- Trefor Jones
Loving and honouring the creatives in our midst
Updated: Nov 9, 2021
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’ honour. 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.” (John 12:1-8)
Mary: role model for worship
There are different accounts in the gospels of Jesus being anointed by women: one account where Jesus’ feet were anointed with oil by a sinful woman (the suggestion being that she was a prostitute) Matthew 26:6-13. and. Luke 7:36-50. Once in Bethany by Mary the sister of Lazarus. One was held in very low regard and had probably lived a life of sin, the other was in high social standing and would have lived a righteous life.
Just prior to this chapter we learn that Jesus has brought Lazarus back from the dead. Jesus appears to have a special relationship with the three siblings: Lazarus, Martha and Mary and has visited them regularly.
“Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” (John 11:5 5)
We know that Martha is the practical one who in a previous visit, complains that her sister isn't helping her. Jesus sticks up for Mary (who in my mind is the younger of the sisters).
"Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Similarly it is practical Martha who goes out to meet Jesus after the death of Lazarus while Mary decides to stay at home. Now in the account we have just read, Martha is again preparing and serving the food while Mary is putting her mind to a higher task and is preparing a surprise for Jesus...anointing his feet.
Anointing in the Bible
Anointing the body or head with oil was a common practice with the Jews, (Ruth 3:3 ; Micah 6:15 )
Anointing the head with oil or ointment seems also to have been a mark of respect sometimes paid by a host to his guests. (Luke 7:46 , Psalm 23:5)
It was a rite of inauguration. Prophets were occasionally anointed to their office, (1 Kings 19:16 ) and were called messiahs, or anointed. ( 1 Chronicles 16:22 ; Psalms 105:15 )
Priests, at the first institution of the Levitical priesthood, were all anointed to their offices, (Exodus 40:15 ; Numbers 3:3 ) but afterwards anointing seems to have been specially reserved for the high priest, ( Exodus 29:29 ; Leviticus 16:32 ) so that "the priest that is anointed," (Leviticus 4:3) is generally thought to mean the high priest.
Anointing was the principal and divinely-appointed ceremony in the inauguration of the Jewish Kings. ( 1 Samuel 9:16 ; 10:1 ; 1 Kings 1:34 1 Kings 1:39 ) The rite was sometimes performed more than once.
David was anointed three times - mirrored in the gospel accounts with Jesus being anointed more than once.
Inanimate objects also were anointed with oil, in token of their being set apart for religious service. (Genesis 28:18)
It could be suggested that Mary was anointing Jesus as a prophet, as a high priest, as King and\ or as high priest.
It could also be argued that Mary was preparing Jesus for his burial as Jesus makes reference to the nard being ment for his time of burial.
In this prophetic act, Mary was predicting Jesus' death at the hands of those angry Jews gathering around Jesus after his resurrecting Lazarus from death. In the previous chapter we learn that some Jews want to kill Jesus. Martha would have been aware of this. This act by Martha could have been done in the knowledge that the Jews who were planning Jesus death would hear about it.
This account takes place in the town of Bethel (situated two miles away from Jerusalem). Interestingly, this was the place where there is the first mention of anointing in the Bible (Genesis 28: 18). Jacob anoints the stone on which he laid his head to sleep and had a vision of angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven. Those Jews present would have been aware of this and Martha's act of anointing Jesus feet mirrors Jacobs act in instigating and naming the place of Bethel.
Also brought to mind is the verse from Isaiah as Bethel is situated on the eastern slope of the mount of olives.
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" (Isaiah 52:7)
Mary may have realized one element of the significance of this prophetic act but not all of it.
Mary’s action had profound implications and significance far beyond that which its original audience would have appreciated.
The church needs Marys. Those quirky, spontaneus, creatives who don’t always conform to what is expected of them but follow their hearts. They engage in:
Acts of extreme gratitude towards Jesus.
Mary’s actions would have cost her a years wages.
They are sacrificial, extravagant and impulsive in their worship
Mary gave up something that would have been very precious.
They are unafraid to be undignified and humble in their worship.
It would be normal to anoint someone's head but Mary doesn't consider herself worthy to do this, but decides instead to anoint his feet. She unbound her hair (at the time a respectable woman did not unbind her hair in public). This could have been perceived to be shameful. She may have been copying the actions of the sinful woman (a prostitute) in doing this action of worship.
Cleaning someone's feet is the job of a servant. Wiping Jesus' feet with your hair, seems like an act of deliberate self abasement.
They engage in unselfconscious acts of worship that bless the whole body of Christ
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”
Traditionally it has been suggested that there may be a double meaning in this sentence. The whole church is filled with the sweet memory of this action. A lovely deed becomes the possession of the whole world. A prophetic action has a significance far beyond the understanding of the person performing it.
They are willing to suffer the criticism of others in their unrestrained worship of Jesus.
What does this mean for the church?
Some people are like Martha, some people are like Mary
As the people of God we love people like Martha: practical, eager to serve others, organized, reliable, constant. We historically have a problem including and celebrating people like Mary: impulsive, creative, quirky, free-spirited, sometimes misunderstood.
We need both. We need the Marys. And we need to celebrate, support and honour them. Without their example we will be missing out on the important thing: enjoying the presence of Jesus. (Luke 10:42)
They teach us how to be humble in our worship.
Sometimes things happen to us during worship that are embarrassing. God is OK with us seeming undignified. (2 Samuel 6:14-22). They encourage us to neglect our fear of others, our pride, our pretentions and focus completely on worshipping the Lord.
They teach us how to be childlike and vulnerable.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18:3)
"Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger." (Psalm 8:2)
"But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong." (1 Corinthians 1:27)
They teach us to please God and not man
"Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ." (Galatians 1:10)
Find a quirky, creative, spontaneous-minded, non-conformist in your church community. Celebrate them, affirm them, ask them what they need in order to thrive into who they are called to be in God. Love them. Learn from them.