Topical Scripture: Mark 14:1–9
Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue is one of the most iconic images in the world. Dedicated in 1931, the statue together with its pedestal stands 125 feet tall and weighs 635 metric tons. It has been listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The statue has survived two world wars and the worst of what the elements could muster. It saw nearly two million visitors last year. But the coronavirus pandemic forced authorities to close it to the public.
So Rio de Janeiro’s archbishop held a religious ceremony at the base of the statue in support of those affected by the pandemic, then the hashtag “Praying Together” was shone on it in multiple languages. And the statue is still visible across the region, a clear reminder that while its park may be closed, the one it honors is not.
Jesus promised us, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Right now, he is “at the right hand of God,” where he is praying for us (Romans 8:34).
The problem is, problems have a way of turning us from God when we need him most. My father was a Sunday school teacher before he fought in World War II, where he witnessed horrific atrocities. He did not attend church again, unable to reconcile his suffering with his faith.
Dad was not the first or the last. For many people, hard times in the world are hard times for their faith.
The truth is, however, the sicker we become, the more we need a doctor. The harder it is to pray, the more we need to pray. The harder it is to trust Jesus, the more we need to trust Jesus.
What makes it hard for you to worship Jesus today? What question, struggle, guilt, grief, or pain is living in your soul? What do you need to get past to come closer to your Lord?
In our spring series, as we watch Jesus change lives on the way to the cross, we meet today a woman who worshiped our Lord at great personal cost. From her we will learn three transformative life principles. Then we’ll decide whether to make her story our own.
Worship Jesus, whatever the cost (vv. 1–5)
Our text begins: “It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread” (v. 1a). As Passover began on Thursday evening, the event recorded in our text took place on Tuesday evening of Holy Week. Jesus had spent the day teaching in the temple, where he defeated the Pharisees and Sadducees in their attempts to discredit him (Matthew 21:23–22:46). He then exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders (Matthew 23).
As a result, “the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him” (v. 1b). This was because of his popularity: “for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people'” (v. 2).
Our text continues: “And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table . . .” (v. 3). Bethany was situated on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, two miles from Jerusalem. It was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and became Jesus’ home when he came to the Holy City (cf. John 11:1). He stayed in this town from Sunday evening through Wednesday evening of Holy Week.
“Reclining at table” describes the typical posture by which a meal was eaten in Jesus’ day. The “table” was a low platform, eighteen inches from the ground. The people would lean on their left elbow while eating with their right hand with their bodies stretched on the ground away from the table.
While Jesus and the other guests were eating, “a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly” (v. 3). John identifies her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (John 12:3). Her devotion to Jesus was already well-known, as when she sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha cooked the meal (Luke 10:38–42).
On this occasion, she came to Jesus with “an alabaster jar,” a flask with a long neck and no handles. The top was sealed to preserve its contents. In this case, the contents were “pure nard,” a perfume made out of oil taken from roots found in India and imported to the Middle East.
The origin and cost of transportation made this perfume “very costly,” as Mark notes. Such an expensive possession may have been a family heirloom or part of Mary’s dowry. She likely had kept it for many years, only now choosing to use it.
The text tells us that she “broke the flask and poured it over his head” (v. 3). The fact that she “broke” the jar (syntripsasa, shattered, crushed, broke into pieces) rather than removing the top shows the depth of her commitment. She clearly did not intend to keep any of the perfume for herself, using it all to anoint Jesus. She shattered the jar, so that it could not be repaired to be used again.
When Mary made her great sacrifice, “There were some who said to themselves indignantly, ‘Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.’ And they scolded her” (vv. 4–5).
A typical worker received one denarius per day, so “three hundred denarii” was roughly a year’s worth of wages. Their statement lends credence to the theory that Mary’s perfume was a family heirloom.
Mary made her gift of worship at great personal cost, both in financial and in social terms. She received the ridicule of those present for offering a gift of extravagance that is hard for us to comprehend.
