One of the most remarkable stories in the Bible speaks loudly to us about extravagant love. The story I would like us to focus on is a well-known one about Mary of Bethany and Jesus, which occurred in the week before Jesus died on the cross. It appears in three of the four Gospels, in John 12:1-8; Matthew 26:6-13; and Mark 14:3-9. Each telling of the story adds a little to the whole story, so we will look at parts of all three. This story can be life-changing, and I can attest that it continues to change my life as Mary’s example teaches me and challenges me to give my heart so completely to God that my own needs are secondary.
It might be helpful to have a little background first. This is the third and final interaction that we see between Jesus and this family, a brother and two sisters: Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. The first time we see them together is in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus and his disciples were invited into Martha’s home. We’re not sure how many of them were in the group that day. We suspect that there were at least 13: Jesus and the 12 apostles. However, Jesus’ entourage often was much larger, and perhaps there were quite a few more than that. In any case, preparing your home and a meal for a large group can be a stressor for many of us even today with modern appliances, and it appears that Martha was a little stressed trying to get everything together. Her sister Mary, on the other hand, did a very uncharacteristic thing for a woman of that day, and sat and listened to what Jesus had to share. She seemed to exhibit an unusual devotion to him. When Martha complained to Jesus that he should tell Mary to help, he commended Mary’s choice of focusing on Jesus and what he had to share, rather than focusing on activities which in light of who Jesus was and what he was sharing, were secondary. (For a much more thorough analysis of this story in a devotional book, take a look at Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World by Joanna Weaver.)
The second time we see Jesus with these siblings is four days after Lazarus died. The story is told in John 11:1-46. It took Jesus a number of days to reach them, after a two-day intentional delay after Jesus heard by messengers that Lazarus was sick. Martha and Mary were both in mourning when Jesus arrived. Martha learned of Jesus’ arrival, and went out to meet him. She and Jesus had a beautiful conversation, during which Martha professed faith and understanding to a higher degree than just about anyone else to that point in Jesus’ life. Then she went back and got Mary, and Mary together went with Martha to see Jesus. They all wept, even Jesus. Then Jesus went to the tomb with them and did a most amazing thing: he called Lazarus back to life. When the stone was rolled away, Lazarus walked out of the tomb like a mummy from a kids cartoon, still wrapped in burial clothes.
Now, not too long after Lazarus was brought back to life, there was a special dinner for Jesus in Bethany. Let’s begin by reading the first part of the story in John 12:1-3.
1Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (NIV)
Judas Iscariot, in John 12:5, suggests that the perfume was worth a years’ worth of wages. The story continues with Matthew 26:8-9.
8When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. 9“This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” (NIV)
The story concludes with Jesus’ defense of Mary in Mark 14:6-9.
6“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (NIV)
It is clear from the context that this was quite an extraordinary thing Mary did for Jesus, which can be seen both in terms of the apostles’ strong negative reaction and in terms of the strong affirmation given by Jesus in her defense. Before we take a closer look at the reactions, let us examine for ourselves what Mary actually did.
The setting for this story is at a special dinner held in Jesus’ honor. We don’t know whether it was given in thankfulness for how Jesus restored Lazarus to life after he had been dead four days, but that, at least, was on everybody’s mind. Perhaps it was simply given in recognition that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Unlike the first time that we read about Jesus dining with Martha and Mary, this dinner is given in the home of Simon the Leper instead of Martha’s home. Perhaps Simon had a bigger home, more suitable to a larger crowd. Because no one would eat with a leper or even come near to a leper, perhaps Jesus had earlier healed Simon of leprosy, and so Simon was immensely grateful for being healed and wanted to do what he could to honor Jesus.
Perhaps in the midst of the dinner, but more likely after they had finished eating but while they were still seated (Matthew 26:7), Mary did an amazing thing. She took an extremely valuable jar of expensive perfume and broke it open to pour out on his head (Matthew 26:7, Mark 14:3) and on his feet. Commentators tell us that the perfume was likely produced in northern India and transported to Palestine.
Mary did more than just cover him with this amazing fragrance, she humbled herself completely by using her hair to wipe his feet. To do this, first of all, she had to take a servant’s position by kneeling on the floor. Then she took her hair — which the Apostle Paul says is a woman’s glory — and unbound it, which was rare for a woman to do publicly. Then she used her glory to wipe Jesus’ feet. In Jewish culture, cleaning feet was a very demeaning task done by slaves. But here she used her glory — her best — to clean the most lowly part of Jesus.
