When I was called to be a pastor, I initially thought my professional life would be unaffected. I planned to be a bi-vocational pastor, to have two professions. I thought I was just adding another role to husband, father, law partner and Christian. After setting out on the wonderful ministry journey, it became obvious that the requirements of the calling demanded much more than just another job description. There was just too much committed to too many things for all of them not to suffer to some degree. I had to make a decision. Could I leave my well planned prior career path behind? I had worked many long days getting to where I thought I was meant to be. God was calling me to do something completely different and I needed to make a decision. Choose my financially secure future in a job that I planned out for myself or the future to which God was calling.
Friends, family, and co-workers all chimed in with opinions on what to do. Many could not comprehend how I could consider leaving my career path. The claimed with all sincerity it would just be so unwise and such a huge waste to throw away all that hard work. Behind their measured advice was the thinly veiled accusation – You can’t do it. You are just being irresponsible. How could you throw away everything you have for Jesus?
In praying about the decision and reading my Bible, I found that I wasn’t the first one to face these charges. I read the account of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus shortly before the Crucifixion and it spoke directly into the dilemma. You may remember this as your introduction to the word “spikenard”. The world just knew that Mary was wasteful when she poured out such a valuable oil on the Lord. She was a fool and would pay for her mistake was the accusation. Jesus would not take care of her was the insinuation.
Thankfully, Jesus cares not for the world’s wisdom. In responses to Mary pouring out something of temporary value, the Eternal God commends her, He defends her, He takes care of her and we still honor her faith today. All Mary does is spend a little money she knows she never could have taken with her to take care of what Jesus value. Are we willing to make the same value judgment?
It is silly when you think about it. We often can be found holding our possessions so tightly fearing the future forgetting that it was God who gave us the possessions, the arms to hold anything and the brain with which to even comprehend the idea of future.
Let’s look at the passage:
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. 8 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.”
To those watching, the moment seemed crazy. A complete waste of something extraordinarily valuable for no good reason. Mary of Bethany, friend, and disciple of Jesus has just gone mad. Abandoning all good sense, Mary poured out a container of very precious oil onto Jesus’ head and feet.
Do you think the disciples were wincing and flinching as the oil was poured out – cue the slow motion “noooooo!”
The oil is worth a year’s wages, 300 denari. This was in a culture where most people lived day to day, paycheck to paycheck if you will. To have a year’s worth of wages when most have barely enough to last a week is huge. The little jar of oil was worth all of the sweat, hard work and effort of a person working every day for a whole year. They worked really hard back then as well. This was an extraordinary sacrifice offered by Mary.
Some even believe that this was the dowry of Mary, the sum preserved by her family to enable her to get married. In that culture, the bride’s family gave the groom’s family a certain amount of money in order to cement the marriage. The loss of this dowry fund would have had extreme consequences.
No dowry equaled no marriage for Mary. No marriage equaled no children. The lack of a husband and children would have meant not only social shame for Mary but also lack of economic certainty. It was the husband and male children who supported a family. Women generally were not able to hold jobs of any kind. The oil not only represented a huge sum of money as a result but a big portion of Mary’s future. Yet, what does she do with it? She pours it out completely in just a few moments on Jesus.
“What a waste” they scoff. “What a fool,” they think.
Everyone is upset with her, including the Apostles, because she could have used that oil for “better reason”. They think there is a more valuable use of the oil. They don’t even own the oil but want to direct its use according to their judgment. They think that Mary is being unwise spending what had to be a small fortune for her in such a manner.
JESUS thinks otherwise. His ways are higher than ours and He promises to reward those who seek Him.
Mary poured out everything she had that was valuable for Jesus and He would reward her for it. Jesus thought Mary was awesome. Jesus knew that this was exactly what Mary should be doing at that moment and would protect her even when the church was turning on her.
