Excerpt from Reprint 2743

Mary of Bethany

“Let her alone: against the day of my burying she hath kept this.” —John 12:1-8

BETHANY, the home city of Lazarus (whom our Lord raised from the dead) and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, was quite near to Jerusalem, and with them Jesus decided to spend his last Sabbath Day. We may presume that the day was happily spent according to the observance of the Sabbath required by the Jewish Law; but the narrative, passing over the events of the day unnoticed, draws special attention to the feast or supper made for our Lord in the evening, after sundown, when the Sabbath was considered ended, and the first day of the week beginning.

This feast was at the house of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. We remember that on the occasion of a previous visit to this home, our Lord was entertained, and Mary became so absorbed in listening to the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth that for the time she neglected the ordinary affairs of life. Her more practical sister commented upon the fact, which brought forth our Lord’s declaration to the effect that while service is quite acceptable and appreciated, fellowship is still more appreciated—“Mary hath chosen that good [better] part.”—Luke 10:42

The two sisters had the enviable privilege of serving the Lord and ministering to his comfort in the feast of our lesson, just before the agonies which closed his earthly life. As before, so now, the service of the two sisters took somewhat different form, but probably this time by mutual agreement and prearrangement; Martha herself served the table with others assisting, and Mary was left free to render her peculiar service, of which this lesson is a memorial.

From some source she had procured a valuable alabaster vase of choice perfume. She had either purchased the vase, and manufactured the perfume herself, at great expense of time, or had spent for its purchase a considerable sum of money. She had anticipated our Lord’s coming, and had fully arranged matters so that at this feast she might treat him in a manner in which very few except the worldly great were ever treated. Kings and emperors were thus anointed with perfume, but very rarely indeed could others afford such a luxury. The facilities for manufacturing perfume then were quite inferior to what they are now, and even if the perfume were of home manufacture and of fine quality, the cost in time, would be great. The perfume would be so valuable that it was usual to sell it to the very wealthy.

The feast had begun and Jesus, the disciples, and other guests were at the table, which according to eastern custom was long and narrow. The guests sat not upon chairs, but reclined full length upon couches or divans, with their heads extending over the table and their feet extending back. While Martha and her associates were serving, Mary came forward and, breaking the seal upon her alabaster vase, she began to pour the precious perfume upon our Lord’s head. Subsequently, as John’s record of the matter informs us, she went to our Lord’s feet and she poured some of it upon them, and wiped them with the hair of her head.

Mary’s affection for our Lord was so deep and so strong that it could not be satisfied with any of the ordinary methods of expression. If the kings of earth were perfumed and anointed, much more did she esteem it fitting that her friend, her Lord, the Messiah, should be anointed with the best that she could procure for him. She would give expression to the rich sentiments of her heart by giving him the finest and most costly of sweet natural odors. Our Lord appreciated the matter fully—the sweet odor of the heart which prompted the act, still more than the sweet odors which filled the entire house.

But one of the disciples, more selfish and less able to appreciate Mary’s true sentiments, and the propriety of their expression in this form, found fault with her. The records show that this was Judas, the treasurer of the little company, whose disappointment was great that the value of this ointment did not find its way into his moneybag.

Let us not forget to note clearly and distinctly the wide difference between love and selfishness, as exemplified in the opposite courses of Mary and Judas. Mary, full of burning devotion, was willing to sacrifice much to honor, comfort, and please her Lord. Judas not only was unwilling to sacrifice on his behalf, but on the contrary, was willing to sell him to his enemies for thirty shekels—the price of a slave. Not only so, but the devotion of the one seemed not to impress the other favorably, but rather the reverse. The devotion of Mary and our Lord’s approval of it, seem to have aroused the opposite spirit in Judas, for he went straightway to negotiate with the chief priests for our Lord’s betrayal into their hands.

It would appear from the Greek text, and the rendering of the same in the Revised Version, that Judas received the money for his work in advance: “They weighed unto him thirty pieces of silver.” (Matt. 26:15, RSV) He completed the contract; he sold himself to work evil, and that against his benefactor, his Lord, of whose power he was fully conversant, and of which, indeed, he had received so abundantly that he himself had been enabled to heal the sick and cast out devils. How strange that any could be so perverse! No doubt he had a way of reasoning the matter to himself which made his crime appear to him less heinous than it does to us.

