Updated: Apr 4
How Mary of Bethany helps prepare us for Easter.
“And 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
Shortly before Jesus’ death on the cross, Mary of Bethany did something that Jesus Himself called “beautiful.” While Jesus sat amongst His followers, Mary took an alabaster flask of ointment made of pure nard, broke open the flask, then poured the ointment over His head, as Matthew, Mark, and John each record. John’s Gospel tells us that Mary then proceeded to wash Jesus’ feet with her hair as the whole house began to be filled with the exquisite smell of this lavish perfume.
Mark records that some of the disciples rebuked Mary harshly for this. Mostly they were angry at her for “wasting” the ointment, which we are told was worth more than three hundred denarii: a value greater than an average annual salary at the time. “This could have been sold and given to the poor!” they protested. It was also quite scandalous for Mary to let down her hair to wash Jesus’ feet, because a woman letting her hair down in that culture conveyed a kind of intimacy typically reserved only for marriage.
As the disciples saw Mary’s extravagant display of devotion to Jesus, they were positively mortified. To them, she had been impractical, inconsiderate, and inappropriate. Jesus, however, insisted that Mary’s lavishness was quite proper: “Leave her alone!” He told them. “She has done a beautiful thing to me…she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And 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.”
It is good for us to remember Mary, not only for what she did for our Lord just before His death, but also because she shows us what a proper response to Jesus really looks like. Specifically, Mary teaches us that an appropriate response to Jesus is attentive, unconditional, and deeply personal.
First, Mary was attentive to Jesus. Having sat attentively to learn at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10:39), Mary clearly understood better than the disciples what was really going on. She had heard Jesus talk about His death and she rightly perceived what He was about to endure. Thus, it was Mary’s attentiveness that led her to take the proper action of anointing Jesus. She had listened attentively to Jesus, therefore she understood the significance of what was about to happen.
Second, Mary’s devotion to Jesus was unconditional. This is displayed most obviously by the fact that she gave up her most prized possession in order to honor Him. Most commentators agree that the alabaster flask was likely a family heirloom and easily the most expensive thing that Mary and her family owned. Yet, Mary willingly sacrifices the heirloom for Jesus’ sake.
But Mary’s devotion is displayed even further still by her washing of Jesus’ feet. This is something that most servants were not even asked to do, but Mary humbly lowered herself in order to care for Jesus this way. In other words, Mary was showing that there was nothing she wasn’t willing to do for Jesus.
Finally, Mary’s relationship with Jesus was deeply personal. By taking down her hair, Mary displays a kind of intimacy towards Jesus that was typically reserved for a spouse. By their religious and cultural standards, the disciples would have been right to be scandalized by this! But Mary understood that a proper response to Jesus requires this kind of intimacy. In all of these things, Mary was saying to Jesus, “There is nothing I will hold back from you.”
Just as Mary prepared Jesus for His burial, so her example helps prepare us for Easter by modeling how we should respond to Jesus: we must give Him our time and attention, our unconditional allegiance, and even our hearts. To many, such devotion may seem impractical: "couldn’t your time or money be better spent?” It may seem inconsiderate: “aren’t there more important things to worry about?” It may even seem inappropriate: “does God really require my unconditional devotion?”
But when we look at the cross, we see God’s devotion to us on complete display. When we look at the cross, we see that our God lavishly poured out His most precious possession for us: His only begotten Son (John 3:16). Indeed, when we look at the cross, we see God saying to us “there is nothing I will hold back from you.”
When we begin to truly grasp God’s character, the proper response to such love not only becomes clear but also inevitable: like Mary, we will become wholly devoted.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington, D.C.