In this final reflection on the radical way that Jesus worked with women I want to explore Jesus’ interaction with Mary of Bethany, in particular on the occasion when she anointed him with perfume. Although there are some differences in the different gospel accounts most scholars agree that the accounts in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:1-9 and John 12:1-8 are all describing the same event. Perhaps the most significant difference between the three accounts is to do with what part of Jesus was anointed. John tells us that Mary pours the perfume over Jesus’ feet and then uses her hair to wipe his feet. Matthew and Mark’s accounts however, say that it is his head that Mary pours the perfume over. With a pint of perfume, it is quite possible that both the head and feet were anointed, particularly considering “in Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, Jesus refers to Mary having anointed his ‘body’ for burial (Mt, 26:12; Mk.14.8)” (Milne 1998:175). The account in Luke 7:36-39 of Jesus being anointed by a woman “is viewed by many as an account of a different incident much earlier in Jesus’ ministry” (Milne 1998:175). For the purposes of our reflection we will assume that Matthew, Mark and John are all describing the same event and that Luke’s account is a different incident.
It is just a few days before the Passover when Jesus will be betrayed and ultimately be crucified. Jesus is in Bethany and a meal is being held in his honour, perhaps for raising Lazarus back to life, since Lazarus was amongst the guests at the meal. Simon, a Leper who had been healed, is the host and Jesus is reclining at the table with Lazarus, Simon and the other guests. The meal is served and then at some point during the meal Mary approaches Jesus with a pint of very expensive perfume and anoints him.
Before considering the reaction to what Mary did, it is worth briefly considering how radical Mary’s actions were and what this shows us. The jar of perfume, as Judas and the disciples are so quick to point out, was not cheap. It would have cost the equivalent of about a year’s wages for a fairly well off person. Mary’s actions here are clearly not a small thing to her. It is an extravagant expression of her love for Jesus. It is both a sign of her devotion to him as her Lord and also a sign of gratitude for all he has done, not least in raising Lazarus from the dead. John tells us that having poured the perfume on his feet she “wiped his feet with her hair” (v3). For a woman to have her hair untied in public would have been seen as totally inappropriate and would have been shocking to those looking on. Mary’s focus seems to be so caught up in expressing her worship to Jesus that she is not only prepared to face social disapproval for her actions, it is almost as if she were totally unaware of the other people there.
The reaction to this event comes not from Jesus himself, but from some of the men present at the table, in particular Matthew tells us it was the disciples, and John singles out Judas Iscariot as being the first to comment. Their reaction is to focus on how extravagant the act was and the fact that it was such a waste of expensive perfume. They even try to justify their condemnation by suggesting that a better action would have been to sell the perfume and use the money to help the poor. Jesus responded to the disciples’ comments by rebuking them for criticising Mary, and also defending Mary’s actions. In speaking out in support of Mary, Jesus would have embarrassed his disciples in front of those present.
Unlike his disciples, Jesus’ response to Mary’s actions is one of acceptance. The accounts of the event suggest that Jesus lets Mary express her worship to him by pouring the perfume on him and letting her touch him with her hair. Not only does Jesus jump to Mary’s defense, he says “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”(Mt. 26:10; Mk. 14:6). This would have been a completely shocking thing to hear Jesus say. He accepts worship from a woman in a manner that is totally unacceptable on a social level and calls it a beautiful thing. However, perhaps even more radical than that is the fact that Jesus actually goes on to suggest that Mary’s actions show that she has grasped more fully than they what he was to face in the coming days. Whilst we cannot be sure how much Mary had grasped she certainly seems to have perceived in some way that it was timely to prepare Jesus’ for his burial and that his earthly life was coming to an end. Something the disciples had repeatedly failed to grasp from Jesus himself. Jesus’ response to the incident is truly radical; to suggest that a woman may have spiritual insight above that of Jesus’ closest disciples is incredible.
So what is God saying to you through this passage?
- How easy do you find it to extravagantly worship Jesus?
- What causes barriers to your worship of Jesus?
Spend some time worshipping Jesus now.