Although there is debate concerning which day Christ entered Bethany, most commentators conclude that it was Saturday evening. According to Matthew 26 and Mark 14, the supper took place at the house of Simon the Leper. Martha, true to her personality, was serving. Luke 10:40 has Jesus and his disciples stopping over for a meal at Mary and Martha's house, and Martha rushing round like a scalded cat getting the place tidy and food prepared whilst Mary sits at Jesus' feet
Luke 10:40 "Finally, she went to Jesus and said, 'Lord, doesnt it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!"'
Mary and Martha - two contrasting personalities and yet both willing to welcome Jesus into their lives. Perhaps this was a meal designed to thank the Lord for what He had done for Lazarus and Simon. Whatever the reason, it's worth picturing the scene in our minds. Jesus has been invited for a meal, and he's certainly brought Judas along with him if not any of the other disciples. There's Lazarus, possibly Simon if we link the story with the other Gospels, and the two women. A party for at least six and possibly more, and a lot of work for Martha, whom the Gospels seem to have chained to the oven and kitchen sink.
After a leisurely and sociable meal the guests relax and while Martha is busying herself with the washing up Mary sits at Jesus' feet. She takes a bottle of Chanel Number 5 (or its 1st Century equivalent) and pours it onto Jesus' feet.
Then she wipes his feet with her hair.
What strange behaviour, and Judas is the first to acknowledge that.
"Why wasnt this perfume sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?" he protests. "What a waste!" is the first thought that pops into his head. Unfortunately, we're given the impression that to Judas "What a waste!" meant "I could have got a good price for that a little bit of pocket money for me!"
But Jesus knows exactly what Mary has done. He knows the significance of this costly and extravagant act
"Jesus replied, "Leave her alone! She has kept this perfume for the day of my burial.You will always have the poor with you, but you wont always have me."
I want us to look at Mary a little closer, and I want us to look at the significance of that action, that extravagant declaration of love for her Lord. Because that's what it was. This was Mary acknowledging that she was in the presence of not just a friend of the family - as indeed Jesus was - but that she was sat at the feet of the Son of God who was soon to give up his life. How do you express your feelings and your emotions when words just cannot sum up what you know you must say?
For Mary it meant taking possibly the most costly thing she owned and openly giving it up as an offering in His honour.
This was a true offering of love.
Firstly, this was an expression of Generous love. She did not choose the bottle of cheap everyday perfume, pleasant smelling though that might be, and she did not merely pop a little scent onto her finger and dab it onto Jesus' feet. Mary poured the whole bottle until it was empty and the whole house was filled with the fragrance. No one was left in any doubt as to what Mary had done. For her it was a straightforward decision. Nothing but the best was good enough for Jesus.
Secondly it was a humble love. She didn't ask anyone else to do this for her- a servant maybe - and chose not to anoint Jesus' head, which would have been expected as the usual course of action, but rather to anoint his feet.
It brings to mind that episode where Jesus washed his disciples' feet. Jesus the Son of God showing that to love is to serve, and leading as always by example. Now we have Mary, who seems to know what lies in store for Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem, prepared to demonstrate her love in service to her Lord. And not being too proud to get down on her knees if that's what it took.
Thirdly it was a believing love. This was an expression of Mary's faith. It wasn't the action of a scatty young woman sat gooey-eyed at the feet of a charismatic teacher. Jesus knew what her action symbolized - she was anointing his body prior to burial. No one else had a clue; they were all probably as aghast as Judas was at Mary's extravagance.
This was a private moment between Jesus and Mary in the midst of a very public party. A moment when Jesus recognized Mary's action for what it was, and a moment when Mary could openly declare to Jesus her faith in Him.
The New Testament title of Christ is derived from the Greek Christos, which is exactly equivalent to the Hebrew mashiach, for it is rooted in the idea of "to smear with oil." which is the basic meaning of the word we know as "anoint". The Old Testament most often uses it in the sense of a special setting apart for an office or function. So the term Christ emphasizes the special anointing of Jesus for His role as Gods chosen one. And Mary's anointing of Jesus' feet shows her to be a remarkably discerning person.
In the similar story told in Luke's gospel a frustrated Martha asks Jesus to get Mary off her backside and doing some work. Jesus replies that it's Mary that has her heart in the right place, not Martha.
Now he says of Mary's action,"Leave her alone! She has kept this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you wont always have me."
Once again, Mary has shown that too much time is spent fussing around doing unnecessary things, when what really matters is being in the right place, at the right time, at the feet of Jesus.
We also need to look at Judas and his attitude. John obviously felt that there was an important lesson to be learned here which is why it's Judas and not Mary that occupies the bulk of this story. That he got it all wrong is beyond question.
But just think for a moment, here was someone who was among the close-knit group who followed Jesus around on a day-to-day basis, listening to his words, watching his every action - and the reactions of those who came into contact with Jesus. He had made a conscious decision to follow Jesus. To those on the outside of Jesus' disciples Judas was a good man, a preacher, apostle, and a holy man. To those within the group he was accepted as easily as Simon, Andrew, James, John and the rest. Jesus himself was happy to have Judas within his group of disciples.
Even if we disregard John's description, written in hindsight, of Judas as one who had no regard for the poor, it is obvious by his reaction to Mary's extravagance that all is not right in Judas' heart. But think for a moment. Here was a man whom Jesus trusted as treasurer to his small group of followers. Effectively Judas was a man in authority every bit as much as a Church Secretary, Treasurer or officer might be today.
Each one of us has the potential to be Mary, Martha or Judas in the presence of Jesus. Martha was a great person, a busy person always fussing around making things, organizing hospitality, ready to serve at table. Unfortunately she seems never to have stopped working long enough to do the one thing that was really important at a crucial moment in Jesus' life - to put down the tea towel, turn off the kettle and enjoy His presence.
Judas had everything going for him. He was at the centre of this remarkable thing that was happening, close to the action, a man in authority, respected. Yet within him were the seeds of destruction being steadily watered by his natural greed and pride.
Mary was the quiet one, perhaps frowned upon because she was not one who naturally got involved in all those jobs which have to be done in order to keep the machine which is the Church chugging along. Someone of few words. Yet it was Mary who perceived what the others all missed. That here in their midst was Jesus, the Christ, the anointed One of God. Not only that, but also this was Jesus on a final journey to a horrific death. This wasn't an occasion for words, this was a time for action, an outpouring of love and devotion, an anointing.
I've missed out an important point. Well, not so much missed it as left it until the end. Remember what happened when Mary poured that perfume onto Jesus' feet?
"Mary took a very expensive bottle of perfume and poured it on Jesus feet. She wiped them with her hair, and the sweet smell of the perfume filled the house."
Now, I'm not going to suggest that there's a smell surrounding every person who is as close to the Lord as Mary was, but there is something - call it intangible if you must - but there's something special about those who entertain Jesus in their hearts. And that something special spreads from them just like that sweet perfume that permeated that house.
Paul in his letter to the Philippians thanks them for their gifts to him and Timothy " They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God."
The offering of our lives to God, and through Him to others is just that - a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. It's not about running around in circles trying to make sure the dinner party goes without a hitch. It's not about the value of the offering that we give. It's all about the attitude in which it is given, and the moment at which it is offered.
Martha was doing her best for Jesus, in the only way she knew how. Judas was just like many Church elders when faced with what seems on the surface to be a reckless waste of a precious resource. Mary knew where Jesus was headed, and what lay in wait for him, and she gave what was necessary at that moment in time - without counting the cost.
' and the sweet smell of the perfume filled the house.'