“While he was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured it on his head.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
At various times in the church’s history, there have been certain places the current culture of the church expected believers not to go. For a long time in our fairly recent past, one of those places were bars. It was simply understood that Christians in good standing didn’t go into bars. Those were places of sin and you didn’t want to be associated with that. Of course, cultural expectations and personal behaviors are two different things. And, when desired behaviors and cultural expectations aren’t in sync for some reason, the result is often a twisted mess of hypocrisy and deception. That’s a sermon for another time. Starting as early as the 1970s and accelerating from there, some young believers began to have entirely different attitudes as to what was and wasn’t appropriate for followers of Jesus to do. Alcohol gradually became one of the things they were okay with where their parents and grandparents were not. One of the consequences of this was that they began to see places like bars as fair game for ministry. Some even went so far as to plant churches in them. Well, plunking the Gospel down in a place most folks don’t expect to find it can lead to some interesting, but powerful, ministry encounters. That’s what we see here as we continue in Mark’s story about Jesus’ life.
There are several interesting things going on in this one verse. Most notably out of the gate was Jesus’ host’s title. Simon the leper. Now, the word leprosy in both Greek and Hebrew was used to cover a range of possible skin diseases. This means Simon may or may not have actually had leprosy. That being said, the net result of the label would have meant Simon was unclean. People who were at all concerned about their standing before God, to say nothing of their standing in the community, would not have had anything to do with such a person. To be in his presence was to risk becoming unclean yourself by way of accidentally making contact with him or even merely something he had touched. In addition to all the social and spiritual problems that would cause, it was powerfully inconvenient.
Yet here was Jesus and His whole crew not only staying at his house, but dining at his table. This would have been scandalous. But Jesus never cared about being scandalous when it came to capitalizing on Gospel-advancing opportunities. Social conventions – which is what the unclean moniker had become regardless of what was outlined in the Law of Moses – meant nothing at all to Him in comparison with the chance to love someone the world generally didn’t esteem very highly. Sometimes He did things like this almost by accident when He got all caught up in loving someone who needed it. Other times He did it very intentionally in ways He knew would get the attention of the folks He was trying to confront with the greater truth of the Gospel. Seeing this title given to His host here just reminds us once again of Jesus’ unfailing love for the least, last, and lost. He consistently elevated the status and place of those the world around Him wrote off as worthless and unimportant.
Considering the identity of Jesus’ host here, though, forces us to think a bit more fully about where this story appears in Mark’s Gospel and of its parallels in the other Gospels. Matthew repeats the same story. Luke doesn’t include this encounter, but include another similar episode earlier in his narrative. John does include what is probably the same episode (at least, it appears in about the same point in the chronology of Jesus’ final days), but he includes details that are strikingly different from what Mark relates. This, of course, raises the often insistent question of Gospel harmony. How do we take all these different stories and construct what actually happened?
This is a much bigger question than I’m going to be able to answer comprehensively this morning. There are some very good resources that do tackle it in a great deal more detail than I will offer here and now. I would be glad to point you in their direction if you are interested. That being said, a word or two here would no doubt be helpful. Matthew and Mark are obviously telling the same story. Their placement of the story in their shared chronology, however, probably does not reflect its exact location relative to its context. That is, this probably didn’t happen the day before the Last Supper as a straight reading of the narrative suggests. It likely happened earlier in the week, but by telling about it here, they gave readers an immediate understanding of what may have driven Judas to finally betray Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (more on that next week). In the culture of the day, the exact historical sequence of some events could be fudged a bit for the sake of advancing the narrative. The wiggle room here wasn’t infinite, but was bigger than we usually allow today. Episodes like this are similar to the way flashbacks function in modern stories. Sometimes you have to look back a bit to understand the present.
As for Luke’s similar episode (Luke 7:36-50), I believe that is an entirely different encounter. The timing in Jesus’ narrative and the context of the event are sufficiently different that I don’t think it’s even worth trying to figure out how to resolve the many points at which they depart from one another. John’s, however, is a different matter (John 12:1-8). I suspect John was telling the same story but with details Mark and Matthew didn’t include in their tellings. The reasons for this could be many. For instance, John was writing back to his church in Ephesus. It may be that he had spent time telling that audience about Jesus’ relationship with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary and so included details about their presence in his telling that the other two didn’t see as relevant for their respective audiences.
