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. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her. Mark 14:3-9 NIV
“She has done a beautiful thing to me”
The audience laughed uproariously, as if on cue; the comedian’s riff had focussed on humorous lines written on headstones in a cemetery, and the greatest hilarity was evoked when one woman’s headstone quoted read, “She did what she could”. No doubt, the context he wove made the quote a funny punchline when it was delivered. But the irony struck comes back poignantly to me each time I read the line in its true context:
They were words spoken in affirmation and approval, by Jesus, concerning Mary of Bethany. The setting was a feast thrown in that township outside Jerusalem, in honour of Jesus, at the beginning of what was to be the Messiah’s last week, before His crucifixion. Some there may have thought the event a precursor to His great overthrow of Rome, as they knew He planned to enter Jerusalem the next day. Judas likely did. But devout, contemplative Mary had listened carefully, meditated prayerfully, reflected on Jesus’ words and teaching, and had received the truth He had so patiently repeated, in vain, to His glory-hungry disciples. He was about to die. She had heard Him, believed and came worshipfully, even prophetically, to anoint His body for burial.
For this, she had brought an ornate alabaster jar filled and sealed with spikenard— a costly perfume, worth a year’s wages, by the estimate of those present. Some have speculated that a woman of her social standing would have been saving such for her wedding, or, in lieu, as a nest egg. The gospels record that she broke the jar open and poured its contents on Jesus’… head? feet? Likely both. He was covered in it. No doubt, as she worshipped tearfully at His feet, with the oil pouring down on them, her devotion drew her to wipe His feet with her draping hair.
Whether out of shock or embarrassment, her act evoked a silent pause in the evening’s flow which was brief; for in a couple of beats the table erupted in a flood of remonstrations. “They rebuked her harshly”, the scriptures record. Her heart breaking with what her spirit knew concerning her beloved Master and Lord, her mind quaking under the scathing words — “Why this waste?! This could have been sold and used to help the poor!”—she may have questioned whether she had acted rightly.
She did not have time to equivocate for long. Swift came His calming verdict:
“She did what she could”
“Leave her alone…She has done a beautiful thing to me…She did what she could” renders the ESV and NIV translations; others more dryly, “wrought” or “done a good work”. She had already counted the cost and deemed Him worthy. She had only weeks before used those same hands to prepare the dead body of her brother Lazarus. His flesh, which then beneath her warm hands was dead, cold and rigid, was now young, supple and pulsing with life again! thanks to the word of Jesus’ command, calling him back from the grave. Her hands, her hair, her perfumed oil, her reputation, her very life were paltry offerings to the Lord of Life Himself. She was not as great a cook, administrator or hostess as Martha, and no suitors were lined up at Lazarus’s door seeking her hand in marriage. Sit at Jesus’ feet? Study His Word? Understand His heart and purposes? Pour out her life in worship? These she could do, and gladly! She may not have known why He had to die, but one thing she knew for sure was that He was indeed worthy…of this, and so much more.
He was indeed worthy…of this, and so much more.
You declared Mary’s worshipful act a thing of beauty, and annexed it to your Gospel’s telling. You deemed worthy of emulation, that which careless lips today, as then, make fodder for humour or for deflection from our own lukewarm or traitorous acquaintance with You.
Teach us what anointing Your Body, from head to feet, looks like today in a pandemic straightened world. Command the blessing of Life eternal this holy season, on all gathering in humble effort at unity to celebrate Your resurrection all over this broken globe. Let the precious ointment of Your grace pour down from the head to the skirts, and drip healing to the feet of Your church today. Then send us forth with beautified feet to spread the aroma of Christ, even Your Gospel, the antidote to all that ails us. Amen.
~DSA- Easter 2021, Germany