Mistakes are hard enough to make, but when those mistakes are followed by a stern reprimand, ouch. That’s when the embarrassment, the hurt, and sometimes even the anger begin to swirl. Over the course of my life, I’ve found myself on the receiving end of a reprimand more than I care to count. Admonishments that are especially shame-inducing are those that are carried out in front of others. I remember being reprimanded in my high school Spanish class when I was a Freshman. The teacher firmly scolded me in front of all of my peers, including the resident mean girls who sat smirking at my misery.
In the Bible, there is a story about Mary of Bethany, who is reprimanded by several men who find fault in her actions. The story says that Mary goes to the home of Simon, who is having a sort of dinner party for several others, including Jesus. While the men are eating, she takes this alabaster jar which is filled with expensive perfume oil, breaks it apart, and anoints the head of Jesus. Immediately the men begin to reprimand and scorn her in front of everyone, including Jesus! Can you imagine how shocking that must have been?
If you can’t imagine it, let me try to further paint a picture for you, to show you just how important this action was—not just to her, but to Jesus, and to the events that would follow.
This was no ordinary dinner. It was taking place just two days before Jesus would be crucified. The house was no accident either, as it took place at the home of Simon who was a former leper, who because of this would have (at least at the time of his leprosy) been labeled as an outcast. The Mary in question is the sister of both Martha, and Lazarus (aka: the man who Jesus raised from the dead). Although Mary is the sister of the man whom Jesus has performed an amazing miracle on, and whom we can presume he felt affection for considering he wept over Lazarus’ body, she is known as ‘a sinful woman’ (Luke 7:37) Not only are the circumstances, timing, environment, and guestlist impressive to note, but the act of breaking apart the jar to anoint with perfume was spectacular as well.
Anointing is another way that historically has meant that we are set apart as holy to God. Not only that, but the anointing of the head indicates an act of honoring, or of consecrating a body for burial. With this act, Mary of Bethany has set Jesus apart as holy, she’s honored Him, and she’s consecrated his body for his impending death and subsequent burial. And yet, she is publicly scorned for it.
The reasons that the men give for their outburst is that instead of ‘wasting’ the perfume on Jesus, she could have instead ‘sold it for almost a year’s wages and given money to the poor’. (Mark 14:4-5) Their argument could be seen as valid, if you understand a few things. It was a highly expensive sort of perfume oil, taken from a plant called Nard. This plant only grows in the Himalayas, which is a hike from Israel (almost 3,000 miles from the former region of Bethany, which is now known as the West Bank). Not only is it indigenous to a country thousands of miles in distance, but the plant also grows at an altitude of at least 9000 feet. It’s not a small trip to the corner store, to obtain more, you know?
So when our girl Mary breaks the alabaster container, and pours out this costly and precious oil, to coat Jesus in a scent that is described as a deep forest smell, the men at the party can’t believe what they’re seeing. They’re upset! That oil cost almost a year’s worth of wages! What in the world were you thinking, Mary?
And what does Jesus do while they’re reprimanding her and telling her just how expensive that container of perfume was? He shuts them down, and tells them bluntly to “Leave her alone,” that what Mary has done is to prepare Him for burial. He goes even further, and tells them that she will be remembered for what she’s done.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Mark 14:6-9
And here we are today, learning about the beauty in the breaking of that container. The expensive and extravagant perfume was not wasted. In the breaking, Mary was honoring Jesus. In the breaking, she was shown incredible mercy by the Savior. In the breaking, Mary has not been forgotten. In the breaking, she played an important role in what would happen to Jesus just two days after she’d anointed Him.
What I would have given in that high school Spanish class, for a Savior to come to my defense. What I would have given to have been that spectacular to the Savior of the world, even though I’d been publicly admonished and according to the world’s view was guilty of sin.
The beauty in the breaking is something that we can all learn from. In order to prepare for something greater, we need to break the container. Release what’s precious, give it over to the Savior…and if we should come against admonishment, allow the one who saves to save us.