The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Jesus Anointed at Bethany
6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] 7 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. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
Matthew 26 begins in Wednesday of Jesus’s last Passover Week, which corresponds to the Christian Holy Week.
Today’s passage, however, is a flashback. It recounts an event that took place on the Saturday before, after Jesus raised Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead. Verse 13 gives us the reason for inserting this flashback — in Jesus’s own words.
Jesus was dining at Simon the Leper’s house (verse 6). Jesus had already healed him, otherwise, Simon would have been living outside of Bethany away from healthy people. John MacArthur tells us that this was a very special occasion (emphases mine):
Leprosy in that day was incurable. The only cure for leprosy was Jesus Christ. So it’s pretty obvious that Simon was a recipient of the healing power of Christ. And one way he could show his loving gratitude to Christ was to offer Him a supper. Oh the excitement would be unspeakable. You wouldn’t even believe it. Simon a former leper, outcast of outcasts, now having the Healer, God in human flesh, in his own home and hosting Him and inviting Mary, Martha, and Lazarus to be a part and all twelve of the disciples. This is a good group for supper, approaching twenty people. And there may have been others, we don’t know. But Mark writes of it, and Matthew writes of it, and so does John, because it is a very important occasion.
With Lazarus alive once again as well, the atmosphere must have been one of unspeakable joy and gratitude.
As everyone reclined at dinner, ‘a woman’ approached Jesus to anoint him with a precious ointment in an alabaster flask (verse 7).
There are a few things to explain about this verse.
Everyone in the ancient world reclined to eat. An article from ScienceNordic tells us that this might have been to aid digestion. It’s a bit like stretching out on the sofa but propping yourself up enough to eat and drink while watching television:
“We think pressure on the antrum – the lower portion of the stomach – has a lot to do with discomfort after a meal,” says [Jørgen] Valeur, a senior resident at Oslo’s Lovisenberg Diakonale Hospital …
According to the researchers, if you recline on your right side, the lower part of the stomach expands so you feel stuffed, but if you lie on your left side, the load on the antrum is reduced.
“It’s fair to assume that a person can actually alleviate the discomfort after a meal by lying on the proper side,” says Valeur.
Matthew left the woman unidentified, which poses difficulties for readers after his time, as we can see from Matthew Henry’s commentary:
The woman that did this, is supposed to have been Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. And Dr. Lightfoot [Bible scholar of the era] thinks it was the same that was called Mary Magdalene.
However, MacArthur says she is Mary — Martha and Lazarus’s sister — and not Mary Magdalene. A similar story in Luke 7:36-39 features another woman and a different Simon. Simon was a common name in that time. The Simon in Luke 7 was a Pharisee:
36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
it’s a different incident in chapter 7. And the woman who does the anointing is different. It isn’t Mary; it’s a wicked, sinful woman, in that case. But Matthew, Mark and John record this incident.
The parallel accounts are Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8, both of which are included in the three-year Lectionary. So, yes, this event is included in readings for public worship. Mark and Matthew did not name the woman, but John did. Mark has the scene at Simon the Leper’s house but John has it at Martha, Mary and Lazarus’s home.
Here is Mark’s version:
Jesus Anointed at Bethany
3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] 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. 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii[b] and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Here is John’s:
Mary Anoints Jesus at Bethany
12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound[a] 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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii[b] and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it[c] for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
About the mention and non-mentions of the woman’s name, MacArthur has this:
Matthew doesn’t tell us, and I don’t know why; we have no reason to know why he didn’t tell us except the Holy Spirit knew what John was going to say and it wasn’t repeated here for whatever reason. Some say it wasn’t mentioned by Matthew because he wrote so early in 50 that he was afraid there might be repercussions on Mary for what she had done. John, who wrote 40 years later, didn’t care because the scene had changed and she wouldn’t have been in such a difficult position. But that’s speculation.
Mark’s Gospel was written first, so Mary would have been alive and well, as she was when Matthew wrote his subsequently.
The alabaster ‘flask’ is translated as ‘box’ in older editions of the Bible. Some foreign languages, such as French, use ‘box’ (boîte) for a squat jar, e.g. of jam or olives.
The flask’s ointment was very expensive. MacArthur tells us:
It’s really a bottle made out of alabaster, very thin, and it would be a very fat or round bottle with a very narrow neck, and it would be corked or plugged at the top. And inside of it was very precious perfume. How precious? A year’s wages, Mark tells us, 300 denarii, which would be a year’s wages…very, very costly.
