May 13, 2007

The Anointing at Bethany

Mark 14:1–9

When a woman poured an entire flask of expensive perfume on Jesus, people were disgusted by what seemed like a waste. But Jesus reacted in a different way. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Mark to reflect on this woman’s extravagant devotion.


Let us turn our attention once more to the gospel according to Saint Mark, where this morning we begin chapter 14. I will be reading Mark 14:1–9. So, I ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

After two days it was the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take Him by trickery and put Him to death. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar of the people.”

And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they criticized her sharply.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”

The inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God has just entered our ears. May it pierce our hearts as well. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father and our God, we look to You and summon Your help that we have this text illumined for our understanding by the Holy Spirit of truth, that the things contained in this narrative may awaken our souls to a deeper devotion to Christ, who is the subject of this passage. For we ask these things in His name. Amen.

The Passion of Christ

Last week, we finished our all-too-brief study of the Mark 13, which contained the Olivet Discourse. Of the prophecies included in it, the final one had to do with the coming of Jesus in clouds of glory, a coming that would indicate a note of triumph in His ministry. In that sense, chapter 13 ends on a very high plane of exaltation toward Jesus. Suddenly, the mood of the gospel changes dramatically from chapter 13 to chapter 14.

Chapter 14 is the longest chapter we have in the entire gospel of Mark, and it focuses on what theologians have called in church history the passio magnum of Christ, His grand or great passion. The word passion in this sense is rooted in the concept of suffering. When we say we have a passion for something, we do not usually mean it causes suffering for us. Rather the term passion in our ordinary usage indicates something about which we have strong feelings. That idea is borrowed from the usage we are talking about because the suffering of Jesus, His passion, was one that elicited intense pain and feelings of agony in His soul and His body.

There is a certain foreshadowing, an ominous tone introduced to the gospel at the beginning of chapter 14 that prepares the reader for the transition in the life of our Lord as He begins to fully enter His suffering.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread

Let us look at the text. It begins in verse 1: “After two days it was the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.” Two days after the Olivet Discourse, these two important moments in the Jewish calendar took place. It is ironic that Jesus’ entering His passion, His great suffering, coincided with the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

The most important feast of Old Testament Judaism was the celebration of the Passover. It commemorated God’s deliverance of His people from the hand of the Egyptians and His sparing the children of Israel from the angel of death or vengeance that was visited upon the Egyptians. God instructed them to smear the blood of a lamb on the doorposts so that any house marked by the blood would escape the judgment being visited upon the Egyptians.

God instructed the Jews to celebrate their deliverance with an annual feast. The terms of the consumption of food included the drinking of wine to remind them of the bitterness of their experience in bondage and the slaying of a lamb that was to be sacrificed in the afternoon and consumed as food in the evening.

The Jews were also commanded to celebrate this event with a feast using unleavened bread. The reason the bread was unleavened was because of the historic circumstances of the Passover. God commanded the people to be ready to move not just out of their homes but out of the nation to follow His guidance in the Exodus. At a moment’s notice, with haste, they had to leave. They did not have time to allow the yeast to rise in their bread, so they used unleavened bread.

Sometimes when we read in the New Testament about the celebration of Passover, we can get confused because Passover was observed for an entire week. Sometimes when it refers to Passover, it refers to the whole week, or it can refer to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which took place over a long weekend but not the entire seven days. Then the specific celebration of the Passover meal took place in one afternoon and evening. Sometimes the reference to Passover is to that single day, other times to the entire week, and still other times to the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Regardless, it is fitting that in terms of the history of redemption, the Lamb of God should enter His suffering as He is about to be slain, that by His blood the judgment of God would pass over His people. So, Mark tells us that it was Passover, it was the Feast of the Unleavened Bread.

The Plot to Kill Jesus

“The chief priests and the scribes”—not the Pharisees, but those who were the members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews—“sought how they might take Him by trickery and put Him to death.”

So, the Sanhedrin joined together to hatch a plot. They sought first to figure out how they could get a hold of Him, how they could take Him, how they could capture Him, not simply for the purpose of incarcerating Him, but so they could kill Him. That was their desire. That was their plan.

The rulers met together and figured out a plan, but they said among themselves, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar of the people.” As much as they wanted to get rid of Jesus, they still feared a popular uprising and were going to limit some of their plans with an eye out to public opinion.

Mary’s Costly Gift

Suddenly, the narrative changes. It is interrupted. It begins with the plot of the Sanhedrin to capture and execute Jesus, and then changes. Throughout his gospel, Mark uses what some would call a sandwich technique, where in the middle of a narrative he will sandwich in something else with direct relevance to the broader, longer narrative. We see the beauty of the sandwich he incorporates when he recounts what happened in Bethany with Mary.

We are told in verse 3 that Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper. Simon was a healed leper because lepers were not allowed to host dinner meals among the people, so we can only assume that Simon had been healed of leprosy, presumably by Jesus Himself. But in any case, Jesus was in Simon’s home having a meal, and “as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard.”

The woman is not identified by name in this text, but in John’s gospel, the woman is identified as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who lived in Bethany. We are told that the woman who remains unnamed in the text came with an alabaster flask, a bright white flask that would be of some value itself. But this flask contained a precious type of perfume, a very costly oil of spikenard. As we will see in a few moments, its value was worth over three hundred denarii.

Keep in mind that a denarius was typically one day’s wage in Israel. The people worked six days out of the week. They did not work or get paid on the seventh day. When you have over three hundred denarii of value, you are talking about a substance that cost a whole year’s salary. Imagine somebody today taking all the money that they make in a single year and buying a vessel filled with costly perfume.

The volume of the perfumed oil was at least twelve ounces, maybe even sixteen. If you buy precious perfume on Mother’s Day, top-of-the-line perfume, even an ounce can be very expensive. Think of a twelve or sixteen-ounce glass of something, and you will get the idea of how much perfume was being carried in this alabaster jar.

I might also add at this point something speculative. Most women who lived in that day did not make money like that in the marketplace. The alabaster flask of precious perfume was probably owned by the family, perhaps even a family heirloom. I am simply emphasizing the enormous cost of this substance and the flask.

Jesus Anointed

As they were seated, dining with Simon the leper in his house, Mary came in and interrupted the meal, which was also a violation of Jewish protocol and etiquette. The only time a woman was allowed to interrupt a meal of men was if she were serving the meal, not just coming in and visiting or interrupting the conversation.

Mary did not hesitate. She came in and did not just pour the ointment or perfume out of the alabaster flask, but she broke the flask and poured it, we are told, on His head.

One of the discrepancies people like to point out is that in John’s version and others it says that when Mary was finished, she wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. In Mark’s version, the focus of where Jesus is anointed is on His head. Which was it, His feet or His head? They were reclining at dinner, and it seems that one gospel writer tells us that He was anointed on His head, the other one on His feet.

When you consider the volume of perfume that the woman broke and poured on Jesus’ head, it did not just dab His hair. It covered His body head to toe. It was a minor bath of precious ointment or perfume that took place.

Anger at Wasted Money

We are told that when Mary did this, there were some who were indignant—that is, according to the Greek, they were not just annoyed or irked. Their irritation had risen to the level of fury when they witnessed what was happening. They were indignant among themselves, and they said, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted?” That was the protest: her use of precious perfume to anoint the Lord of glory entering His passion was considered a waste.

It is unbelievable, is it not? If they had any idea who was being anointed and why, if they had any sense of value whatsoever, the only question they would raise is why her woman’s gift was so small, let alone considered a waste. But you see, in the eyes of Jesus’ contemporaries, Mary’s act of devotion was an act of extravagance.

The irony in this chapter is interesting to me when we see this interlocked with the value that Jesus had to Judas, who sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. I do not know what the balance is between three hundred denarii and thirty pieces of silver, but in the same narrative, we hear of the devotion of one who gave extravagant love to Jesus at a heavy price and also the record of unspeakable treachery and betrayal at a price of thirty pieces of silver.

We read, “It might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” In other words, they said: “Why do you waste this money on Jesus? Why do you waste this money on adoration when there are hungry people? Just think what we could have done with those three hundred denarii. We could have taken care of so many poor people. What’s wrong with your sense of value?”

