John 12:1-8 shows a tender moment between Mary and Jesus. Here we read of a supper where Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are present (John 12:1-2). The supper for Jesus offered by Martha and Mary is in gratitude for his raising of Lazarus, their brother, from death. It is at this point when we read that Mary anoints Jesus for his coming burial with a gift that is extravagant, worth 300 days wage for a working person in Jesus’ time.
Mary does something which only love can do. She took the most precious thing she had and gave it to the Savior. Her love for him was expressed in her giving of this most valuable gift. She had saved for this gift: “for she hath preserved this ointment until now, that she might anoint me in token of my burial” (JST John 12:7). Mary’s action was motivated by one thing: her love for her Savior and her gratitude for what he was about to accomplish.
She did something that a Jewish woman would probably never do in public. She loosed her hair and anointed Jesus with this ointment, drying his feet with her hair. Mary let go of her concern for those around her, focusing her attention on Jesus. In total humility she stooped to anoint Jesus’ feet and to dry them with her hair. Judas expressed his objection to her gift, but was reprimanded by Jesus when he said, “Let her alone… the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always” (John 12:7-8).
Questions to consider
How do you anoint the Lord’s feet and show him your love and gratitude? In what ways can you give a valuable gift to the Savior? What is it that he really wants from you? (see Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; John 14:15; 3 Nephi 12:19)
Widow’s Mites and Washed Feet
CS Lewis stated:
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures exclude them. 1
There is a word of caution with respect to this last thought. Taken to extremes it creates an asceticism which is neither essential for happiness nor particularly pleasing to God. Choosing a life of poverty for the sake of living in poor conditions is not a virtue. It may be a fact of our existence, but I know of no scriptural justification presenting the ascetic life as something to be sought after. A sense of balance is important to consider in all principles of the gospel- anytime we take a principle to extremes it becomes unbalancing, and we can be mislead. Jesus once said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), but there is no indication that he was recommending this as a standard for all of us to live. If you think about it, were we all to live in this condition we would be in no position to “be the light of the world” or to assist those in need. Clearly wealth is a means to further the work of the Lord (Jacob 2:18-19).
S. Michael Wilcox had this to say about Mary’s offering:
It is interesting to study the Savior’s actions and words on a number of occasions in the Gospels. He was not against happy, celebratory joy. We see this in his willingness to turn water to wine at the marriage feast of Cana. One of the criticisms leveled at him by his antagonists was his too-free acceptance of social gatherings, of feasts and dinners: “The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!” (Luke 7:34).
With this in mind, we can examine one of the most beautiful moments in the Savior’s life. A parting gift was bestowed on him by a loving hand, that of Mary, the sister of Martha. Jesus came to Bethany just before his atoning hours. “There they made him a supper… Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot… Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?” (John 12:2-5). Three hundred pence was a considerable sum. A pence, as we have seen in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard was equivalent to a twelve-hour-day’s wages.
In Mark’s account, Judas was not the only one who was troubled by the huge gift, and the value of the spikenard was higher than three hundred pence. It was also contained in an alabaster box that Mary broke in order to pour the ointment over both Jesus’ head and feet. “And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, 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. And they murmured against her” (Mark 14:4-5). Jesus was always sensitive to the feelings of others, particularly women. The accusations of waste leveled at Mary were wounding. Jesus soothed them by saying, “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always” (Mark 14:6-7)
There are times when a lavish, even extravagant, gift offered in an outpouring of love is proper and good. This is certainly true of what we give to God in gratitude for his blessings, but it may be equally true of those we love- parents and children, a husband for his wife. This is not always waste, even if it may appear to others to have been money unwisely spent. The unity this type of gift creates between people may validate the expense. This is not to say that love and a deep bond between two people can be purchased; it is the intent that is all-important. Even the poor do not take precedence in such cases. The poor will always be there for us to help; a spouse or a child may not. We need not be troubled in conscience. God may pronounce the work good. Perhaps Mary sensed in a deeper way than the others present at the supper that her Lord would soon be taken from her and she needed to express her devotion in a way none could doubt, especially the man who was the recipient of her largess. It is helpful to remember that those we love may not always be with us. This realization intensifies love in a unique manner and moves us to demonstrate that love in ways that cannot be doubted- as Mary did in Bethany while the odor of the spikenard filled the room.
Personally, it took me a while to realize the truthfulness of what Christ was allowing in his acceptance of Mary’s gift and how it might apply in my own family. It is sometimes easier to spend our earnings on things rather than moments. I have noticed this is particularly true in men, but there is something to be said about moments spent together, about sharing time and place, about allowing the spikenard to fill the room even though the aroma cannot last. How endearing that one moment in time must have been to Mary in the years that came and, I would assume, to the Savior, though he had departed. As I matured I came to understand the value of memories, of what I sometimes call “smelling the spikenard.” Things can wear out, fade, be stolen or lost, but memories abide and, as time passes, grow sweeter. Each year my wife and I travel to Cedar City, Utah, to enjoy the Shakespeare festival. The days we spend in southern Utah enjoying live theatre are not inexpensive. In the early years of attending, I needed to save for months to purchase the tickets, the bed-and-breakfast room, and other necessities. There were times I thought I was not spending my money wisely or charitably. “There are people in the world who are hungry,” I reflected. It seemed such an extravagant four days. But as I look back with fondness, I can think of no better investment I made in my marriage than those times spend in Cedar City.
We have taken our children to many countries around the world, sharing with them the cultures, religions, arts, and peoples of the earth. Great expense is involved, and occasionally I wonder if I should be giving more to the Perpetual Education or Humanitarian Aid funds of the Church, but the memories are sweet and the bonds deeper, and I hope the Lord would pronounce his acceptance of the decisions as he did with Mary. There is value in a memory. There is worth in drawing people together, occasionally even in “very costly” ways. We cannot do this all the time lest the spikenard lose its poignancy, and these decisions need to be weighed with other principles taught in the scriptures, but the possibility that they are acceptable in the eyes of the Lord is comforting. 2
1. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p.81-82.
2. S. Michael Wilcox, What the Scriptures Teach Us About Prosperity, Deseret Book, 2001, p. 65-66.