Anointed for Burial | Mark 14:1-9

It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Mark 14:1-9 ESV

I think that the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42 is in the running for being one of the most clear and familiar yet ignored passages in Scripture. The scene is set in the house of two sisters, Mary and Martha, whose brother is the very same Lazarus whom Jesus would later raise from the dead. In the house, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to His teaching. “But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her'” (vv. 40-42).

The point of the text is clear. Serving, as good as it is, and even serving Christ Himself is not as important as actually being in Jesus’ presence and truly listening to His teaching. Of course, we will hasten use any number of excuses to justify the necessary tasks that keep us from simply sitting with our Lord. When we were recently married and preparing for a summer mission work, Tiff was asked to teach a women’s Sunday school class. After teaching this passage, the remainder of class time was spent corralling the women’s justifications of Martha. Indeed, it has been rightly noted that choosing between good and evil is often not nearly as difficult as discerning between what is good and what is best.

In today’s passage, we find similar elements at play. We have Mary again choosing the good portion by giving a beautiful sacrifice to Christ. We also have those who are indignant at her choice, noting what good might have been done in place of such a waste of resources. As so often in Scripture, this passage calls us to shed our earthly and unspiritual wisdom that elevates practicality to the highest virtue and to embrace God’s wisdom that so often runs contrary to our best laid plans.

PASSOVER AND THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD // VERSES 1-2

Leaving behind the Olivet Discourse, Mark throws us back into the narrative at large.

It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”

Even though we spent several weeks studying the Olivet Discourse, we ought to remember that Jesus delivered it upon one evening, immediately following the series of challenges brought to Him by the religious leaders. Now Mark reminds us that those same challengers were not merely attempting to make Christ look foolish through the questions that they asked; instead, they are blood-thirsty men who long for nothing less than Jesus’ death.

This reminder helps us to make sense of the overall structure of Mark’s Gospel. The promise of judgment and destruction upon Jerusalem and the temple in chapter 13 was a brief glimpse at what Christ would bring upon those who rejected Him after He ascended to the right hand of God the Father. It was a glimpse at Jesus’ exaltation as the King of glory. As dark and heavy as that chapter could be, it ultimately presents a great hope of Christ’s triumph after His humiliation. Indeed, the author of Hebrews tells us that it was the joy of this hope that strengthened our Lord to endure the cross (Hebrews 12:2). Likewise, we will not endure the trials of this life unless we too have a joy set before us of triumph at the end of humiliation.

Let us also note that the chief priests and scribes did not intend to kill Jesus during the Passover, not because they cared about keeping the sacred feast undefiled from their murder but because they did not want the people to riot against them. Yet God in His absolute sovereignty was working against them even in this. Though they craved Christ’s death, they could not understand that they were playing into God’s eternal purpose to reverse the curse of sin through the atoning death of God the Son. And though they did not want to risk killing Him on Passover, God had other plans. Christ would be sacrificed during the Passover because His crucifixion is the true and better Passover. The passing over of Israel’s firstborn via the blood of a lamb was always pointing toward something far greater than the glories that God worked on that fateful night in Egypt. Upon the cross, Jesus hung as the Lamb of God whose blood atones for the sins of the world. In fact, while the Passover and exodus of Israel from Egypt was the greatest act of redemption in the Old Testament, it was only a shadow of the true Passover and exodus that Christ worked upon the cross. And yes, that is exactly why we began the year by studying Exodus.

I will leave us with one final thought on these verses before we move into the bulk of our text. G. Campbell Morgan writes,

Mark the high tribute to Jesus which this hatred created. There is no greater compliment that can be paid to a man than to be hated by certain men. The greatness of a man is revealed, not only by his friends, but by his foes.[1]

A VERY COSTLY OFFERING // VERSES 3-5

Mark then jumps back to Jesus, and we read:

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.

