A Scripture passage that has always had great meaning to me and greatly shaped how I understand Christian vocation is Mark’s account of the anointing at Bethany. John’s gospel tells us that it occurred six days before the Passover, but Western tradition has classically read this passage on the Monday of Holy Week. It is tricky to say when exactly in Holy Week the anointing occurred. John’s gospel is the only one that places this passage before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Nonetheless, I think this passage offers us some important insights into the Christian life: a costly, risky call to respond to the One who gave us the costliest gift of all.
“A woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head…”
All throughout the gospels, we see the lengths to which Jesus is prepared to go for those he loves. In John’s account of the anointing, it occurs right after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead—something that made the Jewish authorities plan to kill him. This gift was especially meaningful to Mary, as she was Lazarus’ sister. The gratitude she has for the gift Jesus has just given prompts her to do something costly: she pours out an entire jar of costly oil to anoint Jesus. In fact, Mark’s gospel tells us that she “broke open the jar”—indeed a powerful word choice there. Mary is so overcome with gratitude and a desire to respond to Christ’s love that she breaks open a very costly gift. In response to the One who has given her everything, she cannot help but respond with all she has to give. Soon, Jesus’ male disciples would abandon and betray him, but it was a woman who was prepared to give him everything.
“And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil… and they scolded her…”
The oil that Mary used was Nard, which has a very strong scent. In pouring out an entire jar, it is no surprise that the entire house was filled with the scent. Mary’s sacrifice here is not hidden—it is so great that it fills the entire house, and people notice. In response, some of the disciples there grew angry at Mary, asking her why she had wasted the ointment in this way.
What is the Christian life but a chance to say, “here I am, Lord?” Mary did just that, she gave Jesus all she had to give—and some of the disciples became mad. There have been many instances in my own ministry where I have been in a similar situation, often because I am a woman. I have had more people “scold” me than I can count.
I cannot help but wonder how many wonderful ministries have been shut down by scoffers like the ones in this story. I remember one conversation I had with a Christian who was more traditional in his views. He told me that he believed I was wasting my “motherly” gifts in ministry—my rightful vocation was at home, upholding traditional gender roles in a family. At the time, I was running ministries that were overflowing and very successful—indeed, the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil, and that made him scoff. How often are we blind to the work of God, only to “scoff” at others because they do not appear to us, in our finite, limited understanding, as the ideal person to do it—perhaps due to our own prejudices of gender, race, age, socio-economic class, or psychological ability? “She has performed a good service for me… Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
This is the part of the story that resonates with me the most. In response to the scoffers, Jesus defends her. This is consistent with the entire gospel narrative of Jesus upholding the value and dignity of those we often scoff at. He says that she did something great, something that will be remembered whenever the gospel is proclaimed throughout the whole world. Indeed, this is a passage that has kept me going many times in the midst of unfair, prejudiced opposition and accusations in my ministry—which as I said before, have often come because I am a woman. “She has performed a good service for me”—there have been times I could almost hear Jesus saying those words back to those that scoffed at me as a woman in ministry.
When some of the male disciples rebuke Mary for wasting expensive perfume, Jesus defends her, telling them to leave her alone and that she has done something good. This affirmation of Mary’s actions, agency, and dignity is a powerful statement of the importance of women's voices and contributions. Indeed, our God stands up for us when others wrongfully scoff at us. Our God stands up for those hurt by ideologies that allow racial discrimination to continue in the name of preserving our “history.” Our God stands up for who are economically poor because wealthy people value their second vacation home too much. Our God stands up for women who are forced into sub-human status in the name of male domination. While the world scoffs at us, Jesus stands with and for us in liberating love. In the midst of prejudiced opinions, what ways can you hear God saying, “Leave her (or him) alone. She (or he) has performed a good service for me?”
In the end, these stories are remembered. Despite the scoffing of others, Jesus says that Mary’s story will be remembered whenever the gospel is proclaimed. As a woman in ministry, I need to remind myself of this as I encounter unfair opposition. Around the same time that traditional Christian man told me I needed to quit ministry and go home to uphold “traditional gender roles,” I co-ran a Vacation Bible School with another woman—that summer, we had 70 children attend VBS between the two churches. For months, the children that attended (and even some of the families that were involved) spoke of how meaningful VBS that particular year was for them and their faith lives. I know I helped lead kids, and probably some parents, to Christ that summer. I helped them fall in love with the gospel as our “young disciples.” In the midst of opposition, a team of two women nonetheless planted a seed that will be remembered—a seed that reminds them of the costliest gift of all: the gospel.
Something to ponder as we enter into Holy Week: inspired by Mary’s costly gift at Bethany, what are you called to give and risk for the greatest gift of all, even if you face risk and opposition, knowing that Jesus is with you and will respond, “S/he has performed a good service for me?”
Kaitlyn Lightfoot is a student in the Master of Arts in Theology program at Acadia Divinity College. She also serves on the board of ASBE.