|The Extravagance of Love - Mark 14:3-9 - March 12
The event we are going to look at today is related in three of the four Gospels — Matthew and John, as well as here in Mark. And it has an importance we might have missed, if Jesus had not personally underscored it.
It is an event in which one disciple is extravagant because of love while another who is stingy tries to justify himself with logic. Indeed, the calculus of love has never fit within a tight system of logic and practicality. But my Lord’s reaction to love’s recklessness encourages me to guard against my personal tendency to inhibit impulse with logic, to restrain budding passion for the sake of prudence and moderation.
If the key verse in Mark is about forgetting oneself for Jesus’ sake (cf. 8:34), this episode may well be the book’s climactic comment on authentic discipleship. It is such an exuberant act of self-forgetfulness before Jesus that he not only praised it in the presence of others’ criticism but commanded that it be retold to every subsequent generation of his disciples.
Here is the story . . .
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
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.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Background to Understanding
Unbelievers have always had a hard time figuring out the lifestyle of Christ’s disciples. When you think about it a bit, you understand their difficulty. Guided by a life philosophy that affirms selfishness (e.g., “You’ve gotta look out for ‘Number One’”), models greed (e.g., “Finders keepers, buddy!”), and assigns importance in dollar figures (e.g., “What do you think he’s worth?”), they see people trying to be selfless and generous as saps. Christ-centered people in a self-centered world are difficult to understand, and some people will never be convinced it could be anything other than an act to gain others’ confidence in order to manipulate, exploit, and victimize them.
Try to think about it from their perspective: Why would anybody choose to deny himself or herself of any pleasure — no matter how tasteless or vulgar — when life is so short? (Need a case study? What about marrying a total stranger at the end of “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” or radio contests where a man offers to streak naked or a woman promises to stand in a public place wearing only whipped cream for half an hour to get concert tickets?)
Why would people whose lives are at least as busy as theirs carve out time every week for worship, Bible study in small groups, or service projects that do nothing to advance their careers? Why do Christians get involved with poor people, prisoners, alcoholics, people with AIDS — on purpose?
Why are people who are carrying their load already as tax-paying citizens giving ten percent or more of their income — before taxes at that! — to the church? (A while back I had to help a young couple with three children document for the IRS that they were actually giving over fifteen percent of their income to the church.)
See what I mean? People who don’t know Jesus should have a hard time figuring out why people would behave as Christians do! Our answer would be, of course, that we do these things because we love him. He loved us first. He died a horrible death and tasted hell for us. He lives in us, sustains us through the dark times, and gives meaning to our lives. The deeper our experience of him is, the greater the love becomes.
Because we love him, there is nothing we wouldn’t do for him. He is our everything! But how can an “outsider” understand what we mean when we say that?
Mary’s Act of Devotion
That’s how the woman in this text felt about Jesus. Although Mark never even gives her name, John does. This is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. This is the woman for whom Jesus had acted to bring her brother back from the dead (John 11:1ff). This is the woman whom Jesus had defended for staying with a Bible-study and prayer group when her nervous sister was chiding her for not helping in the kitchen with “woman’s work” (Luke 10:38-42). She had long ago decided that Jesus was the Messiah, and there was nothing she wouldn’t do for him.
On this particular night, Jesus and his disciples were being hosted by a man known to everyone as “Simon the Leper.” And what a commentary on human nature and experience that is! He has to have been a healed leper, or he could not have been in polite society and hosting a dinner party. Most likely, he is one of the many people Jesus touched and healed of that awful disease. It was awful enough for its physical devastation, but it turned one’s life into a hellish ordeal of being an outcast from one’s own community, family, and synagogue. If anyone came within earshot, a leper had to scream and warn the person away. “Unclean! Unclean!” he or she had to shout as a warning that nobody could come near this human pariah, this mottled flesh in quarantine from the rest of the world. He was “Simon the Healthy” or “Simon the Cured,” but people were still calling him “Simon the Leper.”
Simon was evidently a friend to Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. I can easily imagine that they took Jesus to him and pleaded for the cure the poor soul received. So here is the cured man giving a banquet in honor of Jesus. Ever-in-the-kitchen Martha was helping supervise the food and serving. And here came Mary with something in her hand.
