesus as he sat eating dinner? Let’s follow this story as it is laid out in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and John 12.
Jesus most likely arrived in Bethany — at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus — on Friday before sundown, when the Sabbath would have begun. Intending to spend a quiet Sabbath with his dear friends, it was the last quiet and peaceful day he would know before his death on the following Friday. After sundown on Saturday there was evidently a big dinner planned at Simon’s house — the Simon who used to be a leper. There was no cure for leprosy in those days, except for the Son of God. We imagine that Simon was one of those special people who experienced the healing power of Jesus firsthand, and as you could imagine was overjoyed beyond words at his new lease on life. So he wanted to give Jesus a big dinner to say thank you for the miracle of healing that had given him new life. There was another man with a similar new lease on life — Lazarus — who was just as excited at the incredible miracle that Jesus had blessed him with. John 11 gives us the details of this wonderful healing, and it is important to know that Jesus intended this miracle to be an irrefutable testimony to his claim to be the Son of God. Jesus intentionally stayed away from Lazarus’ house when he first heard that he was sick; it was important for Jesus’ purposes that Lazarus did not get better — in fact, it was imperative that Lazarus did not recover from his illness. Yes, Jesus knew how devastated Mary and Martha would be, he understood the betrayal that they would feel when he did not come as requested. It is never Jesus’ desire to simply keep us from pain or tears, but that we all come to realize — often times through pain and tears—that he is truly the Son of God. And so Jesus waited, waited until Lazarus died, waited until he had been buried, waited until he had been dead for four days before they arrived at the Lazarus home. The story is filled with the pathos that we all feel at a home where a loved one has died — crying, mourning, questioning, accusing — and yet Jesus quieted their hearts by assuring them that Lazarus would live again. The Jews taught that a person’s spirit hovered over the body for three days, just in case the body was resuscitated; four days would be necessary to keep the critics from claiming that Lazarus never died. So with the sisters and the mourners in tow, Jesus headed off to the graveside where Lazarus had been placed in his tomb. Against the protests of Martha, “He’s been dead four days, he will stink!”—the stone was removed and Lazarus was summoned forth to live once again with his dear sisters who were now standing there speechless.
Lazarus now sat at the table with Simon and Jesus, along with the disciples — with Martha and Mary serving. We would guess that even though Simon and Lazarus were special guests—both dead men who now lived again — the real honored guest was Jesus. For three years Jesus had been telling his followers that he would die and rise again, that he would suffer a cruel death at the hands of wicked men, and would then be resurrected on the third day. Though it seems the disciples could not quite figure out how that would mesh with their plans for the Kingdom—Peter even scolded Jesus for even talking this way—there were some who did seem to understand. Mary was one of those people; Mary was the one who we always seem to find at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching, asking questions, trying to understand. She must not have had preconceived ideas on how this whole kingdom thing was going to work out; instead, she just listened to what Jesus was saying, taking mental notes, and slowly over time she began to see a pattern in what he was saying. Besides, she lived with a living example of a person who came back from the dead — every day she looked at Lazarus with untold gratitude to the Lord! Maybe Jesus is going to do exactly what he keeps telling us he is going to do: die, and then come back to life! Perhaps Mary sensed that his time was approaching — was this a heaviness that she now saw on his face? He seemed more somber, more subdued, increasingly quiet. She watched him, seeing the sadness in his eyes. If he was to be killed at the hands of wicked men, would there be the chance for her to ever show her gratitude for all that he had done for her and her family? Would she have the chance to show her love after he was gone? I believe she decided it was now or never, and whether she had formulated this plan in advance for that perfect moment or whether this was a spontaneous act that burst into her mind at that instant, she didn’t hesitate. Taking the most precious possession she owned—an alabaster flask of precious perfume — she came and stood behind Jesus. This special ointment could have been a wedding gift, could have been purchased by Mary for some special occasion that would one day come, could have even been an investment for the future. It was very expensive, roughly the cost of a workingman’s yearly wage. Though perfume was common in those days as an expression of kindness to those entering your home to help cover the smell of sweat and body odor, this perfume was much too special for that. It was perfect for this occasion: the best that money could buy, the best that she could possibly