We have noted before Mark’s technique of the literary “sandwich” in which he inserts into the middle of one account another narrative and uses the relationship between the outer pieces and the center to make a point without having to spell it out. In this case the account of Jesus’ betrayal by the religious leaders and by one of his inner circle of disciples forms the two pieces of bread. Between them is inserted an account of another disciple’s devotion. Once again, as often in Mark and the other Gospels, the emphasis falls on this account of true discipleship and that emphasis is strengthened by contrast with the lack of loyalty on the part of people we might most have expected to be loyal to Jesus. The theologians should have understood best who Jesus was and what he had come to do. Judas had heard all of Jesus’ sermons and witnessed many of his miracles. He had firsthand acquaintance with the proof that Jesus was no one less than the Son of God. But they rejected Jesus while this dear woman declared her love and loyalty to him in the most impressive way.
Remember the ritual sacrifice of the lamb or goat in the afternoon and the eating of the Passover meal that evening began the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread. So Passover was the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. “Two days away” in the Jewish inclusive reckoning would mean that this was Wednesday, the day before the Thursday afternoon on which the Passover lambs would be sacrificed and the Thursday night on which the Passover meal would be eaten. Of course, by Jewish reckoning, the lambs were slain on Thursday; the Passover meal would have been eaten on Friday because the new day began at sunset. This does not mean, however, that the incident in Bethany about which we are to read occurred on that same Wednesday. The sandwiching of that event, its being placed here for the purposes of a thematic contrast, may well indicate that the supper in Bethany happened at another time, perhaps several days earlier, as seems to be indicated in the Gospel of John.
Their problem would be solved by the offer of help from Judas of which we will read in v. 10. Passover being a patriotic time of year and the presence of pilgrims come to Jerusalem for the feast increasing the population of the city by several orders of magnitude, the Romans took massive security precautions at this time of year. The Jewish leadership, understandably, did not want to provoke a riot under those volatile conditions. This means that without Judas’ help it is quite likely that the Lord would not have been executed when he was. It was Judas who got the ball rolling.
Simon was obviously a former leper, else he could not have had this sort of social contact with others or they with him. No doubt he was a man the Lord had healed of his leprosy.
The account we have here is paralleled by one in John 12:1-10. There are so many similarities that the two reports must have in view the same event. There are some interesting differences, to be sure, but these seem to be simply the typical variations that occur when two different people observe and report the same event, in our case Peter, in the other, John. What this means is that the woman who anointed the Lord was Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and that Lazarus and his other sister Martha were also present. There has even been the suggestion made that Simon was the father of the three. The fact that he is mentioned by name suggests that he was a man known to early Christianity. Mark has not mentioned the raising of Lazarus from the dead – one of the Lord’s most astonishing miracles – and there is some evidence that he did not because Peter was not present when it occurred. What we have here is the testimony of eyewitnesses, not secondhand reports.
The fact that she broke the jar, rather than simply opened it seems to have been another means by which she communicated the extent or size of her gift. The bottle could not be reused. She had no thought for economy. A woman in those days would not ordinarily have had the means to purchase something so expensive – this perfume was imported from India – so perhaps the perfume was a family heirloom. If so, to use it up in this way further indicates the greatness of her gift. [Edwards, 413]
The NIV’s “a year’s wages” is actually 300 denarii, which computes to a year’s wage for a laborer. A denarius was the laborer’s daily wage. Take out Sabbaths and a few holidays and you have about 300 days of paid work in any given year. An extraordinarily expensive sacrifice! This was not the first time and would not be the last that a supposed concern for the poor was used by self-righteous people to mask other less worthy motives. To consider the gift a waste was of course to demean not only the woman but Jesus, who apparently was not worth the extravagance. In any case, Mary, whose heart was obviously full of the deepest feeling for Jesus, got bawled out for her trouble. To be openly and harshly rebuked by men in the company of men would be no small embarrassment to a woman in those days, as, of course, it would be today.
As always, the Lord draws attention to her motive, not to some calculation of cause and effect. His response to Mary’s gift is very like his appreciation of the widow at the end of chapter 12 who made, what was for her, a similarly extravagant gift to the temple treasury.
