April 15, 2020 by Tim O’Connor
“She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Mark 14:6
Mark 14 tells us the story of a woman anointing Jesus’s head with expensive perfume (worth an entire year’s wages for a working man). John’s Gospel identifies her as Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and brother of Lazarus, whom Jesus had just raised from the dead) and adds that she anointed Jesus’s feet as well. It is a scene of humble, costly, and unreserved devotion by a lowly woman, bracketed by depictions of murderous plotting by more powerful and proud men.
The apostles Peter and Paul get all the press when it comes to heroic faith worthy of emulation. But in my estimation, we are meant to look to Mary of Bethany (and Mary the mother of Jesus) to at least the same extent. This story of ‘Mary B’ is a direct and unflinching gauge by which we may evaluate our own devotion to Jesus. It is usefully contrasted with the calculating desire of the rich young man to inherit eternal life, described four chapters earlier. He seeks from Jesus trustworthy rules telling him what he must do to earn favored status, like someone aspiring to become an Eagle Scout or a member of our social elite. I expect he’s willing to sacrifice a good deal, so long as it fits within a pattern of life that he can find satisfying and comfortable. Mary B, by contrast, has no such expectations or conditions; she has come to love and trust Jesus, deeply. She sat at his feet, as every good student of the Torah must. Rabbi Jesus not only taught her, he touched her life, and the Spirit inwardly revealed to her that Jesus is the pearl of great price, the one person or cause worthy of risking everything on.
Witnessing such faith-filled devotion, the other disciples, of course…scold her. Yes, their objection is completely reasonable. How does this extravagant gesture fit with our duty to serve the poor? In any other context, their point would be well-taken. In saying, “you always have the poor with you,” Jesus is not downplaying that duty but is in fact echoing the language of Deut. 15:11 that solemnly enjoins it upon God’s people. “But you will not always have me.” They have (again) misdirected their focus away from the one to whom all such service is ordered.
Mary B looks to Jesus with the loving intensity of a mother caring for her young child. She does not calculate. She lavishes affection and makes a costly sacrifice, heedless of the strong social conventions that she is trampling, much to the embarrassment of those around her – save Jesus. Jesus is clearly touched by her sincere love, given as his own time of great vulnerability is upon him, and he declares her action to be beautiful.
As Jesus himself here instructs, let us often remember the action of Mary of Bethany, a great mother of faith, when we proclaim the Gospel.
Click here for contemporary artistic depictions that can aid your reflection on this scene.
And here’s a nice little sonnet about it, penned by an old, faith-filled Anglican poet-priest, Malcolm Guite. Gail put me on to an Easter poem of his last week, and I have been enjoying his short home-office-in-lockdown chats/devotionals via Youtube ever since. Highly recommended.