When love is in the air the message of the florist is “Say it with flowers”. Mary, however, said it with perfume. According to Mark, “A woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head” (14.3).
People were shocked by the sheer extravagance of her action; and then their shock turned to anger: “Why was this ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than 300 denarii, and the money given to the poor” (14.4-5). Her action seemed a sheer waste or money: 300 denarii was an extraordinary sum of money. We begin to get the idea of the sum of money involved, when we remember that Philip said that 200 denarii would hardly be enough to feed a crowd of more than 5000 hungry people (see John 6.7). Furthermore, as the Parable of Workers in the Vineyard reminds us, in 1C Palestine the average day’s wages for a working man was one denarius – so 300 denarii was almost a year’s wages. This woman had blown a whole year’s wages at one go!
Although Jesus interpreted the anointing in terms of a preparation for death, I think her real motive was love, particularly if John in his Gospel was right in identifying the woman with Mary the sister of Lazarus. It is that relationship which is the underlying explanation for the amazing demonstration of love which took place in her home that Saturday evening. Mary was incredibly grateful to Jesus, for Jesus had done the impossible and brought back to life her brother. No wonder she poured out 300 silver coins worth of perfume on Jesus. Who wouldn’t be prepared to give up a year’s wages if only they could have their brother, their mother, their father their wife! Her extravagance is understandable.
Yet not everybody was impressed: some “scolded her” (14.5). It has been said that criticism frequently tells us more about the critic than it does about the person who is criticised. It seems to me that the onlookers were embarrassed by the love of Mary for Jesus. I find it difficult to believe that any of them were truly concerned for the poor. Rather, her act of generosity exposed their own avarice. Indeed, John in his Gospel spells out this darker side. For John lists Judas as the chief critic, and he adds:
[Judas] said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it (John 12.6)
Significantly at no stage does Mary rise to the criticism, Mary didn’t care a hang what others thought – her sole concern was to express her love for Jesus. Her love for Jesus was quite unself-conscious. Her only concern was to tell Jesus that she was grateful to him beyond measure. She loved Jesus so unreservedly that there was no place for pride.
The anointing was an act of uncalculating love. As such it had a particular power and potency about it. This power and potency comes to expression in John’s Gospel: “The sweet smell of the perfume filled the whole house” (John 12.3). John was a past master of inner meaning, and I believe there is an inner meaning in Mark’s Gospel too. I am reminded of the words of Paul in 2 Cor 2.14: “God uses us to make the knowledge about Christ spread everywhere like a sweet fragrance”. It is when we give ourselves unreservedly Jesus that the world begins to appreciate the attractiveness of Jesus. When Malcolm Muggeridge wrote his biography of Mother Teresa, he entitled it Something Beautiful For God. Mother Teresa like Mary reflected an unusual quality of love – a quality which was truly beautiful and which in turn reflected the beauty and love of God himself.
In Mary’s defence Jesus said: “You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you do not always have me” (v7). It’s possible that the phrase “You always have the poor with you” is a reference to Deut 15.11: “There will always be some Israelites who are poor and in need, and so I command you to be generous to them”. Yes, God’s people have a God-given responsibility to help the poor. But Jesus pointed out that to help the poor is something that can be done at any time, whereas there was only a limited time when Mary could show her love to him. Or to put it another way:
To give money to benefit the poor but to refuse to comfort and assist the one right beside you is as wrong as ignoring the agony of the poor of the world in order to concentrate on personal concerns! (Mary Ann Tolbert).
Or to put it yet another way: we do need to care for the poor, but there is also a time to show our love for Jesus. There is a place for extravagance in personal devotion.
Jesus went on: “She has done what she could”, literally, “what she had” (v8). In the words of Lamar Williamson:
This expression, found only in Mark, suggests that what she had, she gave; or what she had it in her power to do, she did. Her act is beautiful because she has invested herself in it. She gave what she had to him who was about to give his life for her.
We hear, as it were, the widow’s mites ‘pinging’ into the temple treasury all over again. These words of Jesus are not only a commendation of the woman, but also an implicit condemnation of the woman’s critics: “You, by contrast, have not given your all…”. In turn, are they not also perhaps a criticism of us?
Love never counts the cost – love never gives a gift with the price tag on it. Love is always unreasonable. If that is not true in your experience, then I question whether you have experienced love. Love is always extravagant. Love gives its all, and its only regret is that it has not still more to give.