Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, land given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always. John 12:3-8
In the whole bearing and conduct of Jesus in and about Jericho there was much to indicate that some great crisis in His history was at hand. It does not surprise us to be told of the disciples believing “that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.” It was because He knew that they were so misconceiving the future that lay before Him and them, that, either in the house of Zacchaeus, or afterwards on the way to Jerusalem. Jesus addressed to them the parable of the Pounds. He would have them know, and could they but have penetrated the meaning of that parable they would have seen, that so far from any such kingdom as they were dreaming of being about to be set up for them in Jerusalem, He was going through the dark avenue in Jerusalem. He was going through the dark avenue of death to another, to a far country, to receive the kingdom there, and after a long interval return; and that, so far from them being about to share the honors and rewards of a newly erected empire, they were to be left without a head, each man to occupy and to labor till He came again. Another parable, that of the laborers in the vineyard, spoken but a day or two before, had a kindred object—was intended to check the too eager and ambitious thirst for the distinctions and recompense that the apostles imagined were on the eve of being dispensed. The addressing of two such parables as these to His disciples, with the specific object of rectifying what He knew to be their false ideas and expectations, the readiness with which He listened to the cry of the blind beggars by the way- side, and the interest that He took in the chief of the publicans, conspire to show how far from a mere narrow or selfish one was the interest with which Jesus looked forward to what was awaiting Him at Jerusalem. During the two days’ journey through Peraea through Jericho to the holy city, His thoughts were often and absorbingly fixed upon His approaching sufferings and death, but it was not so much in their isolated and personal as in their public and world-wide bearings and issues that He was contemplating them; nor had the contemplation any such effect as to make Him less attentive to the side of thought and feeling prevailing among His disciples, or less ready to be interested in those who, like Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus, threw themselves in His way.
In coming down into the valley of the Jordan, Jesus had joined the large and growing stream of people from the north and east, passing up to the approaching Passover. There would be many Galileans among the group who had not seen Him now for many months, and who, if they had not heard of it before, must have heard now at Jericho of all that had happened at the two preceding feasts of Tabernacles and Dedication, of His last great miracle at Bethany, of the great excitement that had been created, and of the resolution of the Sanhedrin to put Him to death. And now He goes up to face these rulers, to throw Himself, as they fancy, upon the support of the people, to unfold the banner of a new kingdom, and call on all His followers to rally around it. His Galilean friends heartily go in with what they take to be His design; they find the people generally concurring in and disposed to further them. One can imagine what was thought and felt, and hoped and feared, by those who accompanied Jesus as He left Jericho. A few hours walks would now carry Him and them to the metropolis. It was Friday, the eighth day of their Jewish month Nisan. The next day was Saturday, their Jewish sabbath. On the Thursday following the lamb was to be slain, and the Passover festival commence. The great body of the travelers press on, to get into the town before the sun set, when the sabbath commences. Jesus and His disciples turn aside at Bethany, where the house of Martha and Mary and Lazarus stands open to receive them. Here in this peaceful retreat the next day is spent, a quiet sabbath for our Lord before entering on the turmoil of the next few days. The companions of His last day’s journey have in the meantime passed into Jerusalem. It is already thronged with those who had come up from the country to purify themselves for the feast. With one and all the engrossing topic is Jesus of Nazareth. Gathering in the courts of the temple, they ask about Him, they hear what had occurred; they find that “both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a commandment, that if any man knew where He was, he should show it, that they might take Him.” What in the face of such an order, will Jesus do? “What think ye,” they say to one another, “that He will not come to the feast?” But now they hear from the newly arrived from Jericho that He is coming, means to be at the feast, is already at Bethany. They hear that Lazarus, the man whom He so recently had raised from the dead, is also there. He may not have been there till now, He may have accompanied Jesus to Ephraim, or chosen some other place of temporary retreat, for a bitter enmity had sprung up against him as well as against Jesus. “The chief priest had consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death, because that by reason of him many of the Jews believed on Jesus”. Whether he had retired for a time or not, Lazarus is now at Bethany. Many, unable to restrain their curiosity, go out to the village, “not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also”. It was but a short distance, not much more than the Sabbath-day’s journeys. During this day, while Jesus and Lazarus are there together, many visitors go forth to feast their eyes upon the sight, and on returning to quicken the excitement among the multitude.
