Mary of Bethany

Derek Thomas Articles
In the third in a series of articles in which we examine Jesus' encounters with various individuals, we take a look at the conversation of Jesus with Mary of Bethany in Mark 14:1-9.

Jesus was on his way to Calvary. He had made it increasingly a matter of conversation since the time he spoke with Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-38). In this, the last week of his life, he made trips each evening to Bethany, a small town a few miles away from Jerusalem. He had stayed here on previous occasions at the home of a family of two sisters and a brother: Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Those who lived in Bethany were still talking about the day Jesus had stood outside of Lazarus' tomb, when he had been dead for three days, and said, "Lazarus, Come out" (John 11:43).  The sight of him emerging bound head to two in bandages was a sight few would ever forget!

On this occasion, Jesus has been invited to the home of "Simon the Leper." At the meal, while Jesus was reclining in typical eastern fashion: head and shoulders faced inwards toward a low table of some sort, something embarrassing occurs. There is the sound of breaking glass and then a pungent smell - the kind of odor that would remind some of the first century equivalent of embalming fluid. Mary is pouring the entire contents of a bottle of this liquid on Jesus head! The liquid is estimated to been roughly equal to the average man's annual wages, and the sheer extravagance and social faux pas of this situation has everyone upset.

Mary had intended to do something for sure - this was not the kind of liquid a woman would carry with her in her purse! She had taken to Simon house with the intention of doing something. We cannot be certain what exactly she intended to do. It rather looks like she may well have done what she did as an act of spontaneous emotion, overcome by the sight and sound of Jesus. Perhaps she had thought of giving him the bottle of fluid since he had been talking with increasing conviction about being crucified in Jerusalem.

She did an extravagant thing! And she did out of heart of love. Whatever her precise motives (and the fact that Jesus provides an interpretation of it later does not necessitate Mary herself understood what she did), what she did was an act of selfless love for Jesus Christ.

The guests considered what she did as reckless and wasteful. Some of them were saying, "There were some who said to themselves indignantly, "Why was the ointment wasted like that?" (Mark 14:4). Mark employs a word that suggests that they were in fact "snorting." She was behaving with unimaginable serenity and they were responding like wild animals. There were suggestions that this ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. All they could see was money. All Mary could see was Jesus.

But Jesus said that what did was a "beautiful" thing (Mark 14:6).

Jesus, in fact, did three things:  first, he defended her, stood up for her. Isn't that a wonderful characteristic of Jesus? Second, he asked the guests a question: "Why are you bothering her?" It suggests, of course, that the answer lies in a sense of guilt on behalf of the guests. They had done nothing! Third, he provides Mary's action with an interpretation: "She has done a beautiful thing." She had understood who he was, why had come into the world, what the significance of his death was. She did as a preparation for his burial! It was, as it turns out, the only anointing Jesus body was to receive, for on the Sunday morning when the disciples came to anoint him his body wasn't there.

Have you such love for Jesus as this?

Dr .Derek Thomas is Editor-in-Chief of Reformation 21 magazine.

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