An incident at Bethany
There is a brief incident that takes place at the beginning of the momentous week in which Jesus has come to Jerusalem to confront his opponents and fulfill his spiritual mission. It is an event, however, that Jesus himself says will be retold whenever the grand events of Easter week are proclaimed.
So let me remind you of the story Jesus took special note of: The incident takes place in the village of Bethany, a short walk from the city of Jerusalem, and the place where Jesus was staying while visiting Jerusalem, probably in the home of Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. The story is described in three of the Gospels (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-7).
A dinner is held in Jesus’ honor in the home of a man named Simon the Leper. Lazarus was one of the guests at the party, as well as the inner circle of the 12 disciples, and Martha and Mary were involved in serving the meal. While the men were reclining at the meal, Mary kneeled at the feet of Jesus and poured an extravagant amount of very expensive perfume on his feet, and then wiped his feet with her hair.
This unusual behavior certainly startled everyone present, but it produced an especially hostile response from the disciple Judas Iscariot: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” (John 12:5 NIV)
Jesus’ defense and protection of Mary was immediate: “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me … When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.” (Matthew 26:10-12 NIV)
Mary’s act was from any human perspective excessive, and could be judged as emotionally unbalanced. But Jesus overlooks Mary’s poor economic sense with a charitable interpretation of her intent.
Mary has used the value of a year’s wages to express her love for Jesus, while Judas will accept less than half that amount to betray Jesus just six days later. What can explain this drastic difference in response to Jesus between Mary and Judas? Their actions reflect a difference in their valuing of Jesus.
Mary joyfully gave what was likely her most valuable possession, and without reservation, as an expression of the depth of her love for Jesus. Judas bargains with the chief priests: “What are you willing to give me?” (Matthew 26:15 NIV) Judas cares most about himself; Mary cares most about Jesus.
Further, Mary’s act of love is a response to what Jesus had done in her life, while Judas’ act of treachery was a response to Jesus’ failure to meet him on his own terms. Mary was willing to submit her life to Jesus; Judas wanted Jesus to fulfill his own selfish expectations as a political messiah.
In the final analysis, every one of us is either a Mary or a Judas. We either give ourselves totally to Jesus as our master and Lord, and joyfully follow him (even to the extent of appearing foolish to others and receiving hostile treatment from some), or we turn away from Jesus and follow our own selfish desires when we realize serving Jesus requires that we can no longer serve ourselves.
Each Easter season, as the story of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice at the cross and final vindication in the resurrection is retold and celebrated, we are wise to remember this private incident that is pregnant with importance in revealing the two fundamental human responses to Jesus – submission or betrayal. What is your response to Jesus?
Wayne Vincent is pastor of the Loma Rica Community Church, 11234 Loma Rica Road, Loma Rica. Message of the Week appears on Saturdays.