[November 7, 2010] In today’s story, Mary of Bethany anoints the head of Jesus with precious ointment on the eve of His Passover. This event is so significant that the telling of it shall accompany the Gospel whenever it is proclaimed. Let us see if we can unfold it.
In the Midst of Treachery (Mark 14:1-2, 10-11)
The story is nestled between descriptions of treachery in verses 1-2 on the part of the chief priests and scribes and in verses 10-11 on the part of Judas with them.
The chief priests and the Temple scribes, Caiaphas’ people, were anxious to find a way to arrest Jesus and hand him over to the governor. By putting all the pieces together, we know that the governor had demanded this of them, ever since his soldiers reported the parade of Jesus into the Eastern or Golden Gate of the City on Palm Sunday, three days earlier. By going along with this, they were fulfilling Jesus’ parable of the vineyard tenants, who seized the son and heir of the vineyard owner imagining that they could then take the vineyard as their own. These priests and scribes knew, however, that they could not seize Jesus when he was with the festal crowd (this is what “not at the feast” means), for the people would not stand for it. Jesus was popular with the thousands of pilgrims who had come to the City to celebrate the Passover and with many of the residents of Jerusalem as well.
So the chief priests were looking for an opportunity to arrest Jesus when He was away from the crowd. Judas, one of the Twelve whom Jesus chose, gave them their chance. He could inform them of Jesus’ whereabouts, and they promised to reward him for his treachery. The following night they would arrest Jesus on the Mount of Olives where He frequented to pray. (Mark tells us nothing about Judas’ motives.)
Mary’s act is the exact opposite of this. She pours three hundred denarii worth of ointment on Jesus’ head, “wasting” it—or losing it—on Him in the estimation of the people who watched. Judas, in contrast, stood to gain from his betrayal of Jesus. He was promised a profit, what turned out to be a mere thirty pieces of silver.
Bethany, which means the House of Figs, is always a picture of the church, and in particular, the local gathering of the church. The name is interesting because the fruit of figs is what Jesus was looking for from Jerusalem (remember the fig tree that Jesus cursed in 11:12-14, 20-26). He could not stay the night in the City but every evening took His rest in Bethany, where He was taken in, loved and cared for.
In the story of Mary anointing Jesus, Bethany is surrounded by treachery just as the church is in the midst of the world. This was manifestly the case in the time when the Gospel according to Mark was first told. It was told in Rome during the time of Nero’s persecution of the church. In the midst of such persecution, the church needs to be Jesus’ Bethany, for when the church is persecuted, Jesus Himself is the One persecuted (Acts 9:4).
Yet the church needs to be Jesus’ Bethany not only at such times when the world’s hatred of Jesus is manifest, as when believers are being thrown to the lions, but also when the treachery is behind closed doors, when Judas is in the midst of the disciples and the chief priests are plotting in secret.
This story, of Mary’s generosity towards Jesus, corresponds to the story of the widow in 12:41-44. As Mary represents the heart that God is most after in the church, this widow represents the heart that God is most after in Israel. She is a widow, bereft of her husband, who is in type the Messiah, yet she gives her all to the Temple treasury. This story too is set in the midst of treachery, the treachery of the Temple scribes in 12:38-40 who robbed from the people’s devotion to God, devouring the widows’ houses, and offered themselves little into the Temple treasury.
These two incidents, Mary’s generosity in the midst of treachery and the widow’s generosity in the midst of treachery, frame Jesus’ message in chapter 13.
In 13:5-23 Jesus spoke of the world and of His faithful ones in the midst of the world until the coming of the Kingdom. They would be surrounded and pressed by treachery. This, however, was not simply how things would be at a particular moment of crisis (namely, preceding the destruction of the Temple), but was going to be characteristic of all the time until He came in glory. Jesus was not simply rejected by the Roman governor and Caiaphas and their men in Jerusalem. He was rejected by the world, and His rejection by the world exposed the character of the world and condemned it. The world—as a social construct that engulfs and enslaves all people—is not only alienated from God but dead set against God. It is constructed at its most primal level in opposition to God, as a way to exclude God. The city of Babel in Genesis is the Great Babylon of today, which is just another name for the world as a gestalt. (The definition of a gestalt is a configuration or pattern so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from its parts. In the case of the world, these properties are the powers that capture and enslave the people of the world.)
