By Elizabeth Prata
Yesterday I wrote about how my Bible study ended with me coming to a settled conviction that though some of the smaller details seemed to vary, the incidents recorded in Mark 14 & Matthew 26, and the incident recorded in John, are speaking of the same incident.
I explained how I’d come to that conclusion after for a time initially believing the opposite.
After I finished sorting out the incident itself, there is the theological point to consider. I got to thinking about Mary and her vial of nard, worth 300 denarii. Her letting down her hair to dry Jesus’ feet. There is much to consider here.
In the first century, there were a lot of smells. People were unwashed, clothes stank, odorous professions like potters, tanners, dyers of purple operated. In fact when I was studying about Lydia and her profession as a seller of purple, the purple came from a small murex shell (or perhaps a plant) and if Lydia was using the shells, they had to percolate for a few days before extracting the purple. Can you imagine barrels of putrefying mollusks permeating the air? There were ordinances made that such operations must be established outside of town. Potters too.
To combat the stink, women carried perfume in little alabaster flasks. Archaeologists have discovered tons of them, so they were an extremely common item. Alabaster was from Alabastron in Egypt. It was a less permeable material than clay, but was softer than marble and easily formed into boxes or flasks. It is a usual carrier for perfume. The alabaster container of perfumes usually had a narrow neck, and when the woman was ready to use it, could easily break the neck to drizzle the perfume. In Mark 14 we read that the woman (Mary) broke the vial and poured it out over Jesus head.
Mary was said to be carrying nard, or spikenard. Nard is a plant that produced perfumes and ointments that were very costly and precious (Song 1:12, 4:13–14). The liquid is extracted from a plant that grows in the Himalayas, so… it’s expensive! But smelled so good. Even Pliny mentioned how costly the perfume was. In his “Natural History”, Pliny wrote, “[Nard] holds a foremost place among perfumes.”
Mary is described as having ‘about a pound’ of nard, that is about 12 ounces in today’s measurement. Some women held spikenard aside as their dowry, it was so expensive. It had a permeating smell, was vey pleasant, and as the scripture mentioned, was costly.
In the first century also, women wore their hair up. If a woman wore her hair down in public, it indicated she was loose, usually a prostitute.
Paul approved of long hair for women, but considered long hair for men disgraceful (1 Cor 11:14–15). A woman’s unbound hair, and the act of letting it down, often had sexual connotations and could serve as the mark of a “loose woman” (Cosgrove, A Woman’s Unbound Hair, 679). .in The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press
What Mary did was highly socially immodest. Outside in town a woman with loose hair was grounds for characterizing her as loose, but inside Simon’s house, at that moment, Mary’s act of letting down her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet “was a monument of sacred devotion,” as theologian Frederick Danker said the woman’ in Luke’s Gospel was. We can say the same of Mary. Doing what she did is akin to standing up during the church service and taking off her shirt.
Mary’s willingness to pour out her most precious and expensive possession on Jesus is a signal of her deep devotion to the One who is greater than all possessions. Her abandon in cleaning Jesus feet with her hair, thereby “exposing herself” as it were, is another signal that to her, social conventions mattered less than humbling herself at the feet of Jesus, her Messiah in that moment of overwhelming love. Mary’s love for Jesus sought outward expression words could not convey.
We remember another extravagantly righteous display in scripture. David danced before the LORD –
And David was dancing before the LORD with all his strength, and David was wearing a linen ephod. (2 Samuel 6:14).
David didn’t care he was almost naked, seen AS naked by the bystanders. In fact, his love-display so disgusted his wife Michal, that she told him heatedly that David was undignified, and had shamed himself before even their female slaves (apparently the lowest of the low in those days). David countered that he was celebrating the ark’s return, that he was celebrating before the Lord in gratitude, and he’d do it again and go even ‘lower’ if he so felt it necessary.
Michal’s rebuke was made void, for “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.” (2 Samuel 6:23) Apparently the lowest of the low for a wife, especially a king.
Mary was feeling it at the moment. She knew the Lord was going to die soon, and her grief knew no bounds. It was as deep as her love for Christ was high. Yet Mary was scolded by all the men present at the dinner. The disciples had missed the point. They were indignant and chastised her vehemently. Jesus rebuked the disciples for their error, saying, “Leave her alone.” Instead, Jesus accepted Mary’s devotion and worship. In fact, He said her act will be talked about whenever the Gospel is given.
The situation at the Simon the Leper’s house cannot be replicated in our day, it was a tense moment as the crucifixion drew near, with Jesus’ incarnation about the end. I’m not suggesting we all go around socially immodest or extravagantly wild. But I do ponder the abandon to which Mary showed her love for Christ. When we have overwhelming feelings of love and passion for Christ how far are we willing to go in expressing it? Would we trade our most prized possession? Would we risk looking foolish? Would we risk scolding and rebuke?
I’m preaching to myself, because at this moment I’d have to be honest and say ‘no’ to all of those possibilities. Shame on me. I’m not an extravagantly emotional person in public, but even in private, would I…?
On this day of Thanksgiving, we can show Christ our love, our deep, deep love for Him in a myriad of ways. The main thing is to worship Him in ways that express our devotion to Jesus, who is the most precious in the entire universe.