What could you buy with one year of your income, whether it is from money you make at a job or from retirement income? Please keep that question in the back of your mind as you read this article.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany were very good friends of Jesus. It is probable that Jesus stayed in their home on his visits to the Temple during his three years of ministry since it was only two miles from Jerusalem. John 11:5 tells us that Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary and Lazarus.
In John 12:1, we read that Jesus once again arrived in Bethany. About a week prior to his arrival, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, and then left town with his disciples. This particular visit was six days before the Passover in Jerusalem. From the accounts of this visit from John, Matthew, and Mark we learn of some of the details of the dinner that was given in Jesus’s honor. (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 1 4:3-9, John 12:1-11) We learn that it was in the home of Simon the Leper. Apparently, Jesus had healed Simon of leprosy. Otherwise, he would not be having guests in his home.
We also learn that Martha was serving, and that Lazarus was one of the guests as well. Some speculate that this may have been Lazarus’ first appearance since he was raised from the dead.
The Gospel writers only give us the facts, but try to imagine the atmosphere and the emotion at that dinner.
The conversation no doubt would have died down as everyone was eating. Mark tells us that Mary broke an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume and poured it on Jesus’ head. Just imagine the sound the breaking of that jar made. Certainly, those at the dinner would have been startled by the sound as well as the strong aroma that would have filled the entire house. I suspect there would have been a stunned silence while Mary poured the perfume on Jesus’s head. John tells us that she poured it on his feet. Most commentators agree she most likely poured it on his head and feet. And then Mary wiped the excess perfume off Jesus’s feet with her hair. Women in that culture would not be seen in public with their hair let down.
John tells us that this perfume was a litra (about a pint) of pure nard. This type of perfume usually came from north India. The most significant thing about this perfume was that it cost a year’s wages. Had Mary saved her money and bought the perfume or did she inherit it? We simply have no way of knowing, but we do know that in her act of devotion to Jesus that she was willing to give something very valuable.
Think back to the question I asked at the beginning about what you could buy with one year of your income. Would you be willing to show devotion to Jesus by something that cost one year of income?
If you had been there, how would you have reacted?
Mark’s account tells us how some did react in 14:4-5: Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. In John’s account he said that it was Judas who raised the question. No doubt Judas was saying what some of the others were thinking since he was the treasurer. Judas also had a selfish motive since he was known to dip into the funds.
Jesus instantly came to Mary’s defense. John records these words: “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was meant that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:7-8)
Did Mary fully understand that she was anointing Jesus’ body for burial? Even though Jesus had spoken with disciples and close friends of his coming death, for many of them it must just have gone above their heads. Mary may have comprehended it more than some of the others. Part of her act of devotion may also have been a result of the close friendship she and her siblings had with Jesus, especially Jesus’ bringing her brother back from the dead.
Now we come to the question of what price tag can one put on devotion to Jesus. Mary’s act of devotion was unique never to be duplicated. Yet there are lessons we can learn from this account.
First, we cannot put a price tag on spiritual and eternal matters, including acts of devotion to Jesus.
The writer of Proverbs says this: “Do not eat the food of a stingy man or crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost.” (Proverbs 23:6-7) Have you ever been in a church meeting and after something is proposed, the first question is usually, “How much?”
Should the church and Christian ministries be good stewards of money? Yes. Should money ever stand in the way of doing the work of the church and carrying out the Great Commission? Never. Yes, there must be out the Great Commission? Never. Yes, there must be a balance of being wise stewards of the Lord’s resources and money contributed by church members and not being the kind of man who is stingy and always thinking about the cost.
Second, we must not get some caught up in serving that we neglect the more important matters.
In the anointing at Bethany, we see a contrast between Mary and Martha. Martha was busy serving while Mary had her focus on Jesus.
In Luke 10:38-41, we see then contrasted more sharply. On a previous visit in their home, Luke tells us that Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening but Martha was “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” Martha even complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping her. Here is how Jesus responded to her, “You are upset and worried about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
Service projects are in vogue today, both in business and in the church. And they have their place. Churches need to be reminded that unless the Gospel is being shared in service projects, even if nothing but a Gospel tract, then how is your project any different from what businesses or civic clubs do?
If your church is involved in service projects, remember that they are to be done for the benefit of those being served and not for the benefit of those who see all the pictures on your church’s web page or social media. Some have developed a mentality that those being involved in service are “spiritually superior.” To keep that mentality in balance, it would be wise for pastors to preach on the text in this article and for believers to read it every now and then.
Like so many things in the Christian life, we must balance devotion and spiritual growth with service. If we err, let it be on the side of devotion as Mary demonstrated.
Chip Warren is past president of the Albertville Ministerial Association.
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