In chapter 13 Jesus also spoke of two other things: God’s judgment and the coming of the Son of Man. He spoke not only of the disciples existing in the world, but that the world was under God’s judgment and, with the destruction of the Temple, that the faithful (of both Israel and the church) were to live under that judgment, in the condition of exile, without a “home” in the world. They were to live without any attachments to the world but instead live in expectation of the coming Kingdom when the Son of Man would come in glory.
This speech concluded Jesus’ confrontation of the leaders of the people, the chief priests, scribes and elders of 11:27. These were the tenants of the vineyard, the shepherds of the Lord’s sheep whom Jesus condemned for their treachery. When He first entered the City on Sunday, He threw out the merchants and money changers in a prophetic demonstration that signified that they—the Temple leadership—were to be thrown out for having made the Lord’s House a den of thieves, the place where they robbed God of the fruit of the people’s worship, lining their own pockets with their spoils. The treachery against Jesus is only the epitome of their treachery against the Lord’s vineyard, the people of God themselves.
Mary’s anointing of Jesus concludes this section that began with Jesus’ riding into the City on the donkey while being hailed as the Son of David. He came not to take the earthly throne of David, for the City was not ready for Him, but to pronounce judgment on the City.
But more was going on here, already disclosed in 12:35-37 when Jesus explained that their expectation of Him as one like David was mistaken. He was indeed the Son of David, but He was far greater than David. He may yet ascend the throne of David, but before that happened, He would ascend a far greater throne. He was to sit at God’s right hand until God puts all His enemies underneath His feet. He came for judgment, yes, but in passing judgment—not just on the City but on the world itself—He was also to ascend the throne of Godhead. He was not only going to pass judgment, He was going to accomplish the judgment—by His own death!—and in doing so, He was going to attain the redemption of all the faithful. And while the world continued under the shadow of God’s judgment, He was to begin His reign, as the Son of Man, at the right hand of God. In the Book of the Revelation, this is represented by the Lamb of God ascending to the throne of God and opening the seven seals, one by one (chapter 5). His reign is hidden from the world and will remain hidden until His manifestation at His coming. But He will be among His faithful as the ascended One, working in them with the surpassing greatness of His power according to the might of His strength. As the One to whom the Father subjects all things, He is given to them, as Head over all things, as Head of His Body. In Him, or rather with He in them, the church thus becomes the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:19-23). By His death He will ascend the throne of God, although chronologically He manifests this in stages to His disciples from Easter Sunday to Ascension Thursday to Pentecost Sunday.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday He came not only to pronounce judgment on the City as the Son of David and heir of David’s throne, but also to attain salvation for the people and to ascend the throne of God’s Kingdom by offering Himself as the Passover Lamb. The cross was the way to the Kingdom.
Anointing the King
According to the Gospel according to John, Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus on the evening before Palm Sunday. This was probably the historical order of events. Though the gospels do not tell us this explicitly, probably to avoid the legal ramifications with respect to the Roman authorities, Mary’s anointing of Jesus was not simply the act of a pious woman but rather a prophetic act in which she was anointing Jesus as Israel’s King. In the Old Testament, it was the role of the prophet to anoint kings, as Samuel anointed both Saul and David, and Nathan anointed Solomon, and Elijah anointed Jehu, and so forth. Mary acted as a prophet and anointed Jesus as King on the eve of His entry into Jerusalem. “Exult greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Now your King comes to you. He is righteous and bears salvation, lowly and riding upon a donkey, even upon a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
This made His triumphal entry even more incendiary, for once word got around about His being anointed the evening before, there was no mistaking the meaning of the procession on that day.
But Matthew and Mark place the anointing not on the Saturday before His triumphal entry but rather on the Wednesday before His arrest. This seems very significant, for then we cannot overlook the connection between the anointing of Kingship with the cross. Placed before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we might only associate the anointing with the earthly throne of David. Then we would see no more than what the people were expecting, for they were all expecting Jesus to immediately reestablish the kingdom of David. But placed on the eve of His arrest, we are compelled to see it in connection with the throne of God and the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the heavens.