Mary seems to be a disciple who understands Jesus a bit better than the others. While her sister Martha is making a fuss serving lunch for Jesus, Mary is at Jesus’ feet adoring Him in a way that Jesus notices. She seems to have a devotion that is undivided and simple. She wants to know all about Jesus. When Mark 14 comes around and Jesus is close to the Cross, Mary’s devotion seems to give her insight that the rest of the disciples lack.
While Peter and friends are arguing with each other about who is greatest and telling Jesus that He is not going to the Cross, somehow Mary understands differently. She seems to get that she only has a short time left with her Lord and takes the opportunity to give her all to Him. She takes what is most valuable, the oil breaks it open and anoints Jesus: She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.
Do we see what Mary did? By pouring her oil out on Jesus, He states that she prepares Him for His burial. Put another way, by giving up what was extraordinarily valuable to her for Jesus, she gets to play a part in the greatest act of redemption in all of history – the Cross of Jesus. She assists Jesus in His journey towards the Resurrection.
What would we give right now to play a role in His death, burial, and resurrection? To be sitting at the table with Jesus and hang on every word? Is there anything too valuable to give up for our Savior?
Yet, it is only Mary who seems to glimpse something more is going on than just a meal. Those who are still focused on the world and don’t understand react poorly to Mary’s devotion:
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.
We know from the other accounts that Judas is the ringleader of this gang of rebukers because he wanted to steal the money involved. He wasn’t alone in his treatment of Mary. “They” rebuked her. “They” were indignant with Mary. When we break out of the world’s expectations and radically follow Jesus there is always opposition. “They” will rebuke, “they” will think we are crazy, “they” may even have motives that sound reasonable. Caring for the poor sounds good when it is used to put down Mary. “They” may even be respectable members of the church. You cannot get any more respectable than the Apostles and they are indignant and attack Mary for serving Jesus.
Notice what happens, though, when they attack Mary. Jesus protects her.
Mary is serving Jesus. Mary is giving up everything for Jesus. Mary is trusting in Jesus for that moment and for the future. What does Jesus do? He defends the one who is devoted to Him.
“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. 8 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.”
Everyone thinks that she is being wasteful and foolish. Jesus corrects them and says that they are the foolish ones. Giving to Jesus is never wasted. Her use of what was valuable to her on behalf of the Kingdom of God was the perfect move. Her story would be told throughout history through all the world. She would be an example of what a devoted servant of the Most High God looked like.
What would we give up to be placed in that position? How much would it cost for us to be poster boys for Jesus? It is an amazing return on investment.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He defends and cares for His sheep.
What is more, Jesus takes care of Mary’s financial needs as well. In the event that the oil was indeed Mary’s dowry, she would have been in a disadvantaged position in Jewish society after expending it on Jesus. No self-respecting Jewish man would want to marry her without a dowry. She was stuck with marrying someone who was not a Jewish man and who would not be concerned with a dowry. Only a person who would understand what happened and was also focused on Jesus would understand what she did and why.
Mary would be stuck with marrying a Christian like one of the thousands of new followers of Christ who would be saved within a few months of the events. We don’t know if Mary ever was married, but Jesus even opened that door for her even without a dowry. Thousands of Christian men would hear of her devotion and sacrifice for Jesus and how He loved her for it. It is pretty awesome first date discussion material. Jesus takes care of even the smallest needs of those who give their all for Him.
Following Jesus is never wasteful. Trusting our best to Jesus is never foolish. The world may never understand why we do the things we do in this life on Jesus’ behalf. Jesus does though and He does not let anything done in His name go unrecognized. He does not let any sacrifice done for Him go unrewarded.
I left my former career path behind a few years ago after much hand-wringing and accompanied by lots of criticism. Since that time, I have not regretted the decision or felt foolish in any way. Quite the opposite occurred, in fact. Jesus has shown me the rewards that go along with letting go of the things that this world thinks are valuable. When we are “wasteful” in service of the King, He is that much more faithful in looking after all of our needs.
Jesus never wastes a thing we do in His Service.