There are times when worshiping Jesus comes at a price today as well. I’ve met Christians in Cuba who paid for their faith by being assigned the worst jobs by the government. Their children are sent to the worst schools and given the worst military assignments. Some have been jailed or worse.
I’ve met Christians in China who must worship in secret lest the government censure and censor their messages and their faith. I’ve met Muslim converts to Jesus who risk their lives to follow their Lord.
What price will you pay to follow Jesus? Will you risk the rejection of others by sharing your faith with them? Will you give Jesus the sacrifice of your time, your talents, your resources?
C. S. Lewis was asked how much we should give for benevolent purposes. His answer: “More than we can spare.” When last did it cost you something significant to follow your Lord?
Worship Jesus whether you understand him or not
Now our text moves closer to our circumstances today.
Jesus’ response was swift: “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (vv. 6–8).
Jesus’ statement in no way minimizes his commitment to the poor. Scripture consistently calls us to care for the impoverished (cf. Deuteronomy 10:18; 15:7–8; Psalm 9:9; 72:12; Proverbs 22:22–23). Caring for the poor is an essential element of Christian ministry (cf. James 2:15–17; 1 John 3:17–18).
Rather, his point was that Mary made a sacrifice that was especially significant on this Tuesday evening: “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (v. 8). Anointing a body with spices and perfumes for burial was customary in Jesus’ day (cf. Luke 24:1). He had been predicting his death and resurrection, but his disciples still did not understand his warning. Mary’s action was a foreshadowing of the sacrifice our Lord would soon make for us all.
So, here she is on this Tuesday evening. Jesus has been disputing with the religious authorities all day. He has been telling his disciples that he would soon be betrayed and executed. Mary could not pick a less logical time to identify publicly with him or make an extravagant offering to him. But she gave him her sacrificial gift out of love, not logic.
There is so much about the pandemic that we do not understand. I cannot explain why our sovereign Lord has allowed this crisis. I don’t know why he heals some and not others. But I do know this: he knows what I do not. As his word states, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9).
Even Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). When his disciples met the risen Lord “they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).
If we must understand God fully to worship him, we’ll never worship him. Much about the Christian faith cannot be understood before it is experienced. It’s like marriage or parenting—you can study it, but you cannot understand it until you experience it.
Therefore, the harder it is to worship Jesus, the more we need to worship Jesus.
Worship Jesus, knowing your present obedience will bear eternal significance (v. 9)
Our text concludes with Jesus’ statement: “Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). Mary’s action pointed to the “gospel,” the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As that message was told, her sacrifice would be included. Jesus’ prediction came true in the Gospels of Mark and John, as they preserved Mary’s story for all time.
Note that from the beginning, Jesus intended his gospel to be preached “in the whole world.” Christianity has always been a global movement (Matthew 28:19), inclusive of both Jews and Greeks (Galatians 3:26–29).
If you will honor Jesus publicly with your sacrificial service, he will use your obedience to advance his kingdom in ways you cannot imagine. This is because you cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.
In these hard days, our Lord is calling us to follow Mary’s example by worship, serving, and trusting Jesus whatever the cost, whether we understand him or not, knowing that our present obedience will bear eternal significance.
Several years ago, I had an experience that brings our text home for me.
Louie Giglio is known internationally for his ministry to young adults. In 2003, he was holding a rally in the Dallas area that mobilized more than twenty-five thousand college students for the gospel.
The day before, horrific thunderstorms attacked the farm where the event was staged. The students’ tents were blown away; many had to sleep in their cars or on gym floors; electricity failed; the field was a mud pit.
Louie began the rally the next day by recounting in detail all the students had endured. I thought he was going to thank them for their perseverance and suffering. Instead, he pointed his finger at the huge crowd and said, “And our God is worth all of that.”
When last did it cost you something significant to serve Jesus? What price will you pay to glorify your Lord this week?