Ever since Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus has said that the Son of Man—the supernatural figure in Daniel 7:13-14 who would overcome the kingdoms of the world and establish the Kingdom of God, this One—must suffer and be rejected and betrayed and killed, and that those who follow Him must also deny themselves, take up their own cross and lose their soul. Only then would they save their soul and reign with Him when He comes in glory. His followers (the church) must take up the cross as long as they are in the world, but if they endure to the end, they will share with Him in His glory—the glory that the disciples saw on the Mount of Transfiguration. The Kingdom of God comes through the cross, and not through the zeal that imposes the will of God on others, and not through the establishing of an earthly kingdom.
So for Mary to anoint Jesus on the eve of His sacrifice indelibly and forever connects His Kingship to the cross. It is by the loss of His soul that He attains the Kingdom of God for us. And it is only by the loss of our soul that we can attain the Kingdom of God with Him. It is, however, only through His victory, and His presence within and among us as the crucified and living One, that we can follow in His footsteps and attain a death like His (Philippians 3:10; 2 Corinthians 4:10). By suffering with Him we shall share His glorify (Romans 8:17).
I entitled this section (11:1—14:11) “God’s Kingdom and God’s Judgment” for God reigns through His judgment, judgment that the Son pronounces and judgment that He also bears. Christ reigns from the cross. Mary’s act prepares Him for what lies ahead, namely, the cross, by anointing Him for His Kingship. It thus epitomizes the meaning of this entire section and is its fitting conclusion. It makes this section a fitting introduction to our Lord’s coming ordeal.
The Anointing of Jesus (14:3-9)
The anointing takes place in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. Presumably Simon is there and he is no longer a leper. Perhaps Jesus healed him. The story in Luke 7:36-50 takes place in the house of Simon the Pharisee, but it seems to be distinct from this story. The woman is unnamed in Mark, but from the Gospel according to John we know that she is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Mary was a very common and we should not presume that she is identical to Mary of Magdala. All the stories in the gospels with a Mary in them are deeply moving. Mary’s anointing of Jesus could have been construed as an act of sedition against Roman authority. If Mary was still alive when Mark wrote his gospel, putting her name in the account might well have subjected her to the danger of arrest, especially in the time of persecution in which Mark wrote.
Though the woman’s name is left anonymous in Mark, the name Mary means “Bitter” (see Ruth 1:20-21), and speaks of one whose soul has been wounded by God. This is illustrated by the beautiful alabaster flask of ointment which she breaks in order to pour out its contents on the Lord Jesus. Paul says that we have this treasure in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7) and goes on to speak of how this earthen vessel needs to be broken. In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 he speaks of how he suffered affliction, even dying, in his soul until the coming of Titus (see 2 Corinthians 1-2; 7) and that—through that—the savor of the knowledge of Christ was manifested, “a fragrance of Christ to God in those who are being saved and in those who are perishing; to some a savor out of death unto death, and to the others a savor out of life unto life.” So here, Mary pours the “ointment of very costly pure nard” on Jesus, filling the whole house with the aroma (John 12:3), destroying the alabaster flask in the process.
She anoints Jesus in anticipation of His death, the perfuming of His body in preparation for burial, and prophetically this act was one and the same as anointing Him for Kingship, which He would attain by His death. But what is most emphasized is the cost of this anointing: her personal cost represented by the alabaster flask itself which was broken and by the precious ointment inside of it that was spent and used up entirely on Jesus, useless for anything else.
Such a flask (with its contents) must have been the most precious thing that Mary owned. For her to be in possession of such a flask probably means that she saved for it all her life. Perhaps it was meant for her dowry, presuming that she would get married. In any case, her entire life, her past and her future, was contained in that flask. It truly represented her very soul.
“Why has this waste of the ointment been made?” the people in attendance at the banquet ask. Such a valuable flask could have been sold for three hundred denarii—a year’s worth of a laborer’s wages—and then the money could have been given to the poor. They were infuriated with her. This was not just about the flask. This was about Mary herself. If she wants to perform some good deed with those precious resources, then she should perform some act of social justice for the poor. Do something practical to make the world a better place; relieve people’s suffering. If you are going to spend your substance, your life’s resources, your future on something, do that. But to waste it all on a gesture seems meaningless.