Yet these climaxes of character are not reached suddenly. Mary’s love had been growing from the first; it, was greatly strengthened by her course in sitting at the Master’s feet and receiving from him spiritual nourishment. Our Lord declared this to be a still better part or course than that pursued by her sister, though the latter was not disapproved. Mary’s faith and love had been still further increased as she witnessed the Lord’s power in various ways, and especially at her brother’s awakening from the tomb. She had cultivated this love and appreciation for the Lord until it filled her entire heart, and found its expression in the costly libation which she had just poured upon his head and his feet.

Judas, on the other hand, had long been permitting the spirit of selfishness to more and more intrude upon his heart. He had permitted himself to think of what money would do, and had given his thought largely toward its accumulation. It had fettered his soul, so that he was unable to appreciate the Lord’s character. Even though he knew him intimately from daily association, he was unable to measure anything except from a monetary standpoint. And these bands of selfishness gradually grew so hard and tight about his heart that they squeezed out everything of character, of love, devotion and friendship. And thus gradually he came to be the representation of, and his name the synonym for, the grossest of ingratitude and meanness, selfishness, and treachery.

One lesson for us here is to cultivate love and the appreciation of whatsoever things are just, good, lovely, and pure; and to fight down and eradicate so far as possible, especially from our own hearts and lives, everything selfish, mean, ignoble, dishonorable.

Beloved Mary! We can perhaps imagine to some extent the emotions which filled her heart as she prepared this costly expression of her devotion, the sentiment of which she hoped others would appreciate. But now, on the contrary, she beholds the indignation of her friends and guests, the Master’s nearest companions. Her heart sinks within her as she fears the Lord himself will view the matter in a similar light, and reject and disapprove her libation. What a load is lifted from her heart when she hears our Lord pronouncing her work a noble deed, and reproving his disciples for lack of sympathy in her sentiment, telling them that this perfuming of his body was in preparation for his burial. It was probably in the midst of this discussion of the matter between Jesus and the apostles that Mary, having anointed his head with the perfume began to anoint his feet also, wiping them with her hair.

Probably Mary had no thought of perfuming our Lord’s body for burial, and his words to this effect would be as astonishing to her as to the others who heard them. It was customary with the ancients to spend considerable care and money upon the persons of their dead in preparing them for burial. Sweet spices and perfumes were lavishly bestowed, just as today it is the custom to provide handsome caskets and many and expensive flowers, and fine monuments, as expressive of the love and appreciation in which the dead are held by their friends.

In Mary’s conduct in the pouring of the precious perfume upon the Savior while he was yet living, we have a most excellent suggestion in respect to the proper course to be pursued toward those we love. It is far, far better that we should unstop our alabaster vases of perfume and pour them upon the heads and upon the weary feet of our friends while still they live, than that we should wait until they have expired and then give our attention to the cold, inanimate and unappreciative corpse. Our alabaster boxes are our hearts, which should be full of the richest and sweetest perfumes of good wishes, kindness and love toward all, but especially toward the Christ. Our love must be poured out toward the Head of Christ—our Lord Jesus—and toward all the members of his body, the church. And especially on our part, we must show our love toward all the members who are now with us, and on whom we now have the privilege of pouring out the sweet odors of love and devotion in the name of the Lord, and because we are his.

The poet writes:

How oft we, careless, wait
‘Til life’s sweet activities are past,
And break our alabaster box of ointment
At the very last!

O, let us heed the living friend,
Who walks with us life’s common ways,
Watching our eyes for looks of love,
And hungering for a word of praise!

The heart of each truly consecrated child of God is like the alabaster vase—a receptacle for the Holy Spirit, the spirit of love, the choicest perfume and most precious to the Lord and to men. It is expensive because it cannot be gathered rapidly, but requires patient perseverance in well-doing to be filled with all the fullness of God. Again, it is like Mary’s vase in that it gives forth its odor not before, but after the seal is broken and the contents poured forth. It differs from hers, however, in the fact that it may be continually poured out and yet its fullness all the while increases.

So then, let the Marthas serve the Lord in one way and the Marys pour out their most precious spikenard perfume, assured that neither service will be forgotten. Both stories have been told for nineteen centuries, as memorials to their praise, testimonies of their love, which the Lord appreciated and accepted.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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