This beautiful act was an incredible sacrifice for Mary. First of all, she surrendered her financial security by giving up something of great value that she had saved. Second, she surrendered her personal dignity by unbinding her hair and by using it to wipe Jesus’ feet. Third, she experienced the scorn of the apostles as they questioned her judgment for doing this.
Something about what Mary did strongly speaks to my heart even two thousand years later. It was an act of extravagant love — something one does when she only considers the object of her affection, and not the cost to herself. Or perhaps more precisely, after weighing the cost, finds it as being inconsequential compared to the opportunity of blessing the other person with a clear sign of affection.
Something about extravagant love evokes strong reactions in those who witness it. I think it embarrasses us a little. That love so strong should be expressed in front of others may seem inappropriate — something to be expressed in private rather than in public. I think it also causes us to examine how much or how little we love, and we generally come up short in our own estimation.
You can see how the apostles became very uncomfortable, and started criticizing her — using logic, of course — to explain why the act of pouring out the nard was a waste. How “the poor” could have been blessed, but alas! They probably could not even find words to express their shock at how Mary abased herself out of love for Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but if somebody in church criticized my actions, I would probably feel badly, and wonder if I had really done something wrong. Imagine if the senior pastor or bishop or apostle criticized you publicly. What if 12 apostles criticized you publicly? Mary endured their criticism… but then Jesus came to her rescue, saying not only that what she did was beautiful, but that wherever the Gospel was proclaimed, Mary’s act of extravagant love would also be proclaimed. I will gladly exchange criticism from church bigwigs for the praise of my Lord — but of course, Mary was out on a limb, not really knowing that Jesus was going to speak up for her, and maybe even uncertain that what she did was even something Jesus would appreciate.
After spending time reflecting on why this story speaks so strongly to me, I realized that it wasn’t just the extravagance of Mary’s love that moved me — it was also Jesus’ reaction. He received this expression of love for what it was, and He moved to protect the heart of the one expressing it. He saw her motives, and saw that they were beautiful. This is always true: not a single expression of love for Him goes unnoticed. It touches and moves His heart, and He responds.
I wonder if Mary knew the significance of what she was doing before she did it? The Bible doesn’t tell us one way or the other. Did she know her act was preparing Jesus for his burial? Commentators have also suggested that pouring expensive perfume on someone’s head was a sign of kingly anointing, and that this act was also a sign of who Jesus really was. Was that her intent?
Was she led by the Holy Spirit or an angel in a clear communication, or did she just kind of sense this more instinctively? Perhaps she sensed from Jesus that He wouldn’t be with them much longer, or that Jesus was unusually pensive that week, and she just wanted to help Him feel loved. I like to think that this was the most loving act she could think of doing for Jesus, so she did it, without understanding all of the potential symbolism of that action.
I wish I could say that my life was punctuated with acts of extravagant love for the One who I love the most… but I cannot. I think there are things that I do that are clearly out of love for my Lord, but nothing that would say that I really put it all on the line. I hold back. Maybe you do, too. Why is that? There are probably many reasons: we want to avoid embarrassment and criticism; we don’t like to be in the spotlight; we worry about our futures and so hold things in reserve, just in case.
The root of all our reasons for holding back is probably something that is painful for us to face — we don’t really love God as much as we would like to love God. More accurately, we tend to be selfish, living for ourselves, and wanting to preserve ourselves physically and emotionally and socially. God knows that about us (if in fact that is an accurate diagnosis of your state, as it is of mine), and He loves us anyway. But let us not be content living like we are living. Instead, let us always strive to become what we can be, as our ongoing expression of love for Him.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’ve ever done nor ever will do anything of worldly significance. And I’m at an age where I sometimes wonder whether I’ve blown it — whether I’ve wasted my life, and I have nothing to show for it. But what this story keeps bringing home to me is that if Jesus takes note of my life — of the little things that I do for Him — then my life is significant after all, and in a way I could never hope to achieve by being a superstar in this world.
In the coming months, I want to continue developing this theme of living a life of extravagant love. Perhaps together we can make changes in our lives that lead us to becoming like Mary of Bethany to this world, and to our Lord.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to my friends in Maryland Chrysalis, and particularly those friends who were on the team retreat for Maryland 56, who heard a version of this, and encouraged me in it. Special thanks to Gina Brockmeyer, Ann Mock, and Jon Winters.