People nowadays seem to think the same way. To waste one’s soul, to lose one’s soul on Jesus—simply as an act of devotion, an expression of love, without some practical outcome—seems like a waste. How does society—how do we—benefit from such an act? If this is what Jesus wants from us, how selfish He must be! We think only in terms of our own existence in the world and what is good for society. This is the presupposition of Marxism, and also of modern social movements. Nothing else seems to exist for us. Everything revolves around us. If it is not useful in this sense, it has no use at all.
This is the attitude of the world, which is not surprising. In the Gospel according to John the objection is put in the mouth of Judas, and this is not surprising either. Judas, we presume, is motivated by what motivates the world since he does not really believe (he does not seem to know who Jesus really is). But Mark has the people in the house make the objection, which kind of speaks of those in the church, and Matthew more explicitly puts the words in the mouth of the disciples. The attitude that we expect to find in the world exists in the church as well. There is resistance from Jesus’ believers against those who act like Mary. It is one thing for a person to be impractical, but it is another for precious resources to be wasted on such impracticality.
This is really what is at stake, though we know it not. When Jesus calls us to follow Him and take up the cross, He tells us that we must lose our soul for His sake and the Gospel’s if we want to save it. If we do not, even if we gain the whole world, we will in reality lose our soul. The language is paradoxical, but the meaning is clear. The soul we need to lose is our present soul, for this soul is a false soul. The soul we stand to gain is our future soul, a soul transfigured by the grace of union with Christ. The soul needs to pass through death if it would attain resurrection. Otherwise, the soul that refuses death will really die, without resurrection.
The church, however, clings to its soul and therefore it resents anyone who would choose to lose it for the sake of Jesus. The soul that loses itself on Jesus may indeed be misunderstood and criticized and disrespected and dishonored by the church, but it receives the approval of Jesus.
Jesus sharply criticizes those who would criticize Mary. “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a noble deed on Me.” He goes on to say that our opportunity to spend ourselves on Him is limited. His own death was approaching within hours. There was no time left! “She has done what she could,” Jesus says.
Our opportunity to spend ourselves on Jesus is limited to this one lifetime that we have. We may be in denial of our death and therefore of the shortness of our life, but the end of our life is coming and our one opportunity to spend ourselves on Jesus will be over. Can Jesus say of us, “She has done what she could”? Or are we putting off the offering of ourselves to Him? If we do not give ourselves to Jesus now, when will we?
What is missing from us is a certain measure of desperation. We either are not that impressed with Jesus that we can give Him all that energy and time, or we think we can do it at a later point in time when we got everything figured out. It comes down to a lack of faith and a lack of love. We can measure Mary’s faith by the amount of love that she displayed. We love someone because we have discovered them. If we know their worth, then our love has no price. It simply corresponds to that worth. If we know Jesus’ worth, we devote ourselves accordingly. But we cannot know His worth if we do not know who He is and we do not have a glimpse of His love for us. If, on the other hand, you see in your innermost being His love for you, there is no question about how you would respond. If Someone of such worth has such love for you—if you see this—you would automatically give Him your all; He would be irresistible.
No one has to tell you how. This is where “desperation” comes in. You would go to any lengths to find out. No one told Mary what to do. She figured it out herself. She acted intuitively. She knew, while everyone else was oblivious, that there was no more time, and she acted lavishly with what she had. It not only was an outrageous expression of love, which abounded to her credit, but she was anointing Jesus as King in preparation for the cross—something she could hardly have been conscious of. It was intuitive, but it was the right thing to do.
What about us? Do we know Jesus? If we do, then our heart will act, and we will find the way to pour out our soul in death upon Him. We would be identifying with Him in the world in the way of the cross, and our lavish self-giving would then be anointing Him as King in the midst of a faithless church and in the midst of a treacherous and rebellious world. Do we yet love Him? Do we yet know Him?
Pray that God would open your eyes, for as Mary saw so clearly, everything, absolutely everything about our lives, depends upon it. The question of waste really turns back on us. If we do not “waste” ourselves on Christ, we have wasted our lives; we have merely poured the precious gift of our lives down the sewer.
Christ is calling you to be Mary. I pray that you may hear His call.