Mary and Her Ointment

But there were some that had indignation among themselves, saying, “To what purpose hath this waste of the ointment been made? For this ointment might have been sold for above three hundred shillings, and given to the poor.”

And they murmured against her.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor always with you, and whensoever ye will ye can do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could; she hath anointed my body beforehand for the burying” (Mark 14:4-8).

Mary sought to honor her Lord. He had, after all, just raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45, 12:1-3). She felt it was appropriate to bring out this very expensive ointment – the “spikenard” – worth more than three hundred denarii, or over six thousand dollars in buying power today. This is a staggering sum even today!

This waste was acutely felt by some of the disciples. Granted, Judas’ motivations about his indignation are suspect, as John 12:4-6 indicates, but we have no reason to believe that the indignation of some of the other disciples was likewise suspect. They had been used to a life of relative poverty while following Jesus, and this entire episode seemed entirely out-of-place for Jesus considering His mission, purpose, and method (cf. Matthew 8:20, 20:25-28).

The sentiment of some of the disciples had some basis in nobility – after all, even today, $6,000 would go a long way in helping people who have nothing. The impulse to take such a luxury and use the proceeds to help the poor is not a bad thing, and Jesus does not censure that impulse. What matters is the timing.

Thus He tells His disciples that they will always have the opportunity to help the poor, but they will not always be able to enjoy His physical presence. The idea that the “poor are always with you” is not license to neglect the poor or to give up any endeavor that attempts to provide benefits for the poor. Instead, Jesus is justifying this particular “extravagant waste,” pointing out that the poor will remain, but He will not always be with them.

Mary is most likely unaware of the significance of what she is doing. What she does in honor as a good work is really a preparation for burial. Since He will die just before the Sabbath – a high Sabbath at that – there will not be proper time for anointing the body (cf. Mark 15:42-46). Three women will bring ointment with which to anoint the body of Jesus on the first day of the week, but by then He will be raised from the dead (Mark 16:1). Thus, the only anointing of His body for death came here, in the house of Simon the leper, by the hand of Mary.

This is a poignant story, and Jesus’ testimony about how the story of Mary and the anointing will be proclaimed wherever the Gospel is proclaimed demonstrates His great confidence in the plan of God that is unfolding (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). And so it is; almost two thousand years later and halfway across the world we now consider her story and the good work that she did for Jesus.

It is very easy for anyone to get so thoroughly invested in a cause that they begin to neglect themselves and their own souls. Yes, we are called to serve and not be served, just as Jesus did (Matthew 20:25-28). But even Jesus accepted this anointing. He not only allowed Mary to do her good work, He blessed it and its memory. It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), but if no one receives, no one can give!

This is not license for selfishness, but a good reminder for us to accept the good works of others on our behalf, and seek to be the examples we should be. Let us serve God wholeheartedly, doing good works and accepting good works, and reflect our Savior!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry