It is recorded of the Lord Jesus Christ that he came into the world to save sinners, for his Father had so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever might embrace his teaching and his works might be saved. When Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit, Joseph his guardian was told that his name would be called “Jesus [Yah shall save]: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Such a commission was to see the Son of God, who also is the Son of man, experiencing and encountering the problems of humanity and being touched by the feelings of our infirmities.

Despite the ordeals and pathetic sights confronting our Lord, Mark in his gospel used expressions such as “straightway”, “immediately” and “forthwith” to describe the power, authority and instant result our Lord commanded, as many were delivered from the pain and humiliation of their maladies. It is not unexpected therefore in obeying the will of his Father, that Jesus would encounter all kinds of people ranging from the poor and needy to the self-righteous and important, from the childlike trust and transparent honesty to the thief and treacherous friend.

Let us join our Lord in his last journey from Bethany to Jerusalem, as Mark’s record would have us see it. In Mark 14:1 Mark says that “after two days was the feast of the Passover,” whereas John in his record tells us it was six days before the Passover when Jesus came to Bethany (John 12:1). While John’s record is chronological, Mark has applied his selective reporting in order to draw a contrast between the enemies of Jesus and Mary, whose works of love and profound respect for her Lord were to be a memorial to her wherever the gospel is preached.

It was the time of the feast of unleavened bread, when every house in the nation was to be divested and made free from all leaven. In 1 Corinthians 5: 7,8, in a context of keeping the Passover, the apostle Paul says that leaven represents a spirit of malice and wickedness, while unleavened bread speaks of the virtues of sincerity and truth. In symbol the nation of Israel was to appear before God as a people of Godly integrity, a holy nation zealous of good works. However in reality it was infected with a vicious spirit of malice and wickedness, working in the academics, scholars and the influential of its national hierarchy. Though normally opposing factions, the Scribes, Pharisees, chief Priests and elders joined ranks and became good friends to plot the death of Jesus.

Nevertheless their evil intentions were frustrated by another group in the nation known as ‘the people’—men and women who were moved by the teaching and miracles of our Lord—a people discounted and despised by the religious elite yet a people whom Jesus came to save. He was among them as their representative before God, yet inadvertently they were around him as a shield of protection until his hour was come.

Mary’s Profound Act of Love

In verse three of Mark 14 we find ourselves in Bethany, which means the ‘house of dates’, a place of fruitfulness which would remind us of the moral virtues of sincerity and truth. Our Lord was in the house of Simon the leper; Luke records it as the house of Martha, who may have been the wife of Simon, whose name means ‘hearing’. This was a house notorious as the house of the leper, a man who doubtless was healed of his disease by Jesus. This was also the house of death, for Lazarus who was the brother of Martha had died but was raised again. The difference between death and life was the appearance of the Son of God, and the healing balm he brought to humanity. While in this remarkable house of people, Jesus was about to be anointed for his own burial. His was to be a sacrificial death given in a surpassing love, for while we were yet sinners, being without strength, Christ died for us that we might be reconciled to God. As typified by this household, Jesus was to be the creator of a new era of human experience by providing a cure for a leprous humanity and replacing the tears of sorrow with the joy of no more death.

It was here among friends, when “there came a woman”. John tells us that it was Mary (John 12:2), the sister of Lazarus and Martha, a thoughtful, passionate and spiritually discerning woman. She had an alabaster vessel containing spikenard, a precious ointment with a strong and pleasant fragrance. Spikenard denotes that which is genuine or pure, and is the symbol of the sweetness of pure faith, a Godly conviction without malice and wickedness. John tells us in chapter 12:3 that the fragrance filled the house, drawing attention to a love out of a pure heart, a good conscience and a faith unfeigned. In Song of Solomon 1:12 spikenard is used by the bride to impress her husband-to-be. The ointment was very precious as it was derived from a root stock that was imported into the land from afar. Mary had a pound of this ointment which, according to human values, represented a fortune.

In Mark 14:3 it is recorded that Mary poured the precious ointment on Jesus’ head, an act described in Leviticus 21:10 as that which distinguished the high priest above all other priests. In Psalm 133 the anointing oil that ran down Aaron’s head and beard to the collar signified a uniting of the head and multitudinous body of the greatest high priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. In symbol this is that “great congregation” among which our Lord will stand and pay his vows (Psa 22:25), to acknowledge that all things had been of Yahweh and all honour and glory was due to Him.

In John 12:3 we are told that Mary had anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair, an act which had been done on a previous occasion by another woman, a street sinner, in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36–39). This was a courageous act signifying a deep humility and a recognition of her true position before her Lord. In the case of Mary she had anointed Jesus’ head and wiped his feet with her own hair. What an act of profound love and foresight, for she alone had anticipated why and how the Lord must die, but she was not ashamed to demonstrate this before those who would despise the action.

The Greed of Judas the Thief

In Mark 14:4 there was a different spirit evident in the house of Simon the leper. This was evidenced by Judas Iscariot who also had influenced the other disciples in a disapproval of Mary’s action. While Judas was to become uninhibited in his scorn, the other disciples reserved their comment within themselves, their selfish desire blinding their ability to recognise an act of faith.

