The family of an ordinary young Jewish girl named Mary – like so many other ordinary Jewish girls at that time – had the sublime privilege of hosting Jesus for an evening. John 12, Mark 14 and Matthew 26 all record the event.
The Overwhelming of Mary from Bethany
At some point during the meeting, this young girl arose with a jar, or a flask full of costly oil in her hand. That little jar of oil was equivalent to a year’s wages. She, being motivated by some overwhelming sense of necessity, proceeded to anoint Jesus’ feet with it. That is, she took this expensive alabaster jar and dispensed the entire thing upon the One in her living room.
This is the equivalent of one of us taking a handful of hundred dollar bills amounting to $40,000 and lighting them on fire at the feet of Jesus as a way of expressing our conviction that nothing compares to the supreme worth of the One in front of us.
As she expressed that conviction, awkwardness settled in the room and tensions began to mount. The family to whom Mary belonged felt compelled to end this display of youthful zeal and religious freakishness. But they were quickly rebuked. The traitor who later sold Jesus to the authorities for 30 shekels felt compelled to point out the financial stupidity of her act informing the witnesses that it was worth a years wage and could be better spend on ministry endeavors. He was quickly rebuked. The other disciples felt compelled to reinforce the traitors conviction saying that this young woman was severely handicapping their ministry by wasting this much money. They too were quickly rebuked.
As the family stood in the corner in horror of what their sister had done, 2 as the traitor sat back plotting how to usurp His dumb leader and as the disciples sat around the living room offended at Jesus’ public condemnation of their ministerial advice, Mary sat with tears in her eyes, oil in her hair and fear in her heart; tears because of the intense burnings that drove her to express her adoration of Jesus, oil because she washed Jesus’ feet in oil with her own hair, and fear because of not knowing what Jesus was going to say and do next. Would He affirm what she did of would He rebuke her also?
Her heart was soon settled as Jesus publicly affirmed her and said these words to all within hearing:
“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)
Mary from Bethany was overwhelmed. And it resulted in the sudden liquidation of her financial stability for the years to come. Whatever 300 denarii meant to her, Jesus meant more. Whatever position she enjoyed because of it, she enjoyed the position that Jesus secured for her more. Whatever this inheritance was to her, Jesus was more. And that is the central message of this profound encounter. The central message of this story – as with so many other Gospel testimonies – is the supreme worth of Jesus in the eyes of this ordinary Jewish girl.
In this text from Matthew 26 we read that Jesus – looking the future apostles and church planters in the eyes – gave a command to all who preach the Gospel: “Tell them about what Mary did on that evening that initiated the Passion Week.” He was saying, in effect, “Peter, Philip, John, James, Nathaniel and all the rest of you, wherever I send you in the coming years to declare the Gospel I am commanding you to remember this night and to speak of it with as much esteem in your heart as I have in mine for it.” In other words, “Let this forever define the way you understand what’s about to happen at the end of the week.”
I believe that as the disciples looked back on this grand event after Jesus’ ascension to the Father and their commissioning to the nations they were aware of the indelible impact it made on them. They would always remember the smell of that living room that night in the same way that we remember smells and fragrances of our past. Like the scent of a grandmothers house or a mothers perfume or a high school cafeteria, the scent of that oil remained with these 11 young men until their death when they too ‘broke the alabaster jar’ of their lives at the feet of the One who is forever worthy.
What Mary Understood that the Disciples Did Not
Sadly though, this memory wasn’t forged in their minds and hearts as precious until sometime later. It wasn’t until they understood what would happen later in the week that would understand Mary. There is a very important statement in the verse quoted above:
“For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial.” (26:12)
Jesus was interpreting for them and for us what was actually happening. He was saying that the primary reason that she did what she did was because He was to be buried. He was saying that the primary motivation for Mary’s extravagance was Mary’s intimate understanding of the meaning and significance of the death of Christ.
Mary understood something that the disciples did not. She understood that Jesus was going to die. She understood that He was born to die. And she understood the implications of that. She was so impacted by this understanding that she wasted her inheritance and her financial reservoir in a matter of seconds!
But as late as Luke 24, AFTER the resurrection (!), Jesus was rebuking His disciples for still being confused about the crucifixion. In Luke 24:25 Jesus calls His disciples “foolish and slow of heart” for being ignorant of what was happening during those 72 hours between crucifixion, burial and resurrection. That’s a nice way of saying “You’re dull and stupid – Look around boys.”
But for Mary things were very different. Mary was so dramatically wounded by this vision of Jesus’ imminent and necessary death that such an extravagant expression of gratitude and adoration was as easy as breathing. And the disciples became indignant at the sight of it.
Often times Mary of Bethany is spoken about in some generic sense as though she loved Jesus so much that she broke her alabaster jar at His feet. While that is definitely true, it isn’t accurately following what the Gospel writers were getting at. They all associated the pouring of the oil explicitly and specifically with the burial of Jesus. Mary was being driven by a conviction that Jesus’ death was the single greatest event in human history with such implications and achievements that all the oil and all the denarii’s in all the world couldn’t compare to the glory of intimate fellowship with this man. As she wept and poured out that oil she was declaring with her actions what she couldn’t express with words. But if we were to try to identify what she meant in words, we might say she meant something like this:
“I know who You are. And I know what You are about to do. And I know what it will mean; both for You and for me. And I love you for it. You are so much more precious than this precious oil that it offends me to have it in my presence when You are here with Me. You are so much more valuable than all the riches of this evil age that all the silver and all the gold in all the hills and all the mountains of this world couldn’t be enough to persuade me to part from You. I am forever yours and You are forever worthy of all I have to give.”
Jesus heard this prayer as Mary poured that oil on Him. And He would be reminded of it for the next week as the smell stayed with Him and upon Him. As He headed towards Jerusalem He and the other 12 would be reminded every moment of the day of what had happened. The fragrance of Mary’s adoration would have possibly even remained upon Jesus as He hung at Golgotha.
The Emergence of a Young Adult Worship Movement at the End of the Age Gripped with the Meaning and Significance of the Death of Christ
This is a snapshot of what the young adult worship movement at the first coming looked like. This revelation that smote Mary’s heart would soon bleed out impacting many more. Those 11 young adults set out north, south, east and west preaching Christ and Him crucified. By the time Romans was written, the apostle Paul was saying that their witness was so widespread that there wasn’t anywhere he could go without hearing about Jesus and His crucifixion. 5 All of those disciples minus John shed their blood for Jesus and died as martyrs and as faithful witnesses. This was a movement. And it was led primarily by young adults. And it was driven and motivated chiefly by the supreme worth of Christ and His cross. Therefore it was a young adult worship movement that was the sole agent of the proliferation of the Gospel in the first century. The generation that witnessed the first coming also witnessed the emergence of the most extraordinary youth movements in history. But let it be said: Before the second coming we will witness a far greater young adult worship movement.
Before this age ends God is going to so grip a generation of ordinary young adults that nothing in this age will satisfy them or pacify their longings. If He did it for that young girl before His first coming, what is He going to do before His second?!
The book of Revelation gives us the clearest picture of what this worship movement will look like. It will mature to such fervency and ardency that it will actually be the catalyst for Jesus’ taking of the scroll, tearing of the seals and beginning of the great tribulation. 6 As the redeemed in heaven and on earth join together to sing “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals for You were slain and redeemed us to God by Your blood,” the transition between this age and the next will take place. In fact, God will not hand the scroll over and the Son will not take it until a generation becomes obsessed with the worth of the only One who is capable of tearing those seals.
Mary’s life is a picture of who we are called to be. And her life is a picture that displays the beauty of Jesus unlike many other stories can.