When Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster phial of very costly perfume, and poured it over his head as he reclined at table. When the disciples saw it, they were vexed. “What is the good of this waste?” they said. “For this could have been sold for much money, and the proceeds given to the poor.” When Jesus knew what they were saying, he said to them, “Why do you distress the woman? It is a lovely thing that she has done to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you have not me always. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me beforehand for burial. This is the truth I tell you–wherever the gospel is preached throughout the whole world, this too that she has done shall be spoken of so that all will remember her.”
This story of the anointing at Bethany is told also by Mark and by John. Mark’s story is almost exactly the same; but John adds the information that the woman who anointed Jesus was none other than Mary, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus. Luke does not tell this story; he does tell the story of an anointing in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Lk.7:36-50), but in Luke’s story the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with the hair of her head was a notorious sinner.
It must always remain a most interesting question whether the story Luke tells is, in fact, the same story as is told by Matthew and Mark and John. In both cases the name of the host is Simon, although in Luke he is Simon the Pharisee, and in Matthew and Mark he is Simon the leper; in John the host is not named at all, although the narrative reads as if it took place in the house of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. Simon was a very common name; there are at least ten Simons in the New Testament, and more than twenty in, the history of Josephus. The greatest difficulty in identifying the stories of Luke and of the other three gospel writers is that in Luke’s story the woman was a notorious sinner; and there is no indication that that was true of Mary of Bethany. And yet the very intensity with which Mary loved Jesus may well have been the result of the depths from which he had rescued her.
Whatever the answer to the question of identification, the story is indeed what Jesus called it–the story of a lovely thing; and in it are enshrined certain very precious truths.
(i) It shows us love’s extravagance. The woman took the most precious thing she had and poured it out on Jesus. Jewish women were very fond of perfume; and often they carried a little alabaster phial of it round their necks. Such perfume was very valuable. Both Mark and John make the disciples say that this perfume could have been sold for three hundred denarii (GSN1220) (Mk.14:5; Jn.12:5); which means that this phial of perfume represented very nearly a whole year’s wages for a working man. Or we may think of it this way. When Jesus and his disciples were discussing how the multitude were to be fed, Philip’s answer was that two hundred denarii (GSN1220) would scarcely be enough to feed them. This phial of perfume, therefore, cost as much as it would take to feed a crowd of five thousand people.
It was something as precious as that which this woman gave to Jesus, and she gave it because it was the most precious thing she had. Love never calculates; love never thinks how little it can decently give; love’s one desire is to give to the uttermost limits; and, when it has given all it has to give, it still thinks the gift too little. We have not even begun to be Christian if we think of giving to Christ and to his Church in terms of as little as we respectably can.
(ii) It shows us that there are times when the commonsense view of things fails. On this occasion the voice of common sense said, “What waste!” and no doubt it was right. But there is a world of difference between the economics of common sense and the economics of love. Common sense obeys the dictates of prudence; but love obeys the dictates of the heart. There is in life a large place for common sense; but there are times when only love’s extravagance can meet love’s demands. A gift is never really a gift when we can easily afford it; a gift truly becomes a gift only when there is sacrifice behind it, and when we give far more than we can afford.
(iii) It shows us that certain things must be done when the opportunity arises, or they can never be done at all. The disciples were anxious to help the poor; but the Rabbis themselves said, “God allows the poor to be with us always, that the opportunities for doing good may never fail.” There are some things which we can do at any time; there are some things which can be done only once; and to miss the opportunity to do them then is to miss the opportunity for ever. Often we are moved by some generous impulse, and do not act upon it; and all the chances are that the circumstances, the person, the time, and the impulse, will never return. For so many of us the tragedy is that life is the history of the lost opportunities to do the lovely thing.
(iv) It tells us that the fragrance of a lovely deed lasts for ever. There are so few lovely things that one shines like a light in a dark world. At the end of Jesus’ life there was so much bitterness, so much treachery, so much intrigue, so much tragedy that this story shines like an oasis of light in a darkening world. In this world there are few greater things that a man may do than leave the memory of a lovely deed.
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary