By Pastor Glenn Pease
Leonidas, king of Sparta in 480 B.C. held a horde of 200,000 Persians at Thermopylae pass with 10,000 valiant soldiers. A trader led the Persians by a secret passage to their rear, and Leonidas saw that he was trapped. Most of his men were set free to flee the trap while he and 300 fought until they were all dead. A memorial on that spot reads, "Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here in obedience to their laws." Devotion to the laws of Sparta led them to die for her cause. Memorials for such daring devotion are almost always for men, for men have done most of the daring acts of devotion though history. That is, if we limit our vision to wars in which men dominate. But if we move into other realms beside the battlefield, and look at the sacrificial devotion that was needed to build a worthwhile world to live in when the wars were over, we discover that women play a dominant role.
Jesus exalted the gentle virtues of women rather than the rough virtues of the mighty men of battle. This is a major difference of the New Testament from the Old Testament. Nowhere does Jesus encourage men to remember the victories of war and combat. But He does make sure that a woman's gentle and tender act of love becomes a memorial for all time. Her memorial was not because she obeyed the law, or because she won a battle, or laid down her life. Her memorial is due to the simple fact that she expressed her love in an act of sacrificial devotion.
We must face up to the fact that Jesus did not do for any man what He did for Mary of Bethany. This means that Mary did something here that no man ever did, and so we are compelled to recognize that no man can be fully Christ like who does not recognize, as Jesus did, that the female perspective on life can be superior to that of the male perspective. This incident and the response of the men, and the conclusion of Christ forces us to recognize that the female is often sensitive to things of which the male is blind. There are radical differences in the mentality of the sexes, and we are wise to evaluate these differences, and like Jesus do all we can to combine them, and get the best of both. Jesus was the best of both. As a perfect man He combined the best of both the male and female virtues.
The whole context of this story reveals the contrast of the male and female perspective. It is, in a sense, the conflict of mind verses heart, but this is too simple a statement of the facts. Reality is more complicated than that. It is true that the men are evaluating the price and reasoning as to how the money could have been put to better use in feeding the poor. They are being more intellectual, and are critical of her being sentimental. It is false to say they had no heart, however, for they desired that the poor benefit. It is also false to say Mary was not using her mind. The fact is, she had a deeper mental grasp of the situation than did the men. Spurgeon said, "My own belief is that when she sat at Jesus' feet, she learned much more than any of the disciples had ever gathered from His public preaching."
Mary loved Jesus, not just with her heart, but with her mind also, for she had insight into His death that was superior to that of the men. None of them could even tolerate His saying that He was going to die, but she came and anointed Him for dying. It is an oversimplification to say the male-female contrast is the mind verses the heart, for both function in both sexes. However, since love is the superior virtue, and love seems to be easier for the female to express, this is what gives women the edge in the realm of the spirit.
The great preacher Horace Bushnell said, "Ah! It takes a woman disciple, after all, to do any most beautiful, in certain respects too, as far as love is wisdom, any wisest thing." Any woman who feels inferior has not gotten her feelings from Jesus. He said the female perspective on love is superior to that of the male. The male, however, can have it too, for he can learn it from the female. Jesus expected just that, and that is why this story is to be a vital part of the message carried into all the world with the Gospel. Every Christian, male or female, will be less than their best who miss the message of this great act of love. Women need to learn as well as men, for no one is like Mary without some training. She is the only woman in the Bible that Jesus said would be preached about all over the world for all time.
One of the lessons that is vital for us to learn is the contrast between duty and love. The men tend to see obligation involved. They feel it was Mary's duty to sell the ointment and give it to the poor. Duty tends to be legalistic, and though it does a great deal of good, it is often without joy. When you serve out of a sense of duty you do what you must and no more. Mary acted, not out of any obligation or duty, but out of the spontaneous joy of love. She was extravagant, for love is a spendthrift. She was original, for love does not follow a rut like duty, but seeks for new and unique ways of expressing itself. The Christian who falls into the rut of duty tends to follow routine, and this can make him or her a stable person to have around, yet they are missing the spontaneity and creativity of love. The loving Christian who serves Christ looks for new ways to be loving. He or she surprises him with some new approach to serving. The duty bound Christian will go in circles like Martha, but the love oriented will be seeking for creative ways to please her Lord.
