Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus came to Bethany and was invited to a meal in the home of Simon, a man whom He had healed of leprosy. To get the full story of the event, we need to put together the accounts found in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and John 12. Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, was one of the guests and his sister Martha was serving the meal. At some point Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, came into the room with a container of very precious ointment, broke the neck of the container, poured the ointment over Jesus’ head and feet, then wiped his feet with her hair.There is no mention of a motive, but no doubt she was still overwhelmed with thankfulness over having her brother restored to life.
There is a somewhat similar account in Luke 7, but the differences are so striking that it must have been another time, another place, another Simon and another woman and another container of ointment. The host at this supper was a Pharisee, quite possibly one who had come to believe in Jesus. It was the other Pharisees who were his guests who murmured about the waste of the costly ointment, not the disciples as in the other gospels. The woman in this account is referred to as a sinner, which probably meant she was a Gentile. To the Pharisees all Gentiles were sinners.
We should not imagine Jesus and the other guests sitting on chairs at the table , as our custom is. The custom of that place and time was to place oneself on a couch in a semi-reclined position, which would have made Jesus feet readily accessible to be anointed.
There are two things that stand out to me in the account of Mary’s anointing of Jesus. The first is Jesus’ statement, recorded in Matthew and Mark, that: “Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.”
The other is the mention, found only in John, that “the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.”
We talk of heroes of the faith, many today desire ardently to do great things for the Lord. What did Mary do? She broke a vial of ointment and anointed the head and feet of our Lord. That simple action has been told and retold for almost two thousand years. And what is the aroma that emanates from us when we strive to do great deeds for our Lord? Too often, we must confess, there is something pungent and disagreeable about the fruit of our efforts.
The image of the broken vial must become central to our Christian life. Only when our pride, our ambitions, our self-righteousness are broken can there come forth the sweet and refreshing scent of true Christianity.