Judas, whose name means ‘praise’, had none for Mary. Iscariot is a name which means ‘man of Kerioth’, a place south of Jerusalem. Kerioth means ‘a city’, and Judas, the only disciple who did not come from Galilee, was a man of buildings or of a city mentality.

He was also a thief for he, being in charge of the bag, stole the proceeds that were intended for the poor (John 12:6 ). Judas was looking for the immediate establishment of the Kingdom and his personal advancement, because he was a man of opportunity, ambitious for material advantage, status and power, but all he got was disappointment, bitterness and anger. Jesus was not the man he had anticipated, for though he could work miracles he advocated humility and sacrifice and spoke of the destruction of a system that constituted the world that Judas had desired.

The question was asked, “Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor.” Why Judas was so grieved might be understood when we appreciate that, on the basis of Matthew 20:2, three hundred pence was the value of three hundred working days or the best part of a year’s wages. In Mark 6:37 two hundred penny worth of bread was estimated to be sufficient to feed five thousand men plus women and children. So the disciples, led by Judas, murmured against her.

“Let Her Alone”

Jesus immediately came to Mary’s defence with an emphatic, “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she had wrought a good work on me.” They had opportunity to fulfil their obligations to the poor, but Mary had done what she could. This courageous woman had anticipated the Lord’s imminent death, and was the only person to respond to him in this way while he was yet alive. She had taken an opportunity—a deliberate and thoughtful act, empowered by her understanding of the teaching of the prophets that Jesus was the antitypical Passover lamb, who had come to take away or bear the sin of the world (Isa 53:11). Mary’s actions were consistent with her convictions, for she saw him as the Son of God’s providing, who ultimately would bring freedom from the bondage of sin and death. To Mary our Lord was precious and greatly valued. Her appreciation of God’s gracious gift to mankind was signified in the value of her spikenard. This was a sacrificial response Jesus described as a beautiful thing.

In verse 10 it is reported that Judas Iscariot, who had been physically near to the Lord, being one of the twelve, went to the chief priests to betray him. Having been received with gladness, Judas was promised money which Matthew 26:15 tells us was thirty pieces of silver, the price paid for a slave. This was an act of gross contempt for Jesus, who being despised and rejected of men, was considered as contemptible as a slave. Judas the betrayer loved money more than his Lord.

In the Upper Room

In verse 13 Mark describes the preparing for the Passover where Peter and John, the two disciples sent by Jesus, were to follow a man carrying a pitcher of water. This was an unusual sight, because usually either women or slaves performed this menial task. Our Lord, in contrast to the nation’s elite, did not despise slaves nor was he unheeding of a service for God which carried a person beyond the normal call of duty. The two disciples were to follow this man to a particular house where they would inquire of the “good man” or owner of the house. In view of the fact that on another occasion Jesus had taught that there was none good but God, we may well see the allusion that this was in fact God’s house.

In verse 15 we see the disciples were led to a large upper room which was furnished and prepared. God has all things in control, and His hand of providence guides the progress of His purpose. Only thirteen men were to occupy this room but in spirit many others in their time and circumstance would join their Lord in this memorial feast, as we do today. It was an upper room, reminding us of the heavenlies in Christ Jesus, a status which elevates the elect of God above that which is common and given to carnal pursuits.

Judas had partaken of the common meal in company with all in the room. It was during this time that Jesus offered him a sop or morsel as a final gesture of appeal for him to repent of his evil intentions. Judas was like one who socialised among the ecclesia, partook of the ecclesial lunches, put on a respectable appearance, but preferred to betray our Lord rather than partake of his sacrifice.

In verses 22,23 we read that as Jesus broke bread and passed it among his disciples, Judas departed. In John 6:53 Jesus said: “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” Judas was devoid of any expression of divine virtue—that eternal life which John says we had both seen and handled, that life which originated from the Father and was manifested in the Son, that we might come to know God and Jesus Christ His Son. Mary understood these things and “did what she could”.

In verse 26 the disciples, now rid of the influence of Judas and encouraged by the patience, humility and kindness of our Lord, sung an hymn which is an expression of praise to God. Jesus had assured them that he would finish the work he had begun, for he would not drink of the fruit of the vine until he drank it anew in the kingdom of God. This kingdom will see Judah and Jerusalem restored (Zech 8:12–15) and the friends of Jesus blessed with salvation. Having instituted this memorial, Jesus and his disciples departed for Gethsemane, where they were to meet a Judas in whom there was no praise but a spirit of malice and wickedness. What a tragedy to have traded eternal life for the price of a slave, to have forsaken genuine love and friendship for a mercenary association that brought disappointment and death. What a tragedy to see a man who wanted a kingdom and the unique privileges it would bring, only to be turned away when it is established because it was not the one he had anticipated.

Let us renew our friendship with our Lord week by week and express our praise to Yahweh, for it was His love that brought reconciliation and the hope of eternal life.