Mark 14:3 And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. 4 But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted? 5 For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they criticized her sharply.
Whenever someone demonstrates what, in my opinion, is “excessive fervency” or inappropriate amounts of zeal, I find that in the past I would become deeply annoyed. I wanted the person to back down a bit, to be a bit more sensitive and less idealistic, and to restrain their emotions just enough for me to keep up what I felt expressed the proper amount of zeal for the setting.I’m not talking about distracting, unscriptural displays of weirdness that draws undo attention to “self”, pulling a room away from connecting to Jesus. I’m talking about someone expressing the kind of passion and longing for Jesus that revealed that they knew something I didn’t. Appropriate, biblical, meek, humble? Sure.
Even so, as I watched from a distance, I still criticized them sharply in the secret places of my heart.
It was critical in my walk with the Lord to connect with that hint of frustration in my heart. It was necessary that I connected to what was really stirring within me – it wasn’t frustration I was feeling. It was bitterness. Anger. It was also a bit of helplessness – I felt so weak in my barrenness and my emptiness that an appeal to charge the hill left me feeling “lesser than”, judged, and a bit left out. Finally, I felt, if I was honest with myself, a twinge of envy. The collision of all of those emotions and responses in my heart to someone else’s extravagance led me on an interesting journey of self-discovery.
I would have despised Mary’s offering that day, just like some of the other disciples.
The Extravagant Waste
They were “indignant”, according to Mark (who heard this story from Peter) because of the extravagant waste that had transpired right before their eyes. Of course, this language of concern and practicality was nothing more than a smoke-screen, a façade to hide the true reasons behind their indignation. They were furious simply because of what they had at stake. They had much to lose if Mary’s actions were proper. For if Mary was right to do what she did, wouldn’t the same actions then be demanded of them…and of us? If we all get to heaven, why not get there comfortably? Why pay extra in the exchange – what exactly do we gain? Throw a year’s wages at the feet of Jesus? Then do it neatly, cleanly…do it orderly! This, well, messy display with all of its “emotion” and tears – it’s unbecoming, undignified, and rather wasteful!
Is order necessary related to worship? Absolutely! One glance at the throne room of God in Revelation chapter four reveals the beauty of divine order. We see in that little window of time, a view of bursting, explosive devotion wrapped in the perfection of His design. We see angels fully given voluntarily to divine patterns in which everyone takes their place, and everyone joyously plays their role in showering the One seated on the throne with beautiful extravagance. Beauty is impossible without order.
Is it important to give to the poor? Absolutely! God’s heart for the poor and the needy throughout scripture is clear. Deuteronomy 15:11 summarizes about 15-18 statutes in the law on the poor and how ancient Israeli society was to care for the poor in their midst. The Psalms and the prophecies of Isaiah are filled with insight into God’s zeal to deliver the poor from their distress at the hands of wicked oppressors; Amos and Micah chastised Israel and Judah for their corrupt leadership that took advantage of the poor. Jesus Himself told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give it extravagantly to the poor (Mk. 10:21).
Yet here we find an untidy anomaly – this one act of extravagance that defines worship and love for us today as astonishingly as the throne room scene referenced earlier. Jesus cared that all who seek Him would hear this story – His response to Mary’s expression of love is more than touching, and more than instructive:
Mark 14:6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. 7 For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. 8 She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. 9 Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”
The Extravagant Memorial
Jesus, surprisingly to some in the room that night, responds to her extravagance with extravagance. Why? His disciples had been with Him for almost three years now or longer. Peter, by revelation from the Father, understood that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. It had dawned on them to a measure that He was more than a man, and was worthy of devotion and loyalty. Had it dawned on them that he was also worthy of being worshiped? For a Jew, worshiping a man would be tantamount to blasphemy – there was One God, alone, and only He was worthy of worship. To worship an image was to worship an idol – thus the shock of Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s lives when they see God in the form of a Man.
Matthew pointed out that worship of Jesus was not a difficult concept to grasp for three Gentile wise men from the east (Matt. 2:1-11). We see scattered instances of men, like the leper in Matthew ch. 8 or the man born blind in John ch. 9, worshiping Jesus in response to His supernatural power. Yet we only really see the disciples worship Jesus one time before His death, in Matthew 14 after Jesus walks on water. Nowhere in the gospels do we see anyone worship Him as extravagantly as Mary that evening after supper. What kind of emotions arose in some of them, having been outdone in devotion by this simple woman from Bethany?
Later on, in the book of Acts, Barnabas himself would give far more to the new movement at one offering than Mary did. Many in the early days of the church gave all that they had. Yet it was Mary’s act of worship that becomes the memorial that Jesus will celebrate “everywhere the gospel is preached”. In other words, it was the desire of Jesus to elevate one act of worship as the “target” or the example for all new believers to follow after their conversion. This is incredible: Jesus said that this one testimony would be a part of every altar call, every outreach strategy, and every invitation to the lost. Our modern oversight of this story should convict any who preach the gospel. Jesus wanted all believers to remember this woman. Wasn’t Barnabas’ offering extravagant?
The Extravagant Cost
Mary’s act of worship cost her more than a year’s wage. She gave up something precious to her – she surrendered her inheritance when she broke that alabaster flask of “very costly” oil of spikenard and poured it on the head of Jesus. She had “done what she could”, or given the very best and her very all that night in the overflow of her passion for Jesus. She had nothing greater or nothing more to give, but ended the night completely spent – and I am sure she did not have a moment of regret, or any thought about what she had to gain in the exchange. There is a “great exchange”, according to Jesus, in the age to come, but I am not sure if that truth motivated Mary that night.
No, this same Mary that had to endure the ire of the disciples in the past for pressing her way to the front, the ire of her sister for “forsaking” her duties to choose the thing that was needful in the moment, was willing to face “sharp criticism” yet once more. She was anointing His head for burial – she alone knew the gravity and the weight of the coming hours of Jesus’ life. She understood who He was, what He came to do, and that the time had come. And she loved Him. She loved Him! Thus her only response was to pour out all that she had upon His head in gratitude, devotion, and love.
It cost her more than her inheritance, however. The sharp criticism of some of the disciples (John would later name Judas in particular) reveals the high cost of extravagance. Extravagance is defined in part by what you give up to love Him well; yet it is also defined in part by when you give it up. Is it extravagant to love Jesus when everyone else does, or is it extravagant to shower Him with praise and thanksgiving when no one else will? There is a cost, paid by the indignation of others, when one endeavors to love extravagantly. Your very reputation is at stake related to the stigma that comes with extravagance.
The question remains: what do we gain from extravagant devotion?
The answer is simple: an exceedingly great reward.
Yet the question arises: doesn’t everyone get that reward? Why be extravagant?
Why indeed? Yet it is important to note that one who is struck by love would never think to ask such a question.