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It was near the end of Christ's ministry. Christ and His disciples were at a dinner at Simon the leper's house in Bethany, a few days before He would be crucified (Matthew 26:2), when something extraordinary happened.
Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (the one whom Christ had recently raised from the dead) did a surprising, extravagant and what the disciples initially considered to be a foolish thing. We find the story in Matthew 26:6-13, one of three Gospel accounts that record this memorable incident. "And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table" (Matthew 26:6-7).
If we read the parallel scriptures in Mark 14 and John 12 we see the oil wasn't just poured on His head, but also on His feet. It was a very rare and expensive perfume. We don't normally think of honoring someone this way, but the NIV Bible Commentary points out that in those days, "A distinguished rabbi might have been so honored."
Continuing the story, Matthew wrote, "But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, 'Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor'" (Matthew 26:8-9). All the disciples were saying this, but John 12:4 makes clear the leading voice was that of Judas Iscariot, who carried the money box. His concern wasn't genuine, as he had previously stolen money from the box, but he was able to influence the rest of the disciples who joined in rebuking Mary for the perceived waste. After all, Mark 14:5 says the oil was worth more than 300 denarii—a year's wages for a laborer!
Also, during His ministry Jesus had taught His disciples about the importance of serving the poor: "I was hungry and you gave Me food," (Matthew 25:35). Couldn't a year's wages be put to better use than just being poured out and wasted? But surprisingly, Christ didn't agree. He said to them, "'Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me'" (Matthew 26:10).
The disciples were so sure they were right, but Jesus surprised them by rebuking them for criticizing Mary. For Judas Iscariot, this was the last straw, and he soon set out to betray his Master and Friend for just 30 pieces of silver. Many experts believe that these silver coins were tetradrachmas, worth four denarii. If this is true, Judas received 120 denarii to betray Christ, less than half of what the perfume cost! Mary's freely given devotion to Jesus was worth far more than what it took to buy Judas' betrayal.
Christ said, "For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this Gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her'" (Matthew 26:12-13). The lesson was certainly not that the poor weren't important, or that waste is permissible. The story prompts us to reexamine our priorities.
It had not been that long since Jesus had raised Mary’s brother, Lazarus, from the dead. She believed Jesus was the Christ, our Creator and Ruler. And at that dinner, just days before His sacrifice, it seems Mary was beginning to understand that Christ was willing to die for us and give us eternal life.
Halley's Bible Handbook (2000) puts it this way on page 702: "Jesus probably had spoken of His coming crucifixion. Mary…perhaps noticing a look of pain in His eyes, said to herself, 'This is no parable. He means it.' And she went and got the rarest treasure of her household and poured it on His head and feet, and wiped them with her hair. Perhaps not a word was said. But He understood. He knew that she was trying to tell Him how her heart ached."
Mary's example reminds us we are called to give our all to God. God is calling us to be living sacrifices in our daily lives (Romans 12:1). Putting God first is about being truly balanced. We can't truly put God first and neglect our families and we should always remember the poor, but we can also remember Mary, and her example of giving the best she had for her Master and Savior—and ours.
The Good News Magazine (Mar-Apr 2004)