The Lord doesn’t mean that Mary understood herself to be preparing the Lord for burial, only that this is, in fact, what she had done. The disciples had been told over and over again that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to die, but they had done nothing like this. They lack any proper sense of the occasion. The Savior of the world is about to go to his death and they are worried about saving money! It fell to Mary to pay the honors that they had not thought to pay.
There are four accounts of women anointing Jesus with oil in the Gospels. At this point in the narrative of the Lord’s ministry Matthew, Mark, and John give us what are clearly accounts of the same incident. In Luke 7, at a point much earlier in the Lord’s ministry, a woman anointed Jesus with perfume, also from an alabaster jar, and wet his feet with her tears. That incident also occurred in the home of a man named Simon, though there is nothing to suggest that he was once a leper or that Jesus had healed him. Simon was such a common name and the differences between the account in Luke 7 and the other three accounts are so great that there is every reason to think that the Luke episode concerns a different woman altogether and a different incident. But the fact that such a thing happened at least twice during the Lord’s ministry is a matter of some importance. Two different women, throwing caution and good taste to the wind, unable to restrain themselves, made a spectacle of themselves in an effort to declare their love and gratitude to Jesus. In the first Jesus explicitly drew attention to the fact that what the unnamed woman did she did because she loved him and she loved him because she had been a sinful woman and the Lord Jesus had forgiven her. She had to do something to show her love because the Lord had delivered her from the cruel bondage of her sinful past. Remember what Jesus said to the complaining homeowner on that occasion:
“…he who has been forgiven little loves little.”
This woman loved much because she had been forgiven much and her extravagant action – bursting in uninvited on a meal already begun, weeping in front of strangers, wetting the Lord’s feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and anointing them with perfume – it was all for love’s sake.
Now, in this account of a later but similar incident, the rationale for this woman’s act is left unstated. But it is so obvious that it does not need to be mentioned. This woman obviously loved Jesus and the fact that she was Mary and that most of Mark’s readers probably would have known that she was Mary (not least from the mention of Simon the Leper), the sister of Lazarus, made it unnecessary to state the obvious. Her great love was perfectly understandable. Jesus had done an impossibly great thing on behalf of this family. Her brother, whom she obviously loved deeply – we gather that from the account of Lazarus’ death in John 11 – was sitting there healthy and strong, and, no doubt, not simply the man he once was but a new and better man for his remarkable experience. We don’t know a great deal about Lazarus, but we are told in John 11 that Jesus loved him, and that is enough for us. A man that Jesus had a special affection for, that must be a man of some real worth!
I suppose we have all wondered about Lazarus. Where was he during the four days he was dead? And what did he tell his loved ones about his experience when he returned to life. Alexander Whyte, with his wonderful imagination, supposes that it would have happened something like this. Lazarus having just arrived in heaven upon his death on earth, was caught up in the wonder of it all. He was among a host of saints and angels who were preparing a welcome for the Lord, whose Ascension to heaven was, after all, only a few weeks away. He was practicing with the choir a new “Hallelujah” that they were going to sing when the incarnate Son of God returned to his Father’s side when the angel Gabriel appeared, walked over to where Lazarus was sitting and said: “Greetings, Lazarus. The Master has an assignment for you. He still has some work for you to do on the earth.” The rest of the choir understandably fell silent at those words. They had never heard anything like this. And so they watched as Lazarus left them and returned to earth and to his heavenly Prince whose work was not yet finished. His soul descended straight back into the grave from whence it had come and toward which the Savior was then on his way. And the first words that Lazarus heard were Jesus’ words:
“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me. Lazarus, come out!”
And out of the grave Lazarus shuffled, still wrapped in his grave clothes.