The most creative thing the love motivated Christian is, is a self-starter. Millions of Christians can be moved to give, serve, witness, read the Word, and numerous other things God wants in their lives if there is some kind of a campaign to stir them up to do it. These are the masses of duty oriented Christians. The church would be sunk without them, for they are the majority. They are not the Christians most loved, however, for this place is held by Mary type Christians. Nobody told Mary it would be wise for her to give up her precious perfume for Jesus. She did not just come from a revival meeting. She was not on some spiritual high that had been generated by mass psychology or moving music. On the contrary, she was all alone, and everybody she knew was against her act of devotion. Her family and her best friends in the world said she was foolish.
Mary was a self starter. She did not fall into anyone's rut. Let Martha yell her lungs out, she was not going to miss a chance to sit at the feet of Jesus just so a passing need could be ready a half hour earlier. Mary was one who made her own choices about how she would relate to Jesus, and how she would show her love. Spontaneous love freely expressed is the highest pleasure that Jesus can receive from anyone. To love Him as Mary did is the ideal. Spurgeon saw Mary as the great example, and he said to his congregation, "I am not going to stir you up, my fellow Christians, to do anything for Christ, for I fear to spoil the freeness of your love's life. I do not want to be pleading with you to enter into His service more fully, for the work of pressed men is never so much prized as that of happy volunteers.
Mary was one of those happy volunteers. It is no wonder that Jesus loved her, and was so deeply grateful for her love. Such love is rare even among believers, and Jesus wanted to make sure that every believer got a chance to see this ideal, and so He guaranteed it would be told everywhere. The poet wrote,
She brought her box of alabaster,
The precious spikenard filled the room.
With honor worthy of the Master,
A costly, rare, and rich perfume.
No bottle of perfume ever lasted so long, and touched so many lives with its fragrance as did this broken bottle of Mary's. Had she preserved it or sold it for the poor its influence would have faded soon, but because she poured it on Jesus it's influence will never end.
Nothing else that ever happened to Jesus impressed Him quite like this act of devotion by Mary. Jesus did so many marvelous things for others, but very seldom did anyone ever show Him their love in a special way. Mary made Jesus feel loved more than any other person as far as we have any record. John 11:5 tells us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but there is no doubt that Jesus had a unique love for Mary, just as among men He had a unique love for John. Is it possible that John and Mary are the two most popular names because they were the most loved by Jesus?
I have wondered many times if Jesus ever fell in love. It is hard for us to think that He did, for when we think of love we link it to sex. But I got to examining life, and I have come to the conclusion that love and sex do not always have to be combined. Jesus could have an experience of love that is not out of keeping with His perfect and sinless nature. I remember when I first met Lavonne, and I know from experience that love and sex are two different worlds. They come together in time to make one world, but they can be totally distinct. I can remember the feelings of tenderness and warmth that comes with being with someone you enjoy. Out of this positive and pleasant experience of each others presence comes love, and later comes the sexual expression of love.
I can easily believe that Jesus entered into these initial stages of love in His relation to Mary. It happened late in His life because in God's plan He did not come to make any one women His bride. The whole church of the redeemed was to be His bride. But I am convinced that Jesus did enter into the precious experience of love. He experienced the joy of being understood by a woman who cared for Him deeply. It is hard to believe that as a perfect man He would not fall in love with such a devoted disciple as Mary. It is a logical conclusion to come to when we see that in the Song of Solomon Jesus is symbolized by the male lover in that great love story. It is inconsistent with God's revelation to assume Jesus never knew the experience of love. He wanted her story told for all of history because it was one of His most unique experiences.
One of the powerful lessons we learn from this is how to test our love. If your first impulse in a relationship to the opposite sex is sexual, you do not have a good foundation for marriage. True love will begin on a level of admiration, and build to commitment and loyalty before it gets to physical intimacy. It is the first stages of love that are the lasting basis for love. I am convinced Jesus experienced these basic beginning stages, and that is why He honored Mary as no other person. She could give Him no greater sacrifice, and He could give her no greater honor. We see here a clear demonstration of mutual love in its noblest and purest form.
Jesus wanted Mary's love for Him to go everywhere that the story of His love went. In so doing Jesus links together forever divine and human love. Any form of Christianity that tries to separate them is divorced from Scripture. The divine and human are married in this story, and what God has joined together let not man put asunder. Jesus wants our love just as we want His, for there is a mutual need. Mary is the great example of one who met that need. Mary loved Jesus more than the disciples, for none of them could see His need as she did. They never did until it was too late. D. L. Moody said, "Mary knew His mind, she had deeper fellowship with Him; her heart clung to Him." Because it was so, she built a memorial that has outlasted empires, and goes on daily all over the world challenging men and women to daring devotion.