You say, “Why did they even have it?” Well, they must have been a somewhat wealthy family to even have something like that …
Because of the lack of hygiene, hosts put this on their guests before eating in a group so no one would offend others with their odours. Recall that when people entered a house the first thing they did was to remove their sandals and wash their feet. The next thing would have been the application of a perfumed oil or ointment, or nard, as Mark and John wrote.
It is possible that the nard in all four accounts was so highly concentrated, hence the expense, that a little went a long way. Perhaps the contents in the flask would have lasted for years. Therefore, to put all of it on Jesus’s head looked wasteful and extreme (verse 8). Naturally, the disciples reacted the way we would today (verse 9): ‘That could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor!’
Jesus disapproved of their reaction, praising the woman (verse 10). We would do well to highlight verse 11:
For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.
The woman was worshipping her Lord and Redeemer. We should be worshipping more rather than putting all our effort into serving the poor. While we can lessen the effects of poverty, we will never be able to eradicate it.
What does every catechism say about our purpose on earth? My childhood catechism says: ‘God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world.’ Before service we have the concept of worship in ‘know Him’ and ‘love Him’. Service comes third. Matthew Henry says:
Sometimes special works of piety and devotion should take place of common works of charity. The poor must not rob Christ[;] we must do good to all, but especially to the household of faith.
Note in this story that Mary performed an act of worship in her anointing of Christ. Henry explains:
1. As an act of faith in our Lord Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed. To signify that she believed in him as God’s anointed, whom he had set king, she anointed him, and made him her king. They shall appoint themselves one head, Hosea 1:11. This is kissing the Son.
2. As an act of love and respect to him … Note, Where there is true love in the heart to Jesus Christ, nothing will be thought too good, no, nor good enough, to bestow upon him.
MacArthur explains this generous worship:
Most of us worship…let’s see, what can I afford this week; I’ll give that, that won’t affect me. We know very little about this, this unrestrained adoration where you just crush the narrow neck of that alabaster bottle and pour its contents all over Jesus effusively, profusely. She was pouring out her love, her heart of compassion, her devotion. She was honoring the One that was going to die and rise again for her salvation, to bear her sin. She did it for you, for me; we all should have done it. We all, if we had been there, knowing what we now know, would have poured out everything on Him, too. She understood what the disciples didn’t want to understand. She wasn’t bound up in wanting to get right into the kingdom and have the glory. She apparently understood more of Jesus’ teaching then they did. She symbolizes the effusive, profuse, magnanimous outpouring of love that God desires.
Jesus went on to say that Mary was preparing Him for burial (verse 12). Did she really know that He was going to die very soon?
I mean, why shouldn’t she know He was going to die and rise, His enemies knew that. His enemies said, “Look out for this guy. He says He’s going to die, and He says if He dies in three days He’ll rise.” If they knew it, why shouldn’t she know it? She knew. She couldn’t prevent His death, she wouldn’t prevent His death. His death was for her and for all other sinners, so she poured out her love. And the word “half poured” is a very strong term—lavish, profuse.
It is ironic that the Twelve, who spent three years with Him, did not understand this. Yet, Mary did.
You would have thought that the Apostles would have been the ones worshipping Jesus to the extreme. They did not. They thought of the waste of fragrant ointment.
Mary was the one who worshipped Him more fully than can be imagined.
And even afterwards, they still did not grasp what she had done in that sense — or what was about to happen in a week’s time.
Jesus concluded by saying that wherever the Gospel is preached, this story will be told in her memory (verse 13), meaning that hers is the example Christians are to follow. This is why the Epistles all emphasise worship of Jesus Christ over everything else.
If we truly and fully understood what our Lord Jesus did for us via His death and resurrection we, too, would be worshipping the way Mary did that evening.
That’s something for many of us, myself not least, to seriously think about.
We can worship outside of church as well, in our private devotions. I can better understand why some great preachers got up at dawn to pray for four hours before beginning their day. It was not a tick-in-box activity of ‘doing something’ but something they wanted to do — every day. The Holy Spirit was working through them, revealing the Eternal Truth. Perhaps we shut out the Spirit a bit too much. We’re too busy or too distracted by worldly things.
Until today, I never really grasped what Jesus said about Mary and His criticism of Martha earlier in His ministry. To my mind, ensuring Jesus had something to eat and drink was just as important as sitting in His presence. Now, thanks to this event, which happened days before the Crucifixion, I understand. MacArthur reminds us:
In chapter 10 of Luke, and verse 42 it is, Jesus said about Mary that Mary has chosen the better part. You remember that. Worship is better than service. Learning better than doing. Sitting at the feet of the Savior, better than business.
If only more Christians — especially clergy in their sermons — explained Mary in this manner, we would all understand. May we learn and follow her example.
Next time: Matthew 26:26-29