Each night during the last week of His life Jesus is staying in Bethany, a village about an hour’s walk from Jerusalem (Matt. 21:17), probably because the Holy City, filled to the brim with Passover pilgrims, has few vacancies. According to John 12:1–8, the event described in today’s passage takes place in the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, friends of our Lord in Bethany. Mary is the woman who anoints Christ. Since Matthew 26:6 tells us the residence belongs to Simon the leper (most likely a former leper), a number of commentators have surmised that Simon is the father of the three siblings who also live there. Luke records a different, comparable anointing in Galilee (7:36–50).
Mary’s ointment (oil) is worth three hundred denarii (John 12:5), a year’s wage for most first-century Palestinians, indicating that she means to honor the Lord with all that she has when she pours oil on Him (Matt. 26:7). The costly substance is held in an “alabaster flask,” a thin-necked container made from marble. When Mary snaps off the neck of the flask to anoint the Savior, she may intend to mark Him off as the Messiah, since it was commonplace to anoint the kings of Israel (1 Sam. 16:13). It is doubtful that she is aware of the significance Jesus sees in her service (Matt. 26:12), but our Lord’s reference to His burial indicates that His passion is foremost in His mind. This explains His rebuke to His disciples over their concern that Mary has anointed Jesus instead of selling the anointing oil for the sake of the poor (vv. 8–10). Their concern for the impoverished is not wrong, but their priorities are. Jesus is about to leave their presence physically in His death, resurrection, and ascension. His time is short; thus, Mary’s one last act of love before Jesus goes to the cross is not misplaced (v. 11).
It is easy to adopt self-righteously the disciples’ outlook and think it always wrong to use church funds for things other than feeding the poor. Yet God’s desire for beauty in worship (Ex. 28:2) and Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:10–13 show that spending money on church buildings and other such things is not inappropriate. Still, as the poor among us are easily overlooked, helping them must always be one of the highest priorities in the church (Prov. 14:21, 31).
Notably, Jesus says that Mary will be remembered on account of the great service she provided to the Lord. Matthew Henry writes, “The honor of Christ is principally intended in the gospel, yet the honor of his saints and servants is not altogether overlooked.” Though we could by no means ever deserve it, God has chosen to honor those who serve Him. We may feel like a dishonored people now, but our exaltation is sure to come if we serve Jesus faithfully.
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