“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (John 12:1-3)
It would benefit us greatly, as we look at this familiar and touching story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus for burial, to refer to Matthew and Mark’s Gospel account of the same event.
“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.” (Matthew 26:6-7)
“And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.” (Mark 14:3)
Let us begin with the facts surrounding this familiar account. All three gospels in question contribute much in our understanding of what occurred when Mary anointed Jesus.
To begin with, the scene occurs six days before the Passover. The Passover Feast in question would also mark the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and His subsequent burial and resurrection. This most likely was the previous Saturday with Passover coming six days later on Thursday evening through sunset Friday.
Secondly, the incident also occurs in the town of Bethany. As previously noted in our study of John 11, the town of Bethany was on the east side of the Mount of Olives about 2 miles from Jerusalem (11:18) along the road leading toward Jericho.
Thirdly, a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. The dinner, Matthew and Mark inform us, was held at the home of Simon the Leper. While not specifically mentioned outside of this occasion, it is generally understood that Simon was almost certainly someone whom Jesus had healed of leprosy, for lepers were deemed unclean and therefore not permitted to socialize or even live in cities.
Fourth, Martha served. This would be in keeping with Martha’s character (Luke 10:38-42). Additionally, Lazarus was present and was one of several who were reclining with Jesus at table. As one commentary explains, “One “sat” at normal meals; one “reclined” on couches at special meals like feasts or banquets. Unless the Gospel writers simply adopt Greek language for the meals consistently (Greeks normally reclined), Jesus was invited to many banquets—this one probably in his honor. Early traveling teachers were often invited to lecture at meals in return for free meals and lodging.”
Finally, Mary was also present. It is not only her attendance but also her behavior while at the dinner which takes center stage.
John records that “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair.”
Matthew writes that, “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.”
Mark states that, “a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.”
Matthew and Mark identify the person in question only as a woman. John identifies her as Mary, most likely the sister of Martha and Lazarus. All three gospel writers indicate that Mary took the initiative by taking a pound of expensive ointment and anointed Jesus.
Matthew indicates that it was expensive ointment. Mark and John identify the expensive ointment as pure nard. Both Matthew and Mark indicate that the pure nard was in an alabaster flask. One commentator explains “The pure nard was a fragrant oil prepared from the roots and stems of an aromatic herb from northern India. It was an expensive perfume, imported in sealed alabaster boxes or flasks which were opened only on special occasions.”
Mary then broke the flask of pure nard and poured the ointment on Jesus’ head. At the same time, she anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. John alone notes that the house will filled with the fragrance of the perfume. This truly was an expression of her love and devotion for Jesus.
Mary’s act was one of a singular and unpressured worship of Jesus. No one compelled her to do what she did or forced her to give away this extravagant perfume. It was her way of honoring her Lord.
How may we so honor the Lord Jesus? One way we can honor the Lord is not only with our time and talents, but also our resources. Consider what the Lord would have you do in order to display your love for Him.
Soli deo Gloria!