Reflections on Mary of Bethany

And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.” But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” -Matthew 26:6-13

This week the Lord has impressed upon my heart the story of Mary of Bethany. We catch snippets of her interactions with Jesus throughout the Gospels, but to weigh the importance of the stories against their brevity would be a great mistake. For, to again quote the Lord Himself, “Wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” The whole world? Does Jesus exaggerate? I think that to examine her mention would be of great benefit if it is our goal to receive the accolades of the Shepherd. What was it about this young woman’s service that so captured Jesus’ attention?

There is a back story to Mary and her family, beginning in Luke 10, which we will proceed to at a later time. I have chosen to instead mention Matthew’s recollection first, since it is the story we first encounter as we begin reading the Synoptic Gospels. Also, John 12 fills us out as far as actually naming the alabaster lady. The beloved apostle supplies, “Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil” (John 12:3). We immediately see how John adds a personable dimension to the story, while stripping it of any dignity that Matthew may have wanted to give to it. This baptism is not a far-off splash. Mary was up close to the Master, while sopping up any extra liquid with the only instrument available and adequate–her hair. Her devotion required a proximity that broke with conventional law, which is something that we learn she is already used to doing (see Luke).

There is something terribly alarming about someone as unkept as Mary. She’s so unconcerned with the societal norms, and we get the feeling that Mary doesn’t even realize there are other people in the room. How inconsiderate! Certainly so close to His death, Jesus must have had some dignitaries or other world-impactors wanting to visit Him and talk this young upstart out of this cross nonsense (after all, He has so much going for Him, there’s a good chance so-and-so getting Him such-and-such a prominent position on the local whatever board). Mary blows right past all of them, interrupts the conversation, and ruins a perfectly good tunic. Doesn’t she get it?

She gets it, alright. And there’s the rub–Mary seems to be the only one who gets it. How long has Jesus been talking about His crucifixion? The disciples, those scrappy ragamuffins, are ready for anything. That is, except Mary. She walks right past them, not asking permission (their permission, should I say) and gives Jesus a gift that signifies that she takes Him as His word. She may not like it, but she’s reckoned with it. “For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial.”

Lord, help us to get it, no matter what the cost.

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