A memorial instituted 2000-years ago but observed worldwide still
“Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her,” Matthew 26:13.
What a contrast were this woman’s thoughts to those abroad in that day. In verses 3 and 4 of this chapter we read: “Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, And consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty, and kill him.”
What a disparity there was in the feelings of this dear woman and those of these evil men!
1. Her thoughts prompted actions which were very much disapproved of by the disciples.
“But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?” verse 8. The word ‘waste’ means something very strong and dismissive of what the woman had done. It is used by divine inspiration as the destination of those who follow the broad path through life, Matthew 7:13. The word ‘destruction’ is the same Greek word as ‘waste’. It is also applied to Judas, ‘the son of perdition’ John 17:12. Here it is the word translated ‘perdition’.
Such usage of the word by the disciples shows how far removed were their thoughts from those of the woman. Out of a heart of deepest love and devotion she poured the very expensive ointment on the head of the Saviour.
2. She was thinking of the Saviour’s death as she poured the ointment on her Saviour’s head.
This the Saviour knew. “For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial,” verse 12.
I believe we can say of Mary that she had a much better understanding of the Saviour’s mind and will and of the eternal purpose of God in redemption. than the apostles. She knew the Saviour MUST die. She had embraced that truth. However, the apostles had shown a very different view. “For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day. But they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him,” Mark 9:31-32. That was but a few months before this incident. Even after Calvary, when they were informed by the godly women at the command of the angel, they were filled with unbelief.
“Behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: and as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. And they remembered his words, And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not,” Luke 24:4-11.
That shameful unbelief the apostolic band had to live with the rest of their days!
As I said, Mary understood that the Saviour must die. That is what all the sacrifices of old had typified. It was what so many of the types and shadows set forth. It was what the prophets, such as Isaiah, had spoken of.
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand,” Isaiah 53:5-10.
Zechariah the prophet also spoke of the Saviour’s death.
“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones,” Zechariah 13:7.
Of course, man has ever been confused about the death of Christ. Consider what Peter wrote: “Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow,” 1 Peter 1:10-11. This ‘searching’ was in order to understand fully what the Holy Spirit meant by the dying of the Redeemer. Substitutionary atonement is something alien to the mind of natural man. A ‘dying Redeemer’ was not conceivable to the unbelieving Jew and likewise the unbelieving Gentile.
On Mars Hill in Athens, Paul was mocked when he preached of Christ’s death and resurrection. “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter,” Acts 17:30-32.
The disciples had their hearts and minds so set on the restoration of Israel that they were blind to the humiliation the Saviour must suffer before redemption could be wrought for His people. He had told them repeatedly of His death in words such as those in John 10:11. “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep,” John 10:11. It was this blindness to Christ’s purpose in death that caused the two on the road to Emmaus to so despair. That they were culpably wrong is very evident from the Saviour’s rebuke!
“Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself,” Luke 24:25-27. ‘All the scriptures’ testified of Christ’s death and yet even the pious Jew failed to understand this truth.
But not so Mary.
There is no greater or higher truth than to grasp the true significance of the cross. Mary’s knowledge of it prompted her anointing of the Saviour and His establishing this lasting memorial to her love and faith and knowledge.
3. Then again, as this woman was contemplating such tender and loving feelings toward her Saviour there was another thinking something very different indeed.
“Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, and said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him,” verses 14-16.
It is considered likely that this is the same woman referred to in John 12:3. “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment,” John 12:3. This anointing took place six days before the Passover, verse 1.
The incident we are looking at took place some four days later. “Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified,” Matthew 26:2.
It occurred to me that it is very possible that Mary had first anointed the feet of Jesus and then returned some four days later to anoint His head, possibly feeling that her first anointing was somewhat short of the full honour due to her Saviour.
If it was Mary on both occasions then it may help us see why at the first anointing it was only Judas who murmured against her. “Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein,” John 12:4-6.
The disciples obviously did not think this an extravagant gesture.
However, if it was Mary here in our passage, back repeating her anointing, it might explain why ALL the disciples had come round to Judas’ complaining and criticising frame of mind. “But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor,” Matthew 26:8-9.
It might be understood that their limited understanding of the wonderful purpose of God would cause the disciples to consider this repeated anointing as wasteful!
The reconciling of the two accounts is surrounded by perplexity, a sad reminder of our very limited understanding of the glorious record given us in the Holy Scriptures. Commentators have differed in their opinions but such is my regard for Mary, this holy woman, that I am happy to see her as the central figure in both accounts, not that my opinion would account for much.
4. The woman in our text was given a most wonderful commendation by the Saviour.
Scorned by the disciples she may have been, but more important to her was the Saviour’s reaction. By a divine decree she has been written into the history of His time on earth following His first advent. By the dictum of the Lord Jesus, she has been remembered and honoured in every land and in every generation over the last 2000 years or so. Her heart-melting actions are admired and, at least in spirit, copied by millions of devout followers of the Saviour.
Mary knew I am sure that anointing the body of Christ after His death would not be possible for her, such would be the circumstances of His death. She must therefore show her devotion before He died.
You and I can never anoint the body of Christ. He is in glory at present. But we can manifest what I might call an ‘anointing love’ and offer our all to Him, irrespective of the scoffing and derision that it may bring forth from others. Festus, the Roman Governor, mocked Paul and said: “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad,” Acts 26:24. Many a zealous and ardent Christian has borne similar reproaches simply for obeying the Saviour and living by the first commandment to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength,” Mark 12:30.
Such a reproach will be common in days such as those in which the incident we are considering occurred, in days like our own!
How precious to the Saviour is a love and a faith of a Mary! How we should seek to emulate her devotedness! It will cost us, as did this precious ointment cost Mary. The words ‘very precious’ are a translation of a Greek word which means ‘of great value, costly. It is a word that appears only here in the Bible. That signifies the uniqueness of Mary’s gift, of Mary’s devotion to Christ. It was an uncommon spiritual love that she had for the Lord Jesus. One that must show itself, not once but yet again. A love that would willingly bear reproach in order to show itself.
Such is the love the Saviour cherishes and honours.
How would we answer the question addressed to Peter by the Saviour? “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” John 21:16.
May we give the answer the Saviour longs for.
Rev Ivan Foster (Rtd)
1st February 2023