Now I don’t know whether it happened in that way. No one knows whether Lazarus went to heaven during the days he was dead and whether he was interrupted by an angel and was surprised to learn that he was being sent back down to earth again. Nor do we know what Lazarus said afterward to his loved ones about his experience during those four days. Perhaps, like Paul on a later occasion, he was forbidden to speak of what he saw! But it is not at all hard to imagine Mary looking at her brother at that feast – smiling and joining in the conversation, answering questions and asking his own, the thrill of what had happened animating every heart and voice – and then looking at the Lord Jesus and then back to her brother and finding her heart filling up to the brim with love and joy and gratitude. Surely that is not a guess. It must have been something very much like that.
Like the sinful woman in another Simon’s house in Luke 7, Mary had to do something, had to do something extravagant, something that would convey the depth of her feeling, the immense gratitude she felt and the power of her love. And so she got the most expensive thing she had, that jar of perfume, and, careless of its value, the amount of money it represented, or, better, precisely because it was so expensive, poured all of it over the Lord.
That much is clear to any thoughtful reader of the Gospel. Mary’s devotion prompted her extravagance. This was a great love in action. Obviously our lives, even the best Christian lives, are not always and in every way the overflow of such devotion. We may wish that they were, but they are not. We know that. And, even the Bible seems to accept that the unusual and dramatic devotion, the moment of spiritual ecstasy is not the norm. The poor, after all, must be cared for and that will never be or feel the same as pouring perfume over the Lord in a spontaneous outburst of deep affection and gratitude.
There is, to be sure, also something profoundly feminine about the form of devotion displayed by Mary here and by the other woman who did a similar thing in Luke 7. I suspect that Paul or Peter would have expressed their devotion in a different way, more practical, less almost romantic and overtly emotional. In any case, I accept that this profound moment of overwhelming love is an illustration of the main point, not the main point itself. Marriage is not always as the honeymoon, and ecstasy and tears are not the daily state of the Christian life. The long march of Christian witness through the ages was not every day as that first Pentecost with the tongues of fire and the filling of the Holy Spirit. And it is not every day that one receives back her brother from the dead!
But what Mark seems to be making clear with his sandwich technique is that the fundamental contrast between these two groups of people, those who hated and betrayed Jesus and those who loved and worshipped him is the sense of debt and obligation and the corresponding gratitude that filled the hearts of some but not of others. Real followers of Christ love the Lord and they love him because they are so grateful to him.
Do you remember that the Heidelberg Catechism that we recite often in our worship here is organized according to a three-fold division? The Catechism divides the great subjects of Christian belief – all the teaching covered by the catechism which is, of course, meant to teach a new or young believer the basics of the faith – I say, it is summed up in three general assertions. In other words, there are three things that you must know to understand the Christian faith and the teaching of the Bible. In the second question of the Heidelberg Catechism the three-fold division is introduced that the 129 questions of the Catechism will then explain. Question 1, you remember, asks “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” And you remember the beautiful answer to that question. “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul – to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ,” and so on.” But then comes question 2:
“What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?”
And the answer is as follows:
“Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.”
The third section of the Catechism is entitled “Gratitude” and its entire presentation of the Christian life is expounded as the way we give thanks to God for his delivering us from our sin and misery. What motivates a Christian in his daily living? Thanksgiving to God. What is the Christian attempting to do with his or her thoughts, words, and deeds? Demonstrate his or her gratitude to God. Sometimes thanksgiving to God will be expressed by selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor. Sometimes it will be expressed by breaking the bottle and pouring it over the Lord himself. But it is thanksgiving in the one case as surely as it is in the other. Mary, the disciple, was impossibly grateful to Jesus for what he had done for her and her family; gratitude and love were compact together in her heart. The priests and the scribes were not grateful to Jesus for anything. They had no understanding of his gifts and no appreciation for what he would suffer for man’s sake.
You can divide the world into two classes: those who are deeply grateful to God for what he has done for them and those who are not. The difference will not always demonstrate itself so starkly as here: with the ingratitude of one group leading them to plot Jesus’ death and the gratitude of Mary leading her to pour out a year’s worth of a man’s salary in an act of devotion to the Lord. The difference will sometimes be that great. Sometimes the ingratitude will be just that clear and sometimes the gratitude will be just that clear.