I think it is very probable that this event is the same one found in John 12:1-7, which tells us that this woman was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Some point to Mark’s description of her anointing Jesus’ head and John saying that she anointed his feet and wiped them with her hair as a problematic difference. But it is quite easy to envision how these two actions can be harmonized. Mary likely began by anointing Jesus’ head and then anointed His feet. The real issue is that John sets this at six days before Passover, while Mark seems to place it two days before.

Yet we could approach the solution in two ways. First, a close reading of John notes that Jesus entered Bethany six days before the Passover, which does not necessarily mean that Jesus was anointed on the evening of his arrival. Second, a close reading Mark also indicates that the chief priests and scribes were plotting Jesus’ death two days before the Passover. This anointing that follows textually could have occurred chronologically a few days earlier. Thus, we simply do not know exactly when during Jesus’ final week this scene occurred, but it does seem likely that Mark and John are speaking of the same event.

While we do not know who Simon the leper was, we can assume that Jesus had healed him of his leprosy otherwise they would not be able to eat in his house. Yet as they were eating in Simon’s home, Mary brought a flask of oil and began pouring it over Jesus’ head. R. C. Sproul notes about this perfume:

The volume of this perfume was a least twelve ounces, maybe even sixteen, compared with perhaps one ounce in the typical bottles of perfume sold today. In all probability, the overwhelming majority of women who lived in that day did not make enough money to buy such a quantity of precious perfume. Likely this flask of perfume was owned by the woman’s family, and perhaps it was even a family heirloom.[2]

Indeed, we are told in verse 5 that the ointment could have been sold for at least three hundred denarii. Remembering that a denarius was the typical day’s wage of an average laborer and that Jews did not work on the Sabbath, this perfume was worth a year’s wages, which would be somewhere between $30,000-40,000 today. That is a significant gift, even today; how much more so for a woman not among the nobility in the first century! She literally poured her most valuable possession wholly upon Christ.

And those at the table were indignant.

There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

John tells us that Judas particularly made this comment, which should not surprise us. R. Kent Hughes says, “Judas, with calculator in hand, a man who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, instantly calculated the waste (in terms of economy, $25,000 to $30,000).” Yet Mark informs us that Judas was not alone in thinking this way. Several of Jesus’ followers at that table made the same mental calculation and concluded that Mary had utterly wasted her costly perfume upon Jesus, for it would have done much better being sold and given to the poor. Furthermore, they did not merely think all of this to themselves; they also scolded her. They looked upon her child-like act of devotion and scolded her like they would have scolded a child.

As has often been the case, this again displays that the disciples still did not yet understand the principles of God’s kingdom.

SHE HAS DONE A BEAUTIFUL THING TO ME // VERSES 6-9

In the remaining verses, we find Jesus’ response to Mary’s act of devotion as well as to his disciples’ indignation. Indeed, He does not speak to Mary directly but rather to His disciples, for in this moment they needed to learn from her.

Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.

Let us walk through this answer piece by piece. First, Jesus told those who scolded Mary to leave her alone. I would like to think that John was not one of those disciples who scolded Mary, since he learned a similar lesson back in 9:38-41, where he told the Lord about trying to stop a man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus then responded, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” In other words, He effectively said the same thing: leave him alone. Of course, we cannot and must not cast wisdom aside in favor of emotional fervor, yet we should just as much take care that we do not hinder pure and even impulsive acts of devotion to Christ. G. Campbell Morgan notes,

For a long while we have been suffering from an unholy horror of anything impulsive or emotional. This was an impulsive act, unconventional, uncalculating, imprudent, if you will, on Mary’s part. Of course Judas could not understand this. Even the apostles could not understand it. It was an act born of the prodigality of love, daring not to calculate. No careful, mathematical, mechanical, consideration of how much or how little was this; but the bringing of the most costly gift available, and the pouring of it out upon His head and feet.[3]

Again, this is the kind of action that we would expect of a child. In her love of Christ, she grabbed the greatest item that she possessed and poured it wholly upon Him in order to express that He was far more valuable.

Indeed, Jesus goes on to call this act a beautiful thing. For the Maker and Sustainer of the world, Mary’s perfume was not grand or marvelous. Indeed, it was no more spectacular to Him than the widow’s two coins. Yet, as with the widow’s offering, He gladly receives it and calls it beautiful. This is the graciousness of the holy God condescending to us and receiving with joy our offerings. We are certainly no different. All of our greatest works and sacrifices to the Lord are like gifts that toddlers give to their parents. They are accepted and cherished not because of their intrinsic value but because of the love that they reveal. This is why Paul warned, “If I give all away, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).

The legalist can easily do just that. He hopes that he will be accepted for his many works. The child, on the other hand, freely gives his greatest treasures, not to be accepted by his father but in overflow of the love he has already received himself from his father. This is a difficult but glorious truth: even martyrdom for Christ is worthless if we do not actually love Christ. Yet even the smallest of our offerings and sacrifices are beautiful in our Lord’s sight when offered out of our affection to our Savior and King.

In verse 7, Jesus addresses the seemingly pious reason for the disciples’ indignation. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good to them. But you will not always have me. My largest problem with the so-called social justice movement within the church is that it, at least practically, elevates serving the poor to the supreme mission of God’s people. Now that is certainly an important function and distinction of God’s people. Indeed, secularists only care for the poor because secularism is still somewhat running on the fumes of Christian morality. James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James mentions widows and orphans specifically because they were the most vulnerable groups of people within the first century, and because of the brutality of life in the ancient world, there were many orphans and widows. Serving the least in society is crucial to being like Christ who received the children and healed Bartimaeus. Have I made the importance of social justice sufficiently clear? I certainly hope so.

But serving the poor is not the primary mission of the church; glorifying God and filling the earth with His image-bearers is. Indeed, loving Jesus is more important than loving the poor. If that sounds uncaring to you, I mean it in the sense that loving God is more important than loving our neighbor. Both are important, and the Scriptures even tell us that we cannot claim to love God without loving our neighbor. But loving God comes first and is supreme. In fact, we can only properly love our neighbor whenever we are rooted in the God who is Himself love. When detached from Christ, our greatest efforts to serve the poor will every often ultimately hurt rather than help.

R. C. Sproul speaks well to this:

Several years ago, I was invited to preach in the inner city of Cleveland at a church where the minister had been serving for twenty-five years. The church building was surrounded with signs of poverty, drug dealing, crime, and broken humanity. The minister and I talked about frustrations with his ministry. He mentioned that several young assistant ministers had come to work in that church straight out of seminary. Each stayed about two years and then gave up in frustration. I asked him why he had stayed for twenty-five years. He said, “Because of what Jesus said: ‘You have the poor with you always.'” Some people use this verse to justify ignoring the poor, but it had stimulated him to persevere in his ministry in the ghetto. He said: “My young assistants came out of seminary with stars in their eyes, filled with idealism. They were going to come in here like knights in armor and eradicate poverty. When they saw that it did not happen in two years, they burned out, and they left. But I knew when I came here that the poor were always going to be here, and that my mission was not to eradicate poverty but to minister to people in the midst of their poverty.[4]

By the way, it is a similar mentality that plagues church ministries. Many ministries and even whole church plants are started with the same thought of changing everything, of radically transforming the community. But such idealism almost always leads to burn out or, worse, to success that is too great for the leader’s character.

Jesus goes on: She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. Of the first phrase, J. C. Ryle says, “No stronger word of commendation than that could possibly have been used. Thousands live and die without grace, and are lost eternally, who are always saying, ‘I try all I can. I do all I can.’ [Today, it is most often, “I’m doing the best I can.”] And yet in saying so, they tell as great a lie as Ananias and Sapphira. Few, it may be feared, are to be found like this woman, and really deserve to have it said of them, that they ‘do what they can.'”[5]

Too often when we think of what offering we can bring to Christ we think of things like giving an extra-large check or of standing on the street corner with a megaphone (now I’m not necessarily saying not to do either of those things), while really we need to begin by giving Him our everyday obedience. We need to begin by consistently spending time with the Lord in His Word and prayer. We need to pray together daily with our spouse. We need to catechize our children. We need to go to work each day, working as for the Lord rather than for men.

