What Did Mary Know?
In chapter 12 of John’s Gospel, Jesus is attending a party at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, whom he just raised in chapter 11. The party is going fine, when Mary shocks everyone. She pulls out an alabaster (likely modern day calcite) jar of fine perfuming oil called spikenard. Largely due to its likely origins in the Himilayas, it was extremely expensive. The jar contained about a pound of it, costing a year’s wages. She breaks the flask open, begins to pour it all over Jesus, head to toe, including his feet. If this weren’t scandal enough, she uncovers her hair, letting it fall free, so that she could wipe the excess up with it.
To the party’s guests, this was wrong on so many levels.
-The oil may have been her dowry, so in pouring it over Jesus, she was essentially declaring herself to be His.
-Given His teachings on frugality and compassion, such a treasure could be sold to help the poor. (This was the official reason given for the outrage, the others being so scandalous they could hardly be stated.)
-Perfume was used sparingly, just like today. A little goes a long way. She used a pound of it to cover His body. We’re not talking subtle here. Imagine taking a full bottle of perfume (just a couple of ounces) and upending it over your head. Everyone will notice…for days…from a distance…and stay there.
-A woman anointing a man like that was a somewhat intimate act, so to do it in front of party guests was, well, unexpected.
-Jewish rabbinic law indicated that washing someone’s feet was so humiliating, not even slaves were supposed to do it for their masters. Even in today’s Middle East, there are many social morays about feet.
-A woman never had her hair loose in public. Only a husband got to see his wife’s hair unbound. So Mary’s loosing it for Jesus in public was great scandal.
-Then, to take that hair and wipe His feet sent a flurry of confusing signals to the guests.
Mary humiliated herself and cast significant questions on Jesus in the minds of people from then until today. It is likely from this incident that rumors and speculations arose about Jesus and Mary having an intimate relationship.
There is no doubt that Mary and Jesus did have a unique relationship, but it was not sexual. She seemed to get to His heart in a way that no one else could. How? Why? Mary understood His divinity deeper and on a more intuitive level than anyone else. Because she knew Him as God incarnate, she worshipped Him in a deeper, purer, more spiritual, completely selfless way that embarrassed and shocked everyone around them, including and maybe especially those that also believed.
When we worship God, either privately or in church, most of us Americans in particular treat God as an uber-President—with respect, gratitude, a gentlemanly humility or a joyful abandon as one would with a victorious athlete. Not as peers, but with a pedestal not all that higher than ours. We maintain our self-respect, keep an appreciation in our self-worth, and hope no one will look down on us for putting ourselves lower than Him for a bit. We are fully aware of ourselves, even as we worship and honor Him.
Mary was different. Jesus was it. There were no others watching. To the extent she was there, it was only enough to give herself to Him. Her love and devotion to Him was beyond that for a betrothed. A dowry was economic surety for the marriage, you didn’t waste it in one go for a mere gesture. Her greatest treasure and brideprice was the very best she had to give Him.
Security wasn’t on her mind. Utter worship and devotion were all that mattered. Her single-minded focus on worshipping Him was exclusive and all compassing. There was no past family heritage, no future wedding bells. There was just now, and Jesus was there. This was the entirety of her universe.
As the scented oil flowed down Him to His feet, the only thing worthy of use to clean it was her hair. Paul says that a woman’s hair is her glory. It is only revealed to her husband. Yet Mary bared it, let it flow free and wiped His feet with it. This was extravagant intimacy, humility and surrender. No wife would do that for her husband—it was too demeaning—her glory used to do something too demeaning for slave’s work.
But for someone who recognized God in the flesh and recognized the vast difference in state between our humanity and His divinity, there was no more appropriate gesture. She didn’t value herself too little. The onlookers valued themselves too much and Christ too little. She understood what a true Messiah was—more than a miracle working military leader. Their Messiah would restore Israel’s glory. Her Messiah was glory personified. She got it.
A pound of spikenard. Why the whole thing? The only time so much would be used would be to prepare a dead body for burial. The Jews of the day used something like 75 pounds of a cocktail of spices, herbs, and perfumes in their burial rituals—to slow decay, to keep the family crypt from being so foul, as a disinfectant. Jesus, in His defense of her, declares she prepared Him for His burial.
Mary worshipped God, and honored and served the human vessel in which He lived, that it might not see the corruption of death through her protection of it with the perfume. And she did it while He yet lived and thrived. She did it with zero thought of her reputation. It was of so little value it didn’t exist compared to the opportunity of honoring Him.
I love myself far too much. I have surrendered my life to Christ, supposedly, but by looking at my life and actions, perhaps only to the extent ‘necessary’ to preserve myself through eternity. Until then, I am happy to do my own thing, live my own life, build my reputation in this world. I am afraid to have too much devotion for fear of what other humans might think. In fear I hide my faith from the folks around me who would benefit from its display most. I’m honestly not sure I would recognize Him if He passed me on the street or came to my Bible Study. I suspect I would try to compete with Him in trying to demonstrate understanding of Scripture. To the extent I did recognize Him, I’d want to be His partner, not His servant.
What did Mary know? She knew Jesus.
I’m not sure I do.