Matthew 26:6-13 contains one of the most beautiful stories in all of scripture. Jesus is at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. John’s account tells us that Lazarus is also there, along with Mary and Martha (who is serving the dinner) and other of Jesus’ disciples. Even a large crowd of Jews shows up for the occasion, not just to see Jesus but Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead.
At some point in the meal Mary comes and kneels at Jesus’ feet. She breaks an alabaster box of very expensive perfume and begins to wash his feet, wiping them with her hair. Fragrance from the perfume fills the entire house. But not everyone is pleased with this extravagance. Certain of the disciples, namely Judas, asks indignantly about the purpose of this waste (take note, however, that Matthew records it as being not only Judas but all of the disciples who were upset).
But Jesus stands firm against their callousness. The woman “has done a beautiful thing to me,” he says, and then adds, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
Whatever took place in that moment of time, then, to the Lord Jesus at least it had tremendous significance. I find it interesting to observe this setting. Here you have a dinner being given for the Lord. He is the centerpiece around which everyone present is gathered. However, different people are there for different reasons. The motives of the people in attendance are mixed. Some are there as his followers and disciples, learning from him as they do every day. A few, like Martha, are there to serve him. Others are there merely to see the power and outcome of his miraculous deeds. Among the Jews also there were probably some present who were involved in plotting to kill him. And then there was Judas, who had no genuine care for the poor but was there to use his position with the Lord as a means to his own end. So there are mixed motives present with everyone in the house.
Yet there is one among them whose motivation, beyond any other, is out of pure love for her Lord. And with no regard for appearance she pours out an extravagant display of affection toward the One she loves. Her display draws an immediate reaction from those watching and from the Lord himself. They are repulsed; He is pleased. And the remark Jesus makes about Mary’s devotion is chock full of wonderful meaning.
When the Lord said that what Mary did on this occasion would be told in memory of her wherever the gospel was preached He was saying something very significant. At the heart of the gospel story is a woman who wastes everything she has on the Lord Jesus Christ, for this is what the gospel is intended to produce: a people (a corporate woman if you will, the Bride of Christ) whose lives are spent so lavishly at his feet that even many of His well-meaning followers will look on and ask “Why this waste? This person has such talent, such gifting, such ability that could be put to good use. Why would they waste it all in this way?”
Angus Kinnear tells the story of a young Watchman Nee going once to visit an old friend and mentor. The story is taken from his book Against the Tide: The Story of Watchman Nee, and it’s just too good to not include here. Fighting tuberculosis, Watchman refused to invoncenience his friend by staying and decided to return home by the river…
“But on the two-hour journey his fever returned, and with it the devil to assail him by using the depressive effects of the tuberculosis to draw out his inner resentments. ‘You had a bright future, full of possibilities, and you gave it up to serve God. That was splendid. But then you had a promising ministry in which, with your gifts, you were assured of success; and that, too, you threw away. For what? You relinquished so much; what have you gained? Sometimes God hears your prayers. Often enough He is silent. Compare yourself with that other fellow out there now in the big evangelical system. He, too, had a bright future, and he has never let it go. He is spiritually prosperous and God honors his ministry. He gets souls saved and they go on with God. And moreoever, he looks like a Christian, so happy, so satisfied, so assured. Do you? Take a look at yourself!’
“Disembarking, he went to his parents’ home on the waterfront to pay them his respects and attend to the business that had brought him… Next day he ventured out into the town, sorrowfully avoiding the two meeting places of the long-divided local church. Below the bridge the cormorant fishers were at work, and he paused to watch them as he used to when a child, marveling at the patience of the captive birds. He walked slowly, leaning on a stick.
“All at once, there on the street, whom should he encounter but one of his former Trinity College professors. He greeted him with a bow, and the man took him into a tea shop where they sat down. After a few sharp inquiries he stopped and looked Watchman up and down. ‘What is this?’ he exclaimed with evident dismay. ‘We thought a lot of you at high school, and had hopes that you would achieve something great. Do you mean to say you are still like this?’
“Traditionally the Chinese student holds his teacher in high regard, returning to him formal thanks for each scholastic success; so the very pointed question struck cruelly home. Here was one whom Watchman instinctively honored and who saw him merely as an educational dropout. He quailed before the man’s penetrating gaze. For it was true: his health was broken, his prospects gone; what had he to show? And here was his old teacher of Chinese law asking, ‘Are you still not an inch further forward? No progress, no career, no nothing?’ In that moment Ni To-sheng, grown man as he was, was close to tears.
“And the very next instant (as he tells us), ‘I really knew what it meant to have the Spirit of glory resting upon me. I could look up and say, “Lord, I praise You that I have chosen the best way.” To my professor it was a total waste to serve the Lord Jesus; but that is the goal of the gospel-to give everything to God.’
Amen! May the Lord find such a people, like Mary, and like this brother… a people whose lives are wasted in love upon Him for the full satisfaction of His heart’s desire. And may the world, through this people, come to see just how worthy He really is!