We find this particular passage 3 places in the Gospels. We have it here in Matthew, in Mark, and in John, always placed right before Judas’ accepts payment for betraying Jesus and Jesus’ imminent death. That may not seem like a very important piece, but often we find a varied order within the different gospels, but here, we do not. And often there are parallels in the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, but not always with John. But again, we have 2 of the synoptic in line with John. Those pieces sort of underscore the importance of this story. Mark and John add a couple of pieces of information that help illuminate this scripture.
· The oil used was Nard, a kind of ointment found in the Himalayas that is very hard to get, which in turn makes it very expensive.
· Mark and John say it was worth 300 denarii, nearly a year’s salary.
· John identifies the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead.
· John tells of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet, not just his head, and using her hair to ekmasso, meaning wipe, them.
o Ekmasso is also the word John uses to talk about Jesus wiping the disciples’ feet after he washes them at the last supper, an event that comes after this one.
Now that we have a few more details, let’s look at this story as a whole. This woman, whom we now know to be Mary of Mary and Martha, Mary the sister of Lazarus, Mary the one who journeyed with Jesus. Mary the disciples who sat at Jesus’ feet. Mary the one who pled for Jesus to save her brother and saw him brought back to life. Mary, approaches Jesus with her white opaque jar of expensive nard. She pours it onto Jesus’ head. She doesn’t dab it, she doesn’t brush it, she doesn’t touch it to his head. She pours it out onto his head. There’s something kind of crazy in what she does here. It’s not subtle. It’s not dainty. It’s not ceremonious, not in a reformed, play-by-the-rules kind of sense. It’s over the top. It’s lavish. It’s kind of wasteful.
I mean, think about it. How does oil work? A little goes a long way. If I pour a tablespoon of oil into my hands, what happens? It starts to run all over! I can try to rub it in, but it’s going to be going down my arms, and dripping onto the floor. And that’s just a tablespoon! Imagine Mary pouring a pound of oil on Jesus’ head! It’s not just that it’s expensive oil, but she’s not even using it right!! Mary’s making a mess. It really is no wonder the disciples objected. I mean, who wouldn’t?!
The disciples start grumbling about how wasteful she is. That’s expensive nard. It could bring in a lot of money. 300 denarii. A days wage was about 1 denarii. So 300 was nearly a year’s worth. You could do a lot of good with a year’s wage and her Mary is wasting it and letting it run onto the floor! Some might laud the disciples for being so wise and compassionate, but many suggest they were just posturing. That makes good sense to me.
Think of it this way. If you have a fine wine, or an expensive champagne, or pricy perfume, what do you do with it? You save it. You hold onto and wait for the perfect time with the best people to share it. Obviously that’s what Mary had done. This oil is worth a year’s worth of wages. It’s not something she came by easily. She didn’t save her money, she wouldn’t have been allowed to work as a woman. So, a man in her family would have had to earn the money for it while he was paying for the family to get by. That kind of money would probably have taken years to earn. Maybe it was her grandfather, or her father, or her brother, or maybe all of them saved for generations to have this money. And then when they had the 300 denarii all collected together, someone went and bought this oil.
Nard was a special oil. Something that would have been reserved for sacred events. It would have been used to anoint a king at his coronation, or consecrate a priest for his work, or to heal a sick relative, or to anoint a loved one who had died. It would have been used for special times only and could have been stretched to serve a lot of purposes and be a part of many sacred events. And yet, Mary used it for this one event, for this one person. In knowing that, we have to ask what might have compelled her to use it now, and use it so lavishly. She didn’t save it for any other times. She just poured it out over Jesus.
The fact that Mary lavishes this oil on Jesus indicates that she sees him as someone special. He has to be someone who might understand the nature of her special gift. And the way she anoints him so extravagantly, so carelessly, indicates that she wants to convey the enormity of her appreciation for him and she pours out the nard.
In looking at Mary, I can’t help but ask myself, on whom would I pour a year’s worth of wages? On whom would you pour out a year’s worth of wages? Not dole it out. Not share it. Not savor it. Pour it out—wrecklessly and wastefully. What might possibly possess someone to give so much without a second thought?
Would you do it for
· Saving you?
· Sparing a relationship?
· Buying you a house?
· Sticking by you at your worst?
· Loving you no matter what?
· Saving your brother?
· Bringing your loved one back to life?
Who’s worth this? Who’s touched your heart and life so powerfully that you would devote a year’s worth of salary in just a few short moments.
Maybe Mary was crazy. That’s what everyone else thought.
Maybe she saw Jesus as king, but people don’t often have a deep affection or a king—we honor kings because of obligation, not desire.
Maybe it was something more.
Jesus had to have given something invaluable. In those terms, her act wasn’t wasteful. It was appropriate. Jesus acknowledges that she gets it. He doesn’t reprimand her or suggest she be a little less excessive. Instead he says she’s done a good thing.
But I think even Jesus’ comments make it too easy to skim past the true depth of her actions. There’s potency in their relationship that could only be understood if we know her or her story. In a way we might be drawn to ask ourselves if we have allowed Jesus to do an invaluable work in our lives.
Have you lt him step in to save you in a way that no one else can?
Have you allowed him to heal you?
To free you?
To forgive you?
In some ways, preaching a whole series on forgiveness feels a little redundant. But we often struggle to forgive. Sometimes we aren’t ready. Sometimes we aren’t willing. Sometimes we can only do a little at a time. Sometimes we aren’t aware. Sometimes our hands are so full o the other seemingly good things we’ve been collecting that we don’t have the ability to hold that one thing we’ve always been looking for.
To preach a series on forgiveness is to highlight how necessary it is in our lives. It’s to highlight that it’s a process. It’s to highlight that God isn’t done with us yet. And it’s to highlight that though we may have picked up some pretty things along the way, there is nothing like finding what we’ve always needed and wanted.
And once we find the most sacred of gifts. Once we experience the greatest blessings of Christ, we want to thank him. And our thanks becomes lavish. To others, it might seem ridiculous. The time we spend, the money we give, the devotion we have, cannot be explained in words, but only understood through experience. And the gifts we give, the thanks we lavish on, become our priceless response to Christ’s invaluable work in our lives.
This morning, for our time of prayer, I would invite you to take some time to pray. Maybe you’ll pray for healing, or for forgiveness, or for new life, or for hope. Maybe you’ll pray the same prayer you’ve been praying this last month. As you pray, I would encourage you to ask for the courage to give up the broken things, no matter how pretty they might be, so that you can take hold of the true gift Christ is offering. If you would like a symbol and reminder, we have shells here at the altar and a basket to pass to anyone who would like to stay in their seat.