The Anointing at Bethany
Among the many iconic events that took place a few days before the crucifixion of our Master one of the most heart‑touching and soul‑searching events for the students of the Word of God is that of the Anointing at Bethany.
Bethany, the home city of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead, and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, is where Jesus decided to spend his last Sabbath. He knew that the time of his death was near and that the time was at hand. We may suppose that this was no ordinary supper, but in the nature of a feast or banquet in our Lord’s honour. However, one incident that particularly outshone all the other features of that gathering is that of the anointing of our Master. It was one of the most beautiful expressions of love and devotion of which our Lord himself declared, "Where so ever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she (this woman) hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her." (Mark 14:9) We read from the scriptures in Matthew 26:6‑13, "Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat .But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, to what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, where so ever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her."
The feast had begun and Jesus along with his disciples were at the table when Mary did the most spectacular service of which the lesson is of a memorial to us all. She had anticipated our Lord’s coming and had fully arranged matters so that at this feast she might treat him in a manner which very few except the worldly great would have ever been treated. As we read in the scriptures above, Mary came forward and, broke the seal of her alabaster vase and began to pour the precious perfume upon our Lord’s head. From Apostle John’s account; she went ahead and poured some of the ointment on our Lord’s feet and wiped them with the hair of her head. In contrast to Mary’s appreciation of the privilege of anointing the Master, Judas was the first to object. While the perfume of the spikenard was sweet to many, it smelled of waste to others. Judas with his calculating mind quickly figured the cost of it and called it wasted on Jesus. He loved money more than he loved our dear Lord. Coming under the influence of Judas the other disciples too began to disapprove of her action and began to criticize her. They complained of the great waste of the ointment. "Why this waste" they said. They suggested that it could have instead been sold and given to the poor.
"To what purpose is this waste?"
We are not told of the emotions of Mary to the reaction of the disciples. The severe criticism must have crushed her spirit and would have deeply saddened her heart. She would never have imagined experiencing such disapproval for her sincere love and devotion expressed toward the Lord. But Jesus came to her defence and said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her." (NIV)
It is worthy to pause and note why our Master stopped the critiquing disciples. It was indeed true that there were plenty of poor toward whom the money could have been used and plenty of opportunities to minister to them; but the opportunity to specially honour the Lord, and to pour upon him the fragrant perfume so beautifully expressive of Mary’s love and devotion, would not be possible for long. Our Lord’s acceptance of Mary’s sacrifice declares that the circumstances completely justify the costly expenditure. Our Lord showed himself to be out of sympathy with the sentiments of the disciples. Through her action Jesus experienced a sweet incense of refreshment, reinvigoration and encouragement. Her sweet devotion was a healing balm that prepared him for his burial. He would have seen it as the fulfilment of Song of Solomon 1:12, "While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof."
An extravagant action that expressed an extravagant love
Mary’s affection for our Lord was so deep and so strong that it could not be satisfied with any of the ordinary methods of expression. If the kings of earth were perfumed and anointed, much more did she esteem it fitting that her friend, her Lord, the Messiah, should be anointed with the best that she could procure for him. Her love was so intense that it knew no economy—nothing could be too good for her Beloved. She would give expression to the rich sentiments of her heart by giving him the finest and most costly of sweet natural perfume. Our Lord appreciated the matter fully—the sweet fragrance of the heart‑love which prompted the action, much more than the sweet fragrance which filled the entire house.
Mary, more than any other individual in the New Testament, was associated with His feet, betokening her humility, reverence and hunger for spiritual knowledge. She loved to sit quietly and peacefully at Christ’s feet and become lost in His unfolding of the truth. She sat at His feet as a disciple, eager to learn of His will and word; fell at His feet in worship; anointed His feet with precious ointment and wiped His feet with her lovely long hair—all of which is in keeping with her spiritual character.
Mary had been the recipient of priceless truth from the lips of Jesus several times before and now she was lavishly communicative of her compassion for Him. The box of spikenard, treasured up for such an occasion (John 12:7), was worth 300 pence, a great sum in those days. "A penny a day" wage (Matthew 20:2), means that 300 pennies would cover her wages for almost a year. When Mary sat at His feet and heard His word, she recognized Him as the Great Teacher, and when she anointed His feet, she knew Him to be the King of the whole world. Had He not triumphed over death and raised her beloved brother? No wonder the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.
Are His feet perfumed with our richest gifts?
There are many valuable lessons we learn from Mary’s action of love and gratitude. For us our alabaster boxes are our hearts which should always be full of the choicest and richest perfumes of good wishes, kindness and love toward all, but especially toward the Christ and all the members of his body, the Church. Our alabaster boxes are a vessel for the holy spirit, the spirit of love which is most precious to the Lord; and like the ointment in it the holy spirit in us is expensive because it cannot be gathered rapidly but requires patient perseverance in well‑doing to be filled with all the fullness of God.
As Mary began the anointing of the Lord, she began with His head and then reached to His feet. Likewise, our divine love should be upon the Head—Christ first, and subsequently upon the members of his body, including the humblest and the lowliest, the feet.
In these last days we have a special opportunity to perform our deeds of love and kindness towards our fellow feet members. Let us not waste any golden opportunity to demonstrate the smallest action of love and kindness one toward another, as whatever we do unto the least of our brethren, we do it unto Him. The more our sacrifices cost us, the more our Lord appreciates it.
Mary’s sacrifice toward our Lord encourages us to:
God can use anything or anybody as His agent, His messenger. But there were very few of the human family in Jesus’ day capable of being used as God’s comforting angels to our Lord. Mary of Bethany was one of these. She was one who gave Him consolation when His mind was agitated with the thought that five days thereafter He would be crucified. He realized that none of the people understood, that none of them were able to enter into His feelings. But Mary’s service was very precious to the Lord–it was very encouraging to Him.
The Memorial season is an especially important period for the saints of the Lord. It is a period where we specially call to remembrance the sacrificial life of our Master and the great price He paid as the Ransom for the whole world of mankind. It is a period of severe testings and trials as was in the case of our Lord and his disciples. It is also a period where each one of us have the opportunity to introspect and examine our consecration and reaffirm our vows. As we prepare ourselves for our Lord’s Memorial, may we specially recall this most benign action of Mary and strive hard to be among those who encourage and uplift our brethren in their most trying experiences.