(I’ve included the primary Scripture reference for this meditation at the end of the post.)
The first several days of the first Easter week were filled with tension and anger from Jesus’ opponents and unflinching resolve from Jesus. He had been on the move, juggling His time between Bethany, Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives.
Words had been His currency, and He had spent piles of them opposing the self-righteous and preparing His disciples for what He had been telling them about for a while now: “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Mt 16:21) How confusing this must have been for them.
But by the time Wednesday rolled around, Jesus was still. He went to the home of Simon the Leper, a man known for what was wrong with him. They shared a meal together and afterward settled in for a time of conversation.
As they sat, a woman with an alabaster flask approached Jesus. Though Matthew doesn’t tell us her name, we not only know who she was, we know a little something about that flask too. John tells us this was Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’ sister, (Jn 12:3) and suggests she had been saving this perfume, which was worth a full year’s wages, for this very occasion. (Jn 12:7)
She began to pour the perfume on Jesus’ head and feet, which Mark tells us she did by breaking open its container. (Mk 14:3) With this fracture, there was no turning back. Breaking open that alabaster flask was like popping the cork on a $20,000 bottle of champagne. She was not acting on a whim. She offered Jesus everything she had.
What drove her? She somehow sensed that what He was about to give was for her. The perfume was a response to what He was in the process of giving to her.
The disciples reacted like many men often do. They considered the value of her perfume and regarded her actions as though she might as well have been burning a year’s wages in a bread oven. But they dressed their indignation up in the noble auspices of concern for the poor: Think of the poor people who could have benefited from the sale of this perfume. (cf. Mt 26:8-9)
But this is not how her actions hit Jesus. He comes to her aid. What she is doing, He tells them, is beautiful.
Appreciate the doctrinal principle here. Though the perfume could have been sold for a year’s wages, what is perfume for? Is it merely a commodity Mary should have held on to in the event that she needed to cash it in? Is this how God would expect her to regard this valuable resource?
Apparently not. Perfume is meant to be poured out and released into the air until it is gone in order that it might fill a room with its beautiful and startling aroma. So Mary breaks open the jar and the scent electrifies the senses of everyone present, and Jesus says it is beautiful.
Everything in creation testifies to a Creator who delights in beauty for beauty’s sake. So many things that are beautiful didn’t need to be. And it was God elected to make them that way. He opted to make autumn a season saturated with bold, changing color. He didn’t have to make the setting sun the spectacle that it is. But He did.
One reason must be because beauty pleases Him. And another must be in order to arrest people by their senses when they’re otherwise just plodding along, heads down, learning to live within the economy of pragmatism.
What Mary did was beautiful and Jesus wanted His disciples to know it.She was preparing Him for burial. Jesus sees a great kindness and honor in her gesture. So He returns the honor by saying history will never forget her act of beauty.
And as it is, this act of gratitude has been recorded in over 150 languages around the world for over 20 centuries.
J.C. Ryle wrote, “The speeches of parliamentary orators, the exploits of warriors, the works of poets and painters, will not be mentioned on that day [of God’s coming Kingdom]; but the least work that the weakest Christian has done for Christ, or His members, will be found written in a book of everlasting remembrance.”
By the Wednesday of the first Easter week, Jesus is placing everything in the context of His pending death. Here in this intimate setting with dear friends—with all their quirks and flaws and reputations—the scent of redemption fills the room.
6Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7a 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.8And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.”
10But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.12In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13Truly, 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.”
14Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver.16And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).