Lazy, impulsive, short-sighted, wasteful. These are just a few ways she could have been described by those who knew her. She waited when she should have been acting and acted when she should have been waiting. She didn’t seem to know her role. And yet there was One who not only defended her but commended her. What did Jesus see in Mary that others could not?
I was reading in Matthew 26 recently, and it struck me how Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, seemed to understand Jesus even better than his disciples did, grasping not only his teachings but also his heart. We see her only a few times in the gospels, and yet she leaves a great impact. At times, her actions seem to aggravate everyone but Jesus. In fact, if King David was a man after God’s own heart, maybe Mary was a woman after His heart. That’s why I wanted to spend some time studying her life to see how I could grow a heart like that.
The first story I wanted to look at is a familiar one, and it shows up in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12. Jesus is reclining at dinner one night shortly before his last Passover when Mary comes in and breaks an alabaster vial of perfume over Jesus, anointing his head and feet with it. The disciples are indignant at her actions. What a waste! The vial and the perfume amounted to just about a year’s wages. What was she thinking, breaking the whole thing open just to pour it all on Jesus? If she really wanted to be helpful and please Jesus, they said, she should have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.
But Jesus defends her. In fact, he declares that “wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her” (Matt 26:13). What?? To my knowledge, Jesus didn’t say anything like that in all the rest of the gospels. What was so great about Mary’s gift? That question is best answered by Watchman Nee, an author and Christian who spent his life for the Church in China. The conclusion of his fabulous book The Normal Christian Life examines the significance of Mary’s sacrifice.
The main complaint that the disciples had against Mary’s offering was, ostensibly, that she had squandered money that would have been better spent elsewhere. In other words, she wasted it. “What is waste?” Nee asks. “Waste means, among other things, giving more than is necessary….Waste means that you give something too much for something too little” (277). In their eyes, Mary had given too much—all of her savings—for something too little—a token of appreciation for Jesus.
Judas was the spokesman for the group’s disapproval, but everyone was thinking it: Mary was being foolish with her resources. After all, there were plenty of ways she could have used her savings—she could have kept it, sold it, or used only part of it. But she chose the most wasteful option and broke the whole thing open, lavishly anointing her Lord. What a waste. In the eyes of the disciples, “everything ought to be used to the full in ways they understand,” and Mary’s actions made no sense (281).
Their anger at her gift made me stop and think. They obviously valued Jesus differently than Mary did. The disciples were being practical, and Judas was being selfish. (John tells us that Judas wanted her to sell the ointment and put the money in the group treasury so he could help himself to it.) But Mary wasn’t thinking about money at all; she was thinking about how much she loved Jesus. For one thing, Jesus had recently raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. While it’s true that “he who has been forgiven much loves much,” for Mary, she who has been blessed much loves much, too. What gift could she give that would even begin to express her gratefulness?
That’s why Mary didn’t care about making the wisest possible investment with her savings. She didn’t even give some and save the rest. She gave it all, irrevocably breaking it for Jesus. So what motivated a gift so reckless and valuable? An understanding of how valuable Jesus is. “But when he is really precious to our souls,” says Nee, “nothing will be too good, nothing too costly for him; everything we have, our dearest, our most priceless treasure, we shall pour out upon him, and we shall not count it a shame to have done so” (288).
This story is beautiful, and there are many applications and takeaways, but what’s the big deal about her gift? I’m sure Jesus had received other presents during his life. The wise men gave gifts even more precious than perfume, but God didn’t declare that gold, frankincense, and myrrh be discussed every time the gospel is preached. So why does Jesus want this story to be told alongside the gospel? “Because he intends that the preaching of the Gospel should issue something along the very lines of the action of Mary here, namely, that people should come to him and waste themselves on him. That is the result he is seeking” (277).
Mary understood something about Jesus that the others did not: she understood his words and his worth. He had told them all several times that he would soon be killed, but the disciples didn’t get it. Only Mary seemed to comprehend that he meant it literally, and so she anointed him beforehand for his burial. Usually bodies were anointed after death, but Mary lavished the oil on him while he was still with them. Watchman Nee points out the beauty of her timing. When the women went to his tomb in order to anoint him three days after his death, they were too late; he had risen! Mary was the only one to anoint him because she understood his words.
And the cost of her gift and the unreserved nature of the offering showed that she also understood his worth. Nothing was too costly or too dear for him. He had given her brother second life and had given her new life. He was the Resurrection and the Life! He was worthy of all she could give him. This is something the disciples wouldn’t learn until later.
And so her offering is held up as a demonstration of the goal of the gospel: that we would see his worth and delight to spend our lives on him as he delighted to give his life for us. I said earlier that Mary gave her offering to the Lord partly out of thankfulness for her brother’s healing. While I’m sure that’s true, I think there’s an even deeper foundation to her worship. Her motivation is critical, but neither of us has time to get into it today, am I right? So we’ll talk more about Mary next week! See you then!
Source: Nee, Watchman. The Normal Christian Life. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1997.