Oils and perfumes were used widely in the ancient world. Guests entering a house would customarily be given water and a towel to wash their faces, hands, and feet. Often there would be oil to wipe on the dry, parched skin as well (cf. Psa. 23:5). And many families would save and buy an expensive flask of really good aromatic oil or perfume and keep it stored for funeral occasions. There was no embalming among the Israelites. Burial would be within hours after a death, and the body would be washed, perfumed, and laid to rest.
Mary came into the room with “an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard.” This expensive perfume made from a plant grown principally in India would have been in a flask whose neck would have to be broken to get access to it. Mary broke it open and began to pour it on the head of Jesus. She poured and poured until every drop was exhausted and the flask empty. John adds that she poured it not only on his head but even his feet as well — and then (although respectable women didn’t unbind their hair in public!) she used her own hair to wipe off Jesus’ feet.
Why She Did It
Does it take a rocket scientist to figure out why Mary did this outrageous thing for which she must have known she might be criticized? Jesus had given her brother back to her from the dead. He had restored her friend Simon to health. He had treated her with dignity and respect. And he had told her the secrets of the kingdom of God.
Jesus was everything a man ought to be. He was holy, but not self-righteous. He was powerful, yet so kind that children let him hold them in his arms. He could cast out demons with a word, but there was a kind and inviting tone to his voice for those who — like Mary — were seeking God above all else.
So Mary took a flask of perfume that the Greek text says was worth more than 300 denarii. Since a denarius was one day’s wage in Jesus’ time, the NIV correctly puts its value at “more than a year’s wages.” What is that in today’s money? Is that somewhere around $25,000? What incredible extravagance!
Not only Judas but others among the disciples fussed at her. They couldn’t comprehend such waste. They applied logic and economics to her deed and figured that it would have been much wiser and godlier to have sold the perfume and given the 300 denarii to help the poor. Some wiseacre commented that concern for the poor is always likelier to come to the forefront when it is other people’s money involved.
Jesus told Judas and the other critics to pipe down. “She has done a beautiful thing to me,” he said. “She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.”
This one woman may have been the only disciple who had really heard Jesus and took him seriously about his impending death. Maybe even she hadn’t comprehended, but she had done something appropriate to a man who was already walking toward his grave. And he wanted her praised rather than scolded for it. So, while others scolded, he praised. Then he commanded those of us preachers who would come afterward to be sure to include this story in our preaching texts. Mary, I salute you — and wish I had been more like you in a dozen situations that come to mind! Less logical and more generous. Less analytic and more compassionate. Less self-centered and more Christ-intoxicated. Less concerned about what somebody might think or say and more anxious to honor the one who first loved me.
Robert Strand tells the story of a wealthy English baron named Fitzgerald who had only one child. The child, a boy, was the center of his family’s attention and love. Fitzgerald and his wife doted on the boy.
In his early teens, the boy’s mother died. If anything, it made his father only the more determined to see to his son and provide him the very best of everything. With his immense wealth, nothing would be withheld. Yet his millions could not keep the beloved son from falling ill and dying before he reached his twentieth birthday.
Baron Fitzgerald devoted his energy and wealth for the rest of his life to art. He bought any number of the great “masters” and came to possess one of the finest and most valuable art collections in the world. When he died, his will gave explicit instructions for the disposition of his estate. There was to be an auction to dispose of all his holdings.
The day for the auction came. Museum curators and private collectors were on hand and ready to bid. Breathtaking works of art were everywhere in view. When the announced time arrived, an attorney read from the will and informed the crowd that the baron’s will stipulated the first painting at auction would be a portrait of Fitzgerald’s beloved child — a rather poor quality piece that had been done by a local artist whose name had long ago been forgotten.
There was silence as a request for bids was made. One and only one bid was offered. An old man who had been a servant to the Fitzgerald family for years bid on the painting for its sentimental value. Eyes rolled and impatient bidders kept silent, waiting for the real auction to start. So, without objection or other bids, the painting was sold for the only bid received — a mere pittance.
Bringing down his gavel to close bidding on the first painting, the auctioneer yielded once again to the attorney. Unusual as it may have seemed, the buzz of the excited crowd was hushed again, and the attorney read from the will of Baron Fitzgerald: “Whoever buys the painting of my son gets all my art collection. The auction is over.”
With an extravagance that defies logic, practicality, or anything unbelief can fathom, give yourself unreservedly to him today. And do so knowing that the one who loves Jesus with the self-forgetful, self-emptying love Mary modeled for us that day in Bethany is the one who receives the affirmation and blessing of his Father.
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