Now, as I said, when Jesus got there the first night they had a supper for him. He must have been tired. He was traveling. We learn from John that he came from the north, instead of passing directly south, which would have brought him to Jerusalem. In circling around he went down into the Jordan Valley as he was coming into or out of Jericho. He healed two blind men, and then from that point he made his way up a rather steep, tiring ascent to Bethany on the slope of the mountain just before you cross over into Jerusalem. So he came, probably, at the end of the day after this journey. His disciples were with him, and his friends had a dinner in the house of this man.
We don’t know anything about Simon except that he is called the leper. Presumably he was a man whom Jesus had cured of his leprosy. Jesus always cured those who came to him in faith. It was while he was there at Simon’s house, along with Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and perhaps others, that this extravagant act of Mary took place.
Now all we’re told in Matthew’s Gospel was that the perfume was worth a very high price. But in John’s Gospel we’re told how much it was: It was worth three hundred denarii. It’s always hard to convert money from one currency to anther and particularly from one culture and time to another. But we get an idea of how much three hundred denarii is worth when we recognize that a single denarius was about the wages of a day laborer. In Jesus’ parable of the landowner who goes into the marketplace to hire workers for his vineyard, they agree on the amount of a denarius for a day’s work. Now that doesn’t mean that it was necessarily the equivalent for how much we would earn on the average for a day’s work today. Nevertheless, it was a day’s work and it represented a fair amount for the labor that was involved.
You put three hundred denarii together and that is almost a year’s labor for a common working man. Or there’s another way that we can look at it. You recall that when Jesus fed the five thousand he turned to the disciples and said to them, “Why don’t you feed the multitude.” They complained that they did not have anything near what it would take. They said, “All we have are five loaves and a couple little fish here, and it would take two hundred denarii to buy bread so that everyone of this multitude would have just a little.” So what Mary did really was something extravagant.
Here was this woman who possessed this spikenard, undoubtedly her most precious possession, because no matter how much she had she certainly didn’t have anything that was worth more than that. And Mary, in this burst of extravagance, broke the jar that contained it and poured it all out over Jesus.
Now why did she do it? Well Jesus explains that when he says in verse 12, “She poured this perfume on my body to prepare me for my burial.” The ointment, as I said, was spikenard or nard, and nard was always associated with funerals. It was a perfume, of course, but it was also used in anointing a body for burial. So it was a very natural extension. Now some of the commentators say that it was a preparation for the burial, but that function was something Mary was not considering. In other words, she wanted to show her love for Jesus. She gave what she had, and as it turned out, it happened to be spikenard, which had significance for burial. Therefore, Jesus said, unknown to her, that what she had done was an act to prepare him for his burial.
I think that is altogether off the mark. You see, what I think Jesus is saying is that this woman alone of all my friends and all my disciples really has understood what is coming. It’s true that Jesus had been talking to his disciples for a long time about his coming crucifixion. He said to them on several occasions, two of them are in Matthew’s Gospel, “The time is coming when I have to go up to Jerusalem, and there I’m going to be arrested, spit upon and beaten, and then crucified by my enemies. But after I have been crucified and buried, the third day I’ll rise again.” Now he said that, as I have said, on more than one occasion. Undoubtedly he said it even more times than are recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, and yet this simply went by the understanding of the disciples. They just didn’t know what he was talking about. We read it, and because we know what happened, we find ourselves saying, “How could they be so dense?” The reason is because they were dense. Of course if we were there we would have been dense in exactly the same way.
They couldn’t understand it because they really did believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But in their minds the Messiah is one who had to sit on the throne of David ruling in military might. And in their context it meant that he had to be able to drive out the Roman armies. Now that’s what they thought Jesus was going to do. So when he began to talk about death and dying and giving his life as a ransom for many and paying the price for human sin, they just didn’t know what he was talking about. They couldn’t get it through their heads. Even after his death and the report of the resurrection they still didn’t understand it, until, as we’re told in the story of the Emmaus disciples who were going back home, he opened the Scriptures to them and explained to them all of the Old Testament teaching that concerned himself, He showed them how the Son of Man had to suffer and die and then rise again