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Unashamed, Extravagant Affection for the Son of God

The portrait of Jesus in the gospels is truly stunning. Jesus, described by his enemies as the friend of sinners, was uninhibited in the presence of lepers and unafraid to confront demonic spirits. He was unembarrassed by prostitutes and unimpressed by religious leaders. He is unoffended by your weaknesses, undeterred by your sin, and unashamed to call you his own. How do you respond to someone like this? Continue reading . . . 

The portrait of Jesus in the gospels is truly stunning. Jesus, described by his enemies as the friend of sinners, was uninhibited in the presence of lepers and unafraid to confront demonic spirits. He was unembarrassed by prostitutes and unimpressed by religious leaders. He is unoffended by your weaknesses, undeterred by your sin, and unashamed to call you his own. How do you respond to someone like this? Matt Redman asked the question in the lyrics to one of his songs: “What can be said, what can be done, to so faithful a friend, to so loving a King?”

Ask yourself this: “If I were to describe the depth and intensity of my devotion to Jesus, what words would I use?” Would you employ words like exuberant, demonstrative, passionate, extravagant? Or would your devotion to the Son of God be more accurately described as measured, calculated, restrained, and guarded?

To help us understand the appropriate response to Jesus I want to look briefly at two people who knew him well. Both had seen Jesus heal the sick. They had watched with breathless wonder as he cleansed lepers of indescribable disfigurement. They had witnessed paralytics leap for joy for the first time in their lives. They scratched their heads in bewilderment as he restored sight to the blind with mud balls made from spit. Dead people came to life and demons ran for cover when the friend of sinners drew near.

Both had heard him preach the gospel of the kingdom of God. They may even have sat next to each other, occasionally looking to the other to see if they’d really heard what they thought they’d heard. The power of his words was beyond dispute. No one had ever spoken with such authority. Both had witnessed his compassion and love. They’d seen lives transformed and hope restored and dignity come alive. Yet their responses to him differed as life does from death. Who were they? One was a lady, named Mary. The other a man, Judas Iscariot.

They found themselves in Bethany, a village two miles east of Jerusalem; in the home of Simon, a man whom Jesus had healed of leprosy. Here’s the entire passage:

It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” Jesus Anointed at Bethany And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him (Mark 14:1-11).

One might not think it important to know when this incident occurred, but John tells us it was “six days before Passover”, in other words, probably on the Saturday night before Palm Sunday. In other words, the anointing at Bethany described in Mark 14:3-9 actually occurred three or four days before the events recorded in Mark 14:1-2.

When matters because it sheds light on what happened. The chronology of this incident bears greatly on its theology. It tells us why this death of Jesus rather than all the others of his day or any day transformed history forever. He is the sacrificial Passover Lamb of God.

Why were they gathered in Simon’s house? Well, to eat dinner for one. But the party perhaps had deeper meaning. Simon may have arranged it as a way of thanking Jesus for healing him of leprosy. Who can fault him for that! Or perhaps they were celebrating Lazarus being alive and honoring Jesus for so remarkable a miracle. In any case, there were no fewer than fifteen men present: the 12 disciples, Jesus, Simon, and Lazarus; together with two women: Mary and her sister Martha.

Mary’s action, as described in v. 3, wasn’t unusual or unexpected. Anointing people was a common thing in those days. Jesus himself was incredulous, and perhaps a bit offended, when Simon the Pharisee, failed to anoint him (Luke 7:46; cf. Psalms 23:5 and 141:5). What was unusual about Mary, indeed scandalous, was the incalculable cost, the expense, the sheer financial extravagance of her devotion and love.

The alabaster flask was a vial made of fine-grained gypsum from which the perfume was extracted by snapping off the long thin neck. Again, John identifies the content of the flask as “very expensive ointment”, nard to be specific (John 12). Her gift amounted to 300 denarii, the equivalent of a year’s wage for a working man! A full year’s salary!

Where did Mary get this kind of expensive perfume? It’s not the sort of thing a woman in that day would keep sitting on her dresser! Nothing in Scripture indicates that she and her family were that wealthy. Perhaps she inherited it, but I guess we’ll never know. Some wealthy people can perform extravagant acts of generosity and never feel the cost. They never need to look at a price tag when shopping for clothes or hesitate to order a filet when it lists for $45. But this perfume probably represented Mary’s financial security. She was going to feel the financial impact of this decision for a long time to come. But she couldn’t have cared less! There’s no reason to think she ever paused to add up the expense. She never hesitated, worrying about how to pay the rent or the bills or how to finance her retirement.

Earlier Jesus had told his followers that he was soon to be delivered up to death. You would think his stunning prophecy would have knocked some spiritual sense into their heads. Yet his words seemed to fall on deaf ears. Did anyone hear him? Did anyone care? Mary did.

The reaction of the disciples was predictable. For a moment everyone must have sat in stunned silence, in utter disbelief of what they had just witnessed. “Did I just see what I think I saw?” they no doubt queried in their minds. Then they spoke out in angry denunciation (see vv. 4-5). In the first place, the perfume didn’t belong to them! It was Mary’s, and she was perfectly free to do with it whatever she pleased. So where do they get off taking her to task? There’s no reason to think the disciples were motivated by greed or materialism. Nothing in their behavior indicated they wanted the money for themselves. They simply failed to realize the redemptive significance of what was taking place and the fact that the cross was just around the corner.

Their concern for the poor was actually sincere and genuine. In any other context it would have been perfectly appropriate. In fact, it was customary on the evening of Passover to take up an offering for the poor of one’s community. This may well be what prompted their anger over what Mary had done. But according to John 12, Judas protested “not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it” (v. 6).

Jesus, in saying what he does in v. 7, is not unconcerned with the needs of the poor, and neither should we be. But there would be many more opportunities to attend to the cause of Christian charity whereas the earthly life of Jesus was almost at an end.

It is here that Matthew tells us something that Mark omits. According to Matthew 26:10 Jesus was “aware” of what the disciples were saying to themselves about her. How did Jesus become “aware” (v. 10) of what was being said? Did he overhear their conversation? Did the Spirit reveal this to him, as had happened on numerous other occasions? The least likely explanation is that Mary came to him burdened by their criticism and complained at how she was being mistreated. I honestly don’t think she could have cared less what they thought or said. We’ll see why in a moment. Whatever the case, Jesus indicates that she had an intuitive appreciation for the meaning of his impending death. The stunning thing for all of us to note is that what the disciples thought was “waste” Jesus declares “beautiful”!

Was Mary conscious of the theological importance of her act? She had to be, or Jesus would not have commended her for it. Remember: in the three most prominent scenes in which Mary appears she is always at the feet of Jesus, either to listen and learn, or to love and receive comfort.

Now, why did I include vv. 10-11 in this story? Would it not have been more fitting to end on the high note of v. 9? Perhaps, but I want us to think in terms of the contrast between Mary and Judas. We’ll take this up in the next article.

To be continued . . .

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