Some were angry about what could have been done with the money from the sale of the oil, and the anger even went further. It says, “And they criticized her sharply.” That term “sharply” in English is a vast understatement. If you have seen the portrayal in movies or the real thing of a bullfight, you see the matador stand in the center of the arena with his cape and sword, and he taunts the bull and says, “Toro, aquí, come on, bring it on, bull.” The bull paws the ground, and then you see the close-up of the bull where his nostrils flare in anger. That was the image used in this text.

The people were so angry at Mary for wasting the ointment that, in their criticism, their nostrils were flaring. You must be quite mad to start flaring your nostrils, but that is what Mark records for us.

The Poor with You Always

Hear now what Jesus, the Lord, said: “Let her alone.” Jesus said: “That’s enough. Be quiet. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always.”

Several years ago, I was invited to preach in the inner city of Cleveland, in the ghetto, in a church where the minister had been serving for twenty-five years. The church building itself was surrounded with all the signs of poverty, drugs, crime, and broken humanity.

The minister and I began to talk about the frustrations associated with his ministry, and he mentioned to me that he had several young assistant ministers who had come to work in that church straight out of seminary. He said that the average length of their stay was two years because they gave up in their frustration.

I asked, “They lasted two years, but you’ve been here twenty-five years. How do you account for that?” He answered, “Because of what Jesus said: ‘The poor you always have with you.’” I responded: “Wait a minute. That doesn’t compute. When I hear people quote that verse, ‘The poor you always have with you,’ it’s to justify ignoring the poor, having no concern for the poor, having no compassion for the ghetto. Yet that verse stimulates you to perseverance in this ministry in the ghetto. I don’t get it.”

He said: “Let me tell you the difference between my young assistants and me. My young assistants come out of seminary, stars in their eyes, filled with idealism. They’re going to come in like knights in shining armor and eradicate poverty. When they see that it doesn’t happen in two years, they’re burned out, and they leave. I knew when I came here that the poor were always going to be here, and that my mission was not to eradicate poverty but to minister to people who were in the midst of poverty.”

Jesus said: “The poor are always going to be here, and you will have manifold opportunities to minister to the poor, and that’s what I want you to do in My name. But right now, we’re in a time of crisis. My presence is limited to a very short term. She has done what she could.”

She Has Done a Great Work

Jesus could have amplified what He said to the guests around Him regarding the woman: “She doesn’t have the power to go over to the people in the Sanhedrin and stop their plot to execute Me. She doesn’t have that kind of power or influence. She can’t raise an army to defend Me. She’s powerless. She did all that she could do, and she didn’t come just to celebrate Me and adore Me; she came to anoint My body for burial.”

I have been reading in the paper today—Mother’s Day—about all the wonderful things that mothers do for their children, and that is true. What a debt all of us owe to our mothers. The older I get, the more I am moved by my understanding of the sacrifices my mother made for me at great cost to her, things I really took for granted, particularly as a youth. Yet my mother would not have counted those things as sacrifices. She wanted to do those things because she was a mother, and that is what mothers do. But this woman anointed Jesus for His burial.

We will see in future weeks the importance of His burial for the whole history of redemption and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Jesus’ body was not thrown into the garbage dump of Gehenna like executed criminals. The Father would not allow the Son’s body to see corruption. Not a bone of His body would be broken. Jesus was laid to rest in a rich man’s tomb. All of those things were of prominent importance in terms of Old Testament prophecy: “He made His grave with the rich because He had done no evil,” Isaiah said.

On Easter morning, what were the women doing? They were on their way to the tomb to complete the task of anointing the corpse of Jesus. But Mary had come earlier with her most priceless possession and gave all of it to anoint Him before He died. Beloved, this was one of the most sacrificial, extravagant, heart-rending gifts of all time. Jesus said, “She has done a good work for Me.”

Jesus ended this discussion with these words: “Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” He said: “I’m not going to let the world forget what you’ve just witnessed. What you’ve considered wasteful, I’m going to make sure the whole world hears about: this woman’s act of love, devotion, and sacrifice.” This was a great woman who did an extraordinary thing that we should applaud and emulate.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.