Tish Harrison Warren writes about this struggle to offer up ourselves to Christ each day, saying:

In our wedding ceremony, my pastor warned my husband that every so often, I would bound into the room, anxiety etched on my face, certain we’d settled for mediocrity because we weren’t “giving our lives away” living in outer Mongolia. We laughed. All my radical friends laughed. And he was right. We’ve had that conversation many, many times. But I’m starting to learn that, whether in Mongolia or Tennessee, the kind of “giving my life away” that counts starts with how I get up on a gray Tuesday morning. It never sells books. It won’t be remembered. But it’s what makes a life. And who knows? Maybe, at the end of days, a hurried prayer for an enemy, a passing kindness to a neighbor, or budget planning on a boring Tuesday will be the revolution stories of God making all things new.[6]

Again, Mary’s act of devotion was beautiful because it came from her total, everyday devotion to Christ. She did what she could. She gave to Christ all that was in her power to give, not just a family heirloom bottle of perfume. Jesus does not search for the most extravagant one-time gifts; He calls for total and everyday devotion. And that is most fitting because if Christ is not Lord over our most ordinary days, then He is not Lord of our lives as a whole.

Of course, God providentially used her offering in a particularly significant fashion: her perfume anointed Jesus body beforehand for burial. In the rush to bury Christ’s body before Sabbath began, Joseph laid Him in the tomb without anointing Him with normal burial spices. In fact, Mark’s account of the resurrection begins with the three women who stood beneath the cross going to the tomb with spices to anoint Him (16:1). Thus, Jesus gave a prediction of His own burial that would indeed come to pass.

Also, just as the whole of Mark’s second half has been squarely focused upon the cross, so too does this prediction remind us once again of the suffering that laid before Christ. Even as He reclined at dinner with His closest friends, His gaze was fixed upon the great work that the Father had ordained for Him to accomplish from before the creation of the world. Just as He endured the cross by fixing His eyes upon the joy set before Him, so ought we to run life’s race with endurance by “looking to Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2). Indeed, let us “Consider him who endure from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3). Just as the cross was ever on Jesus’ mind, Jesus ought to ever be on our minds.

Finally, Jesus concluded with this promise: And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. We are fulfilling that word of prophecy at this very moment. Again, Mary’s act was a particularly timely one, yet from it we can gather a principle for all of Christ’s disciples: nothing given to Christ is ever wasted. If, as Psalm 56:8 says, our God keeps record of each tear from the eyes of His saints in His book, will any act of devotion given to Him be too small for Him to record?

To worldly eyes, Mary had wasted a costly item that could have done been sold and used for much good. Yet Mary had better eyes to see than the others around the table. For Mary, Jesus’ parable of the hidden treasure was not simply another story; that vast treasure was sitting right in front of her. Like John the Baptist, she saw that she was not worthy to even untie His sandals, so she wiped off His feet (the lowly part of His body) with her hair, which in Jewish custom was considered a woman’s glory. Yet she by no means lost her reward. What Jesus said in 10:29-30 still stands,

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

As we come to the Table of our King, let us taste and see the goodness of Christ, the King of glory, embracing the humiliation of the cross for our sake, to ransom for Himself a people for His own possession. Indeed, by the bread and cup we remember the true and better Passover, when Jesus marked us by His own blood so that we no longer need to fear the wrath of God falling upon us, for it fell fully upon Christ in our place. Finally, as we receive the bread and cup as symbols of the free grace poured out upon us by our Savior, let us also lay, as it were, the entirety of ourselves upon the table.


[1] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Mark, 284-285

[2] R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expositional Commentary, 327.

[3] Morgan, Mark, 289.

[4] Sproul, Mark, 328.

[5] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 236.

[6] Cited in Michael Horton, Ordinary, 20-21.

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