“ ‘I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her’ ” (Mark 14:9, NIV).
Of all the followers of Christ before His death, Mary Magdalene seemed the least likely to be associated with the mission of the church. Yet Mark 14:9 records that Jesus directly connected the two.
With preaching the good news of hope to the world as the mission of the church, what, then, does Mary’s alabaster bottle have to do with it? What was so important about Mary’s action that qualified her story to be told wherever the gospel is preached?
The answer? Commitment—self-denying, self-sacrificing, total commitment.
The cost of Mary’s offering
Mary Magdalene is no stranger. Her name brings to mind a girl seduced by Simon, a prominent man. A young woman who, perhaps trying to avoid the Bethany village gossip and ridicule, relocates to Magdala. There she loses her identity and gets initiated into a life of prostitution.
At the mention of her name, the picture of an exhausted, fearful outcast being dragged by men with stones comes to mind. You can probably feel her emotions as, under such uncomfortable circumstances, the words of hope drop into her ears like music: “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). That event led to her release from the shackles of seven demons, and into a love relationship that led to a total commitment. How did she develop her self-denying, self-sacrificing commitment?
To her, being at the feet of Jesus had gone beyond probability to reality. That is how she got her strength and commitment—just as you and I would when we sit every morning at His feet, gazing at His face and listening to His voice in a personal relational Bible study and prayer. This probably describes the “how” of commitment.
The feast at Bethany
But I learn the “what” of commitment in the afternoon when Simon threw a party in honor of Jesus.
Come with me to Bethany, to a feast. People are eating and enjoying themselves. A woman enters stealthily and moves apprehensively toward the Guest of Honor. With a heart that seems to be pounding out of her chest, she kneels by His feet and starts to weep and moistens His feet with her tears. She wipes the tears with her long flowing hair, breaks an alabaster jar of perfume, and anoints the feet of Jesus.
What interests me is that Mary went beyond tears of repentance and appreciation. She wiped the tears with her long flowing hair in public. First Corinthians 11:15 says that a woman’s hair is her glory. Notice, Mary poured out her glory at the feet of Jesus—in public. That was self-denial. She also demonstrated self-sacrifice by giving what looked like her life’s savings. The perfume was prepared from the roots and hairy stems of a plant found on the high mountains of the Himalayas in India. To get it, one had to climb to the heights of the Himalayas, uproot the herbs before the leaves opened, dry them, and extract an aromatic oil to make that fragrant perfume. The perfume was, thus, expensive in India. Now it was exported all the way from India to Palestine, making it extraordinarily expensive.
The alabaster bottle was also expensive by itself. It was a sealed flask made from a rock and had a long neck that had to be broken in order to use the perfume. Once broken, it could not be used anymore. You can imagine the appreciating effect it would have when added to the extraordinarily expensive perfume.
Mark 14:5 gives an idea of how much the perfume could have cost—more than a year’s wages. To put this in perspective, to our knowledge all that the good Samaritan paid to the innkeeper for the care and hotel bills of the wounded man on the Jericho road was two denarii (Luke 10:35). At that time, two denarii was the bill for two months in an inn. However, the perfume cost more than 300 denarii.
Like the woman with the two mites, Mary poured all her life savings at the feet of Jesus. That was self-sacrifice.
A needed lesson
Those who were closest to Christ, those whom we would expect to have understood what was happening and to have given the greatest support to Mary, instead criticized her harshly. Mark 14:4, 5 says, “But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, ‘Why was this fragrant oil wasted? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.’ And they criticized her sharply” (NKJV).
The Greek word embrimaomai, used here for “criticize sharply,” describes their indignation as being like “snorting horses.” That was the problem of the disciples then, and perhaps also today. They, at that moment, suffered from the disease that causes self to navigate away from what really matters. No wonder none of them was given the privilege of being the first to bear the words of hope, as was Mary, but were told to wait until they had become committed enough to receive the power of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, Mary was a living demonstration of self-denial and self-sacrifice. She exhibited a total commitment that made her the first bearer of the words of hope, “He is risen.” While all the others had left, she was still there by the tomb.
Mark 14:5 states that the perfume might have been sold for more than a year’s wages. The New Living Translation puts it, “ ‘It could have been sold for a year’s wages.’ ” The root meaning of dunamai, which has been translated “could have,” or “might have,” incorporates the concepts of ability, capability, and power. The substantive form is used in Acts 1:8, “ ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you’ ” (NIV; emphasis added). Dunamai, in the context, implies that she could have sold it for over a year’s wages, yet she surrendered it all at the feet of the Lord. Her action shows that one has to surrender one’s abilities, capabilities, power, and self-glory to the Lord before one can fulfill the mission of the church.
What was important about the action of the woman with the alabaster bottle? She did not only sing “I Surrender All.” She lived it. She was a living demonstration of self-denial, self-sacrifice, and complete commitment, which must accompany the proclamation of the gospel.
The church cannot achieve much without the total commitment of its leaders and members—leaders who will humble themselves and be examples of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Commitment is the driving force that the Holy Spirit will use to achieve the mission. Surely wherever the gospel will be preached there also will be the Mary Magdalene commitment.
A living demonstration
I was conducting an evangelistic series in Goaso, Ghana. A group of young people from Kumasi joined me for the last two weeks in order to sing and give Bible studies. At the end of the first week, there was a boisterous thunderstorm. Thunder roared and threatened to tear the darkened sky into pieces while accompanying lightning flashed. The leader of the group, at that particular moment giving Bible studies, was hit by a bolt. We believed God was going to do a miracle. We prayed all night while he was transferred from the small clinic in town to a district hospital. But he died.
The superstition associated with lightning killing a man induced fear in a lot of people. Discouragement hung in our sky because, in the context of superstition versus the power of God, a great controversy in its own right had emerged with many questions being raised. I pleaded with the young people to go back to Kumasi and put the minds of their families at peace and also to prepare for the burial of their leader. But, like Ruth, they said, “No, let the body be put in the morgue until we have completed the campaign.” None left, complained, or showed discouragement. They even worked harder and, as a result, a vibrant church was planted. The young people were not employed by the church, they were not paid, and they were not going to be given any special positions in the church. Yet they stuck with the evangelistic series. That was commitment.
Those young people had learned to spend time with the Lord in prayer, Bible study, and witnessing—three indispensable and interconnected elements for any sustainable growth in Christianity.
The point? Wherever the gospel will be preached, Mary’s love, self-denial, self-sacrifice, and total commitment will be told. May the Holy Spirit help us develop those qualities as we proclaim the words of hope. Then our offices will emit hope, our relationships will transmit hope, and our proclamations will effect hope as we, under the power of God, work to achieve the mission of the church.