give, and much more — so much more — than was necessary for this task. Just a little on the head, a little on the feet, and all would be well—the smell would be strong enough to cover the smell of a man who walked miles every day in a dry and dusty land, and yet not too strong to interrupt the meal that was in progress. The men reclined around a U-shaped table, each leaning on pillows with a shoulder up to the table and their feet behind them. The evening meal was more a time of fellowship, talking and catching up than it was for eating; it could go on for hours. I imagine Mary waited in the shadows for that perfect opportunity, and when it presented itself she immediately sprang into action. Maybe there was a lull in the conversation; maybe there wasn’t but she could contain herself no longer. In any event it happened: she stepped up behind the Lord, broke that fragile alabaster container open, and began to pour — not sprinkle or drip—the entire contents onto the head, neck, shoulders and feet of Jesus! All 12 ounces! No holding back! No saving what was left for herself! Jesus must have been startled, he must have flinched as that cool liquid first hit his head and then began to run down his neck on onto his back. The smell would have been almost overpowering, instantly filling not only the room but the entire house with its exquisite odor. And if that was not enough, Mary then did the unthinkable — what no proper woman would ever do in the presence of men: she let down her hair in public, knelt at Jesus feet, and began to wipe off the excess ointment with her hair. How shameful, how inappropriate, how wasteful, the men at the table must have thought. Judas was first to speak, questioning why such a waste had just occurred, and maybe even implying why Jesus had raised no objection. Using the poor as an excuse to show his false piety, he complained that so much good could have been done if only that money would have gone into his moneybag instead of being wasted on Jesus. Wasted on Jesus? Is that even possible? Can anything be too much for the Son of God? Can all that we have and all that we give be “wasted” on the Christ? On the one who gave his life so that we might have life? Jesus quickly came to her defense, stopping her critics in their tracks,“She has anointed me in advance for my burial.” Mary gets it. She understands. Maybe she was the only one in the whole room who did get it — and more than get it, she acted on it. She sat at the Lord’s feet and listened when others were busy running about; she accepted the teaching she heard and processed the information without bias or preconceived ideas; she didn’t make Jesus’ words fit her idea of what was right or wrong, just or unfair, good or bad; she just listened, understood, believed, and accepted. It wasn’t enough to be part of a meal in his honor for the gift of life Jesus had given to Lazarus; she must do more. She needed to do something to show Jesus how much she loved him, how much she appreciated not only what he had done but what he was going to do for her in the very near future. She had to say “thank you” for the death that he was about to die on her behalf, the death that he was about to die for all of us — every single person who ever has, or ever will, live on this earth. How do you measure how much to give to someone who saved your life, how do you decide how much that is worth? Are there guidelines to follow, is there an appropriate amount, an acceptable total? How much is your life worth? And even beyond that, Mary was not thanking Jesus for saving her physical life that one day would ultimately end, she was thanking him for the eternal life that he was giving to her, life that would never end! How much is that worth? To Mary it was worth everything. It was worth the most expensive present she could afford, the most precious gift she had in her possession, and was given in the most significant and meaningful way that it could be given. That was Mary. And as Jesus said, “Wherever this Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mary’s love was extravagant. Her love knew no limits. She didn’t care what others thought, she didn’t care what culture said was appropriate, she just didn’t care. Her heart overflowed with gratitude for what her Savior was about to do for her, and she showed how much she appreciated that. What about you? Have you heard what Christ has done for you? Have you processed the information without bias or preconceived ideas? Instead of judging what the Bible says, have you simply believed and accepted what Christ has done for all of us? Does your life prove that you appreciate what Jesus did for you on that cross this Easter season? Is your love for God extravagant, or is it stingy? Does your love for Christ cause you to love others, or are you too busy loving yourself? Hard questions. Tough answers. But being around people like Mary often makes that happen. Are you a Mary?
Everyone is invited to join us for our Good Friday service, 6:30 p.m. at Centerpoint Church, to remember the crucifixion and death of our Savior. Our Easter Celebration service will be at 10:15 a.m. with drama and special music. Come early for our fellowship time with refreshments and catching up with friends and family. There is also an Easter egg hunt on Saturday, 9 am at the church for kids up through the fourth grade.