It was on the evening of the Saturday, when the Sabbath was over, and the next, the first day of the week, had begun, that they made Jesus a supper in the house of Simon, who once had been a leper, some near relative in all likelihood of the family of Lazarus, and Jesus sits at this feast between the one whom He (had cured of his leprosy and the other whom He had raised from the dead. Martha serves. She had not so read the rebuke before administered to her as to believe that serving—the thing that she most liked, to which her disposition and her capabilities at once prompted her—was in itself unlawful or improper, that her only duty was to sit and listen. But she had so profited by the rebuke that, concerned that she is that all due care be taken that this feast be well got through, she turns now no jealous look upon her sister, leaves Mary without murmuring or reproach to do as she desires. And Mary seizes the opportunity now given. She has not now Jesus to herself. She cannot as in the privacy of her own dwelling, sit down at His feet to listen to the gracious words coming from His lips. But she has an alabaster phial of fragrant ointment—her costliest possession—one treasured up for some unknown but great occasion. That occasion has arrived. She gets it, brings it, approaches Jesus as He sits reclining at the table, pours part of its contents upon His head, and resolves that its whole contents shall be expended upon this office. She compresses the yielding material of which the phial was composed, breaks it, and pours the last drop of it upon His feet, flinging away the relics of the broken vessel, and wiping His feet with her hair. Kingly guests at royal banquets could not have had a costlier homage of the kind rendered to him. That Mary had in her possession so rich a treasure may be accepted as one of the many signs that her family was one of the wealthiest in the village. That she now took and spent the whole of it upon Jesus, was but a final expression of the fullness and the intensity of her devotion and love.
Held hidden behind the Savior’s reclining form, she might have remained unnoticed, but the fragrant odor rose and filled the house, and drew attention to her deed. Cold and searching and jealous eyes are upon her, chiefly those of one who never had any cordial love to Jesus, who never had truly sympathized with the homage rendered Him, who held the bag, had got himself appointed keeper of the small purse they had in common, who already had been tampering with the trust, and greedily filching from the narrow stores committed to his care. Love, so ardent, consecration, so entire, sacrifice, so costly, as that of Mary, he could not appreciate. He disliked it, condemned it; it threw such a reproach by contrast upon his own feeling and conduct to Christ. And now to his envious, avaricious spirit it appears that he had good ground for censure. He had been watching the movements of Mary, had seen her bring forth the phial, had measured its size, had gauged the quantity, estimated the quality, and calculated the value of its contents. And now he turns to his fellow disciples, and whispers in their ears the invidious question, “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?” Three hundred pence, equal to the hire of a laborer for a whole year,—a sum capable of relieving many a child of poverty, or bringing relief to many a house of want. Had Judas got the money into his own hands, instead of being all lavished on this act of outward attention, had it been thrown into the common stock, it would have been upon the poor that it should have been spent. He would have managed that no small part of the money should have had a very different direction given to it. But it serves his mean malicious object to suggest that such might have been its destination. And by his craft, which has a show in it of a wise and thoughtful benevolence, he draws more than one of his fellow-apostles along with him, so that not loud but deep, the murmuring runs around the table, and they say to one another, “To what purpose is this waste? This ointment might have been sold for so much, and given to the poor.”
Mary hears the murmuring, sees the eyes of one and another turned askance and condemningly upon her, shrinks under the distracting criticism of the Lord’s own apostles, begins to wonder whether she may not have done something wrong, been guilty of a piece of extravagance which even Jesus may perhaps condemn. It had been hard for her before to bear the reproach of the twelve. But neither then nor now did she make an answer, offer any defense of herself. She did not need to. She had one to do that office for her far better that she could have done it for herself. Jesus is there to throw the mantle of His protection over her, to explain and to vindicate her deed. “Let her alone,” He said, “why trouble ye the woman? she hath wrought a good work upon me.” He might have singled out the first adverse criticizer of Mary’s act, the suggester and propagator of the censorious judgment that was making its round of the table. Then and there he might expose the hollowness, the hypocrisy of the pretense about his caring for the poor, upon which the condemnation of Mary was based. And doing so, He might have made the others blush that they had given such ready ear to a speech that such a mean and malignant spirit had first broached. He did not do this, at least He said nothing that had any peculiar and exclusive reference to Judas. But there must have been something in our Lord’s manner,—a look perhaps, such as He bent afterwards upon Peter in the judgment hall,—that let Judas know that before Jesus he stood a detected thief and hypocrite. And it was not to weep bitterly that he went forth from that supper, but with a spirit so galled and fretted that he took the earliest opportunity that occurred to him to commune with the chief priests and the temple guard as to how he might betray his Master, and deliver Him into their hands.
Loosing sight of him, let us return to Christ’s defense of Mary. “She hath done a good work,” he said, “a noble work, one not only far from censure, but worthy of all praise. She had done it unto Me, done it out of pure love—a love that will bring the best, the costliest thing she has, and think it no waste, but rather its fittest, worthiest application, to bestow it upon me.” Upon that ground alone, upon His individual claims as compared with all others, Jesus might well have rested His vindication of Mary’s act. Nay, might He not have taken the censure of her as a disparagement of Himself? All these His general claims,—which go to warrant the highest, costliest, most self- sacrificing services that an enthusiastic piet can render,—He in this instance is content to waive, fixing upon the peculiarity of His existing position and the specialty of the peculiar service that she had rendered, as supplying of themselves an ample justification of the deed that had been condemned. The claims of the poor had been set up, as if they stood opposed to any such expenditure of property as that made by Mary in the anointing of the Savior. It was open to Christ to say that it was an altogether needless, false, injurious conflict thus sought to be stirred up,—as if to give to Him, to do anything for Him, were to take so much from the poor; as if no portion of the great fund of the church’s wealth was available for any purely devout and religious purpose till all the wants of the poor were met and satisfied—the wants, be it remembered, of such a kind that though we supplied them all today, would emerge in some new form tomorrow—wants which it is impossible so to deal with as wholly permanently to relieve. He is no enlightened pleader for the poor who would represent them and their necessities as standing in the way of the indulgence of those warm impulses of love to Christ, out of which princely benefactions, as well as many a deed of heroic self-sacrifice, cerping, disparaging,—has often even crept into the Christian society, and men bearing the name of Jesus have often been ready, when donations on behalf of some strictly religious enterprise were spoken of, to condemn them off-hand on the one ground, that it would have been much better had the money been bestowed upon the poor.
