“Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.”
Jesus had come with his disciples to Bethany to stay at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who were his friends. They gave a supper in his honor, probably as a thank-you supper for the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It was a brave thing to do since the Sanhedrin were seeking to arrest and kill him. But what stuck out in everyone’s mind, as they remembered the dinner afterward, was Mary’s extravagant act in anointing Jesus with her valuable perfume. John suggests that Mary has been keeping the ointment for this purpose for some time (John 12:7). So she did not act impulsively on a mere whim. Nevertheless, her act was extravagant since the perfume was worth three hundred denarii, about a years wages for a working man (John 12:5).
Why did Mary do such an extravagant thing? Jesus gave the answer when he rebuked the disciples who were criticizing her for what they regarded as a waste of money. He explained, “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial” (Matthew 26:12). It might be possible to read this as meaning that Mary did what she did unwittingly, not understanding its significance. But that does not fit the tone of the story. This was not a meaningless act. She was an amazingly perceptive woman, and the only way to appreciate what she did was to recognize that she alone of all the followers of Jesus understood that he was about to give his life for us on the cross.
Jesus had tried to explain his death to all of them, as I pointed out earlier. But the disciples did not get it. In fact, they were still fighting over who among them should be greatest. Only Mary understood, and she had for some time. Now she broke her box of ointment to show Jesus that she understood what he was about to do and loved him for it.
How did Mary come to understand this when the others, particularly the disciples, failed? The answer is by being often in the place where we find her now. Where is she? She is at Jesus’ feet wiping his feet with her hair. It is where we find her in Luke 10, when Jesus had come to her home earlier. Martha was busy with preparations for the meal, but Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (v. 39). It is where we find her in John 11, when Jesus had returned following the death of Lazarus. When Mary came to Jesus “she fell at his feet,” saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). Every time we see Mary she is at Jesus’ feet, worshiping him and learning from him.
May I suggest that if you do not know much about spiritual things, it is because you have not spent time at Jesus’ feet. If you want to learn about God and God’s ways, you must learn from Jesus.
Are you thinking that you cannot literally sit at Jesus’ feet today? That is true. But you can do the same thing by studying the Bible. In Hebrew idiom sitting at the feet of another person meant to learn from that person, as a child might learn from a parent or a pupil from his rabbi. The way we sit at Jesus’ feet today is by studying the Bible, for it is there that he speaks to us and instructs us. Do you study the Bible? Do you really study it? There are many Christians who say they wish they knew the Bible better, but they do not put in the necessary work to get to know it. They do not discipline themselves to do what is supremely worthwhile.
Many years ago now, when he was just a young boy, Donald Grey Barnhouse was riding on a train with a well-known Bible teacher on route to one of the Bible teachers meetings. The older man was reading his Bible. Barnhouse was reading the newspaper. At one point the boy looked over at the teacher, saw what he was doing and said, “I wish I knew the Bible like you do”
“You’ll never get to know it by reading the newspaper,”the older man said kindly, Barnhouse said later that he got the message, put his paper away and began to read his own Bible. In time he became a well-known Bible teacher too.1
1The story is told in the booklet “How to Study Your Bible,” prepared by Ralph L. Keiper from material supplied by Barnhouse (Philadelphia: The Bible Study Hour, 1961), pp. 9,10.
Why was it risky to have supper with Mary, Martha and Lazarus?
How did Mary know about Jesus’ coming death?
How often do you spend time just sitting quietly praying and studying God’s Word?