Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
In the book On Calvary’s Hill, Max Lucado opens his second meditation with these words, “She was the only one who believed him.”1
I want to stop there before I explain who he is talking about and why those words have significance. “She was the only one who believed him.” Any survivor of abuse, any sufferer of agony, anyone with a story to tell that makes others uncomfortable can readily understand why those words carry enormous weight. To be believed is to be considered worthy of someone’s trust. To be believed is to be received as honest. To be believed is to be taken seriously. To be believed is to be seen and heard. To be believed is to be told, “Your story matters.”
Lucado is referring to Mary of Bethany2 in his opening statement. Mary was the only one who believed Jesus about what was central to his purpose. What was it he said that was so vital to acknowledge with her belief? “Whenever [Jesus] spoke of His death, the others shrugged or doubted, but Mary believed” (italics mine).
No other friend of Jesus took him seriously enough to enter into the reality of impending death with him. Isn’t that what we most need when we are in agony—someone to enter into it with us, to hold it for us, to give space for our pain? The closest followers of Jesus utterly failed at this. Oh, they had grown serious when he brought up his fate. They had been solemn and surprised as he set his face to go toward Jerusalem. They had questioned his chosen path. But their greatest concern was who would be greatest in the kingdom of God. Talk about missing the point by a mile!
Those who knew Jesus best utterly failed at understanding that Jesus was talking about the real, physical outworking of his very purpose in coming to earth: death. He came to die. They hushed him and rebuked him and assured him when the topic came up. Yet, they did not do the one thing he needed—they did not really believe him.
But Mary! Here was a very different friend and follower! Mary believed Jesus enough to prepare him for his impending death. She didn’t just sympathize. She didn’t simply listen. She followed the fierce conviction of her belief right into the most powerfully prophetic act ever given to Jesus. Mary proclaimed the death of Christ in her powerful and prayerful pouring. She covered Jesus’s body, bestowing upon him an anointing which readied him for the redemptive act he had come to give.
Anointing oil is used throughout Scripture to set someone apart for a work or a task. It was given in the Old Testament to coincide with the Spirit’s presence falling upon someone, often a king or prophet. In the New Testament, it is used to symbolize the healing power of the Holy Spirit and the empowerment bestowed to operate in his gifts and calling. The Spirit had fallen on Jesus like a dove at his baptism, anointing him for ministry. Could we see Mary’s anointing of Jesus as a ministry of the Spirit, readying him for all that was ahead? His path would cost him everything. Mary believed him and she gave him all she had in order to prepare him, in body and spirit.
Lucado ends his meditation by describing the aroma of the anointing oil that filled the room when Mary anointed Jesus. “Wherever you go, the gesture spoke, breathe the aroma and remember one who cares.” There is a tradition that says that when Jesus hung on the cross and looked down at Mary, he could smell the anointing oil. This oil was a balm to his soul as his bloody, torn body heaved in torment.
Most of those Jesus entrusted his ministry to and shared life, love, and laughter with utterly misunderstood both him and his true purpose. How lonely to only be known for who your friends want you to be! Perhaps this is why we see so many women “getting” Jesus throughout his ministry. The women who financed his work, the women who learned from him—rabbi to student—the women who sought him in order to anoint him, the women who searched him out for healing for themselves and their loved ones. They knew something of what it was like to be seen for only what someone wanted from them, to be seen as less than they were as people.
Perhaps this is why it was mainly women (plus beloved, faithful John) who followed Jesus to the cross and stayed there. They refused to indulge their need to run from such horror because it would have meant abandoning him. They simply would not betray their friend, their Lord, their Savior. They knew what it was like to live under injustice and oppression. They did not leave him, even when it meant entering into his trauma with him. Perhaps believing him when he told them he would die readied them to remain when his word came true.
Mary believed him. And she prepared God for his greatest and most costly act of love.
A version of this blog post first appeared on SacredSnapshots.net on April 1, 2021.
Photo by Neal E. Johnson on Unsplash.
- Quotes taken from “Mary’s Extravagant Gift” in On Calvary’s Hill by Max Lucado
- In three of the gospels, it is recorded that Jesus was anointed at Bethany. In Mark, Jesus is anointed at Simon the leper’s house. In Luke, Jesus is anointed at a Pharisee’s house. Only in John is one of the instances of anointing attributed to Mary of Bethany. In Matthew and Mark, the anointing is of His head. In Luke and John, it is of His feet. Mary Magdalene has been associated with “the sinner” of Luke’s account and she is listed as being at the cross in John’s gospel. History and tradition have conflated who did the anointing and where they took place. In a poetic attempt, I am bringing together both the Mary who John says anointed Jesus in Bethany and the Marys who stood by Him on the cross.