It is, however, as has already been said, upon somewhat narrower ground that Christ vindicates the act of Mary. It was one of such personal attention to Him as could be shown to Him only while He was present in the flesh. “The poor,” said He, “ye have with you always, and whensoever ye will, ye may do them good, but me ye have not always.” Further still, it was one that but chance only in all His earthly life could be shown to Jesus, for “in that she hath poured this ointment on Me, she is come beforehand to anoint My body for the burial.” Had Mary any definite idea that she was doing beforehand what Joseph and Nicodemus would have no time and opportunity for doing, what the two other Mary’s would go out to do to find only that the need for its being done was over and gone? It may be assuming too much for her to believe that with a clearer insight and a simpler faith in what Jesus had said than had been yet reached by any of the twelve, she anticipated the death and burial of her master was near at hand. But neither can we think that she acted without some vague presentiment that she was seizing upon a last opportunity, that the days of such intercourse with Jesus were drawing to an end. She knew the perils to which He would be exposed whenever He entered Jerusalem. She had heard Him speak of His approaching sufferings and death. To others the words might appear to be without meaning, or only to be allegorically interpreted, but the quick instinct of her deeper love had refused to regard them so, and they had filled her bosom with an infinite dread. The nearer the time for loosing, the more intense became the clinging to Him. Had she believed as the others around her did, had she looked forward to a speedy triumph of Jesus over all His enemies, and to the visible erection of His kingdom, would she have chosen the time she did for the anointing? Would she not have reserved to a more appropriate to the crowning of a new monarch than the preparing of a living body for the tomb? In speaking as He did, Jesus may have been only attributing to Mary a fuller understanding of and a simpler faith in His own prophetic utterances than that possessed at the time by any of His disciples. Such a conception of her state of mind would elevate Mary to a still higher pinnacle than that ordinarily assigned to her, and we can see no good reason for doubting that it was even so.
But it does not require that we should assign to her any such pre-eminence of faith. It was the intensity of the personal attachment to Jesus that her act expressed which drew down upon it the encomium of the Lord. Thus He had to say of it what He could say of so few single services of any of His followers—that in it she did what she could, did all she could—in that direction there was not a step further that she could have taken. Of all like ways and forms of expressing attachment there was not a higher one that she could have chosen. Her whole heart of love went out in the act, and therefore Jesus said of it, “Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her,”—the one and only case in which Jesus ever spoke of the after earthly fame of any service rendered to Him, predicting for it such a wide-spread reputation and such an undying remembrance. Thus said Chrysostom, when discoursing upon this instance, “While the victories of many kings and generals are lost in silence, and many who have founded states and reduced nations to subjection, are not known by reputation or by name, the pouring of ointment by this woman is celebrated throughout the whole world. Time hath passed away, but the memory of the deed she did hath not waned away. But Persians and Indians and Scythians and Thracians, and the race of the Mauritanians, and they who inhabit the British Isles, publish abroad an act which was done in Judea privately in a house by a woman”. Fourteen hundred years have passed and gone, since in the great church of St. Sophia at Constantinople, Chrysostom uttered these words, referring to the British Isles, as one of the remotest places of the then known world. The centuries that have rolled by since then have witnessed many a revolution. Still wider and wider is the tale of Mary’s anointing of her master being told, the fragrance of the ointment spreading, yet loosing nothing of its sweetness, such fresh vitality, such self-preserving power, lodging in a simple act of pure and fervid love.
One single parting glance let us cast upon our Savior as He presents Himself to our eye upon this occasion. He sits at a festive board. He is surrounded by men looking joyously forward to days and years of success and triumph. But He knows what they do not—that on that day of the week His body will be lying in the new-made sepulcher. And He accepts the anointing at Mary’s hand as preparing His body for the burial. He sits the invited guest of a man who had been a leper, surrounded in that village home by a few humble followers. With serene eye he looks down into the future, and abroad over the earth, and speaks of it as a thing of certainty that this Gospel—the Gospel of glad tidings of salvation in His name—was to be preached throughout the whole world. If it be true that Jesus thought and felt and spoke and acted as the Evangelists represent Him as having done that night, I do not seed to say how vain the attempt to explain away His knowledge of the future, to reduce it to the dimensions of the highest human wisdom sagaciously anticipating what was afterwards to occur.