In any event, with the exception of Jesus’ anointing being in two explicitly different places, none of the other details of the respective presentations are mutually exclusive of one another. For instance, Mark notes the host was Simon the leper. John doesn’t mention him, but also doesn’t say Lazarus and his sisters hosted the event. Even the anointing location isn’t necessarily a contradiction. Mark and Matthew mention only the head and John mentions only the feet, but that doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t anointed on both His head and his feet. Given the way people reclined at tables in that culture, His feet would have been the first thing Mary could access. Perhaps she started with His feet, but made her way to His head. Her going that close to Him to perform this incredibly intimate act would have been more scandalous than her anointing His feet and so that’s what Mark noted in his telling. That was a quick review, but I hope it brings a little more clarity on the harmony of the Gospels for you than you had before.
The other interesting thing here is the anointing itself. As I just said, this would have been scandalous. For Mary to do this to Jesus at all would have been shocking to everyone in attendance. That Jesus allowed her to proceed once she made clear her intentions would have shocked them all even more. No self-respecting rabbi would have allowed a woman to whom he was not married to have this kind of access to his body. Some teachers in that day were known as the bruised and bleeding rabbis because of their practice of going around with their eyes covered so they didn’t accidentally look at a woman other than their own wife. And here Jesus was letting this woman perform this display of affection in public. I wonder some if part of the reason Judas griped about the cost of the perfume was to break the tension in the room. No one wanted to criticize the act itself even though it was making them deeply uncomfortable, so they went after the cost of the object instead.
Speaking of the cost, we learn a couple of verses over from this that the perfume Mary used was fantastically expensive. Three hundred denarii would have been about a year’s worth of wages. Given that it was sealed in an alabaster jar, there’s a good chance this perfume was a family heirloom that had been passed down over multiple generations. Saving the the amount of money necessary to purchase something like this would have taken the average person a whole lifetime. Aside from its cost, it is identified as “pure nard.” Typically, the purer something fragrant is, the stronger its fragrance will be. And, when that odor has been bottled up for a long time as this may have been, it’s going to come out of its case in an even more concentrated burst. If you’ve ever spilled a little bit of perfume, you know how strong that smell was. Here, Mary broke open the jar and emptied its entire contents on Jesus. You could probably smell Jesus from 50 yards away after this. The whole house would have been overwhelmed by the odor. This would have been an incredibly sensory experience. It got everyone’s attention. Every part of it did. And Jesus just allowed it to happen.
That brings us to the question of what any of this has to do with us. Is this anything more than simply a detail in the sequence of Jesus’ final events before the cross? I think it brings us a reminder of two things. First, we see the extravagance of Jesus’ love. He was willing to love those the culture around Him hated no matter who they were. If we don’t follow suit, we aren’t following His example well. The church should be the place where the least, last, and lost can be embraced with a love they can’t find anywhere else. The church should be where the ups and the outs can find common ground at the foot of the cross. The Fortune 500 CEO can worship and serve right alongside the local grade school janitor, the police officer can sing God’s praises alongside the recovering (or even not quite yet recovering) addict, because they are brothers and sisters in Christ with the same value to the kingdom regardless of what the world might see or say.
Second, even as Jesus is willing to show extravagant love to us, He is willing to receive extravagant love from us. The focus here isn’t on the size of the gift, but the sacrifice behind it. When it comes to making sacrifices that honor Jesus, the sky’s the limit. We can make sacrifices to show love to Him that the world around us thinks are insane, and He will receive them gladly and graciously. He will love us right back with the same sacrificial ferocity. In fact, He already has. This doesn’t mean every single thing we do for or bring to Jesus needs to shoot the moon, but sometimes they can. Sometimes they must. And that’s okay. He’s worth it. When we are willing to live in and with His love, that’s a very good place to be indeed.