A hundred years ago James Denney, the Scottish Free Church theologian, remarked, “Show me someone who hasn’t purchased a gift he couldn’t afford for someone he loves and I’ll show you someone who isn’t fit for the kingdom.” There is, there ought to be, there must be in every Christian some evidence of this immoderation, this extravagance of devotion, this sense of proper proportion in view of what Jesus has suffered for us and given to us. The beautiful thing, as Jesus calls it here – will appear from time to time. And sometimes the ugliness of betrayal will appear in the unbelieving life as well and in a word or a deed it will become perfectly obvious how little a man or woman thinks of God or Christ his Son.
But, however visible, the difference is always there: some who know they owe Jesus a great debt, and many who feel no obligation to him at all.
When Mark places two accounts of the Lord’s betrayal around an account of conspicuous devotion to him, he is as much as telling us that the difference between the true follower of Jesus, the true disciple, and those who are not is that there is in the heart of the disciple a gratitude, a sense of immense debt, a love and a devotion that other people do not have.
The world has never had a problem with religion in moderation. We are hearing a great deal of this nowadays. Religion is fine so long as it is not taken too far. So long as its practitioners are not extreme, overly zealous, as if the problems with Muslim jihadists are that they take Islam too seriously! They are a threat to world peace, of course, not because they take their beliefs seriously and feel them deeply; but because they have bad beliefs! Right beliefs should be held deeply and felt deeply. The truth ought to be a power in our hearts and lives. A great love, such as that love with which we have been loved by Jesus Christ ought to produce a great love for him in return. Would anyone say that a mother ought to love her children only moderately or that a husband ought not to overdo his love for his wife? Great love is the most beautiful thing and the most fruitful thing and the most healing thing in the world. Over and over again, Jesus chooses to illustrate the nature of Christian discipleship by showing us people who act immoderately, zealously, animated by great thanksgiving, which is simply another way of saying they act out of great love and great devotion. No one can read the Gospels and think that a person could be a true follower of Jesus who followed him half-heartedly, with his or her mind often on or devoted entirely to other things.
No, a real Christian aspires to be like Mary precisely in her gratitude, her love, her devotion, and her extravagance precisely because a real Christian knows how much Christ has done for him or for her. There is so much, so impossibly much to be grateful for, to love him for.
There has been an advent of the Son of God. There has been a cross. There has been a resurrection. Christ has triumphed over the powers of sin and death that had their foot upon our neck and would never have let us go. The doors of the kingdom of God have been flung open and we have been welcomed within. Even our enemies are defeated enemies and our trials are only such troubles as speed us on our way to God.
When the aged Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna was arrested during the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus, the judged demanded that he renounce his faith in Jesus Christ. He refused.
“Eighty six years I have served him and he never did me wrong; how then can I revile my king and Savior?”
So they took him out and burned him to death in the amphitheater. But when the church in Smyrna came to write the event down in their annals, to preserve the memory of their martyred bishop, it was very careful to provide the precise date. This is how they put it:
“The blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the first part of the month Xanthicus, the seventh day before the Kalends of March, a great Sabbath, at two o’clock p.m. He was arrested by Herod, when Philip of Tralles was high priest, and Statius Quadratus was proconsul, but in the everlasting reign of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [Martyrdom of Polycarp, 21]
In the everlasting reign of our Lord Jesus Christ! You and I live in that reign! And all the words in all the world cannot describe what a privilege it is both to live and to die during that reign! You who know this King and Savior have much to be thankful for. Be sure that you will be remembered for the beautiful things you do to express and demonstrate your gratitude and devotion. There is much for you to do. You don’t have to have expensive perfume. The poor widow put her two mites in the temple treasury and that was a beautiful thing to Jesus and she was remembered for it. Note what he says of Mary’s devotion in v. 8: “she did what she could.” Do what you can but do it for the same reason. And here is the final lesson of Mark’s way of presenting this narrative, in a sandwich with her devotion between two acts of perfidy and betrayal: If you abandon yourself to the Lord, you will not abandon the Lord and he will never abandon you!
There is reason enough for great gratitude and great love! More than enough!