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Why Did Mary Anoint Jesus’ Feet with Perfume?

This costly act of love is considered by the disciples to be a waste, but Jesus gladly receives it as a lovely gesture of genuine love. May our Lord help us all to love him with the same type of unbridled love as Mary.

Why Did Mary Anoint Jesus’ Feet with Perfume?

There are many occurrences in the Bible that, at first glance, seem trivial and unimportant until we look more closely to find quite profound shadows of far greater spiritual realities. One such instance is found in Matthew 26 during a meal in Simon the leper’s house.

Mark tells us that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead, were present at the meal along with Jesus and the other disciples (Mark 14:3-9).

The gospel writer, Matthew, adds that at some point during the gathering, a woman, whom Mark identifies as Mary, goes over to Jesus and pours an alabaster vial of “very costly perfume” (Matthew 26:7) on his head.

What Is the Significance of the Perfume?

The question that I want to explore is this: what possessed the woman to do such a thing, and does such a radical act have anything to say to believers in the 21st century?

As we consider the broken alabaster jar and the motivation behind the act, there are two perspectives that demand our attention. The first view that I will evaluate is simply that of Mary.

At that moment, what was Mary thinking, and what in the world would possess her to sacrifice such a costly possession? If it were possible to ask her for an explanation, what would she say?

The second perspective that must be considered is the theological meaning and its place in the greater meta-narrative of God’s story. How does this one woman and her extravagant display of adoration move the story of God forward?

It is worth noting that Matthew, Mark, and John contain a variation of the same story, with Luke telling a very similar but different account. Matthew, Mark, and John seem to retell the same story involving these same people in the same place.

But like multiple people who might witness the same car accident, each witness may see details that the others don’t.

We must always remember that the Holy Spirit-inspired Word of God was written by human authors, and this possibly accounts for why one writer states that Jesus’ head was anointed, and another says that Jesus’ feet were anointed.

Such variations don’t change the intended theological meaning of the text at all. Details that were important to one man might not be important to the others. Then there’s Luke’s account of a woman who anoints Jesus (Luke 7:36).

Unlike the other three accounts, Luke certainly seems to be recounting a similar but altogether different story in another time and place involving an entirely different cast of participants. For the purposes of this article, I will focus primarily on the account told by Matthew, Mark, and John.

Who Was Mary?

Though neither Matthew nor Mark assigns a name to the woman, Luke (Luke 11:2) and John identify her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead (John 11:2; 12:1-3).

What do we know about Mary that might help us understand her unusual conduct around the dining table? First of all, Bethany, Mary’s village, seems to have been a favorite retreat destination for Jesus when he wanted to get away to rest (Matthew 21:17; Mark 11:12; Luke 19:29).

We can assume that Jesus’ infinity for the town had more to do with the people there than the scenery or resort-like atmosphere.

Though we are not surprised to learn of the Lord’s love for anyone, Luke emphasizes that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (Luke 11:5), indicating a uniquely intimate relationship between Jesus and this particular family.

Luke also informs us of an occasion when Jesus was eating in the home of the family and though “Martha was distracted with all her preparations,” Mary, on the other hand, was “seated at the Lord’s feet listening to His word” (Luke 10:39-40).

In no way am I under-valuing or making light of Martha’s love for the Lord, but it seems that Mary might have been in tune with Jesus and understood his mission more than most.

Maybe there is an overlooked truth to be found here that listening to Christ tunes our hearts and minds to Christ in a way that our mere actions never can.

There can be little doubt that at the moment Jesus was reclined at the table, Mary was so overwhelmed with love and awe for Christ that she spontaneously erupted in holy devotion for the one who would one day resurrect her to new life in a similar fashion as she had witnessed take place in the life of her brother Lazarus.

At this moment, Mary is not moved by logic or careful planning. Instinctively, Mary is compelled to offer unparalleled praise to the one she believes to be King of all. In an unrestrained demonstration of affection, Mary gives her most costly treasure.

John identifies the treasure as a “pound of very costly perfume of pure nard” (John 12:3), which was worth “three hundred denarii” (John 12:5), the equivalent to a year’s wage in that day.

Mark actually says that Mary “broke the vial” (Mark 14:3), indicating that there was no thought on Mary’s part of holding back any portion of the perfume for herself or for any other purpose.

Once the vial was broken, the decision had been made to use every drop to anoint the Lord. In the eyes of this faithful disciple, Jesus was worth every drop, and no greater purpose could ever be found for its use.

How Much Is Jesus Worth?

Mary’s example is deeply convicting. How often am I and those like me, who claim deep affection for Jesus, simply unwilling to give up everything for Christ?

I must confess that on more than one occasion, I have counted the cost of following Jesus to the extent that Mary did, and I have determined that the price was too high.

For Mary, the joy of knowing Christ was a far greater treasure than anything she could hold in her hands.

Unfortunately, I find that I am more often like Ananias and Sapphira, who “kept back” some of their newfound treasure for their own benefit and then lied about what they had done (Acts 5:1-3).

Because Mary viewed Christ to be her most valuable possession, she was able to hold on loosely to all other earthly treasures (Matthew. 6:20-21). 

There is one more question that must be answered in order to discern the full sense of this passage. What are the theological implications of this text in the broader context of the biblical narrative?

When seeing the indignation that Judas and the other disciples had over what they perceived to be a wasteful expression, Jesus explained, “For when she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare Me for burial” (Matthew 26:12).

Is it possible that this is what Mary had in mind when she was pouring out her gift of worship? It is more likely that Mary, as I have indicated, was simply desiring to worship her King with the most extravagant gift she had.

In the process, Mary unknowingly was performing an act of loyalty and kindness that Jesus’ executioners would fail to do not many days hence.

Remember, because of the Sabbath, Jesus’ body would be removed in haste from the cross, and though Joseph and Nicodemus had prepared some spices and perfumes for Jesus’ burial, obviously they had not had time to finish the job (Luke 23:56).

As the first day of the week dawns, “they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared” (Luke 24:1), apparently to complete the job which had begun several days earlier. But there was no need. Jesus had been raised, and his body had already been anointed for burial by Mary.

Why Does This Matter?

But more than any other purpose, it seems that this story of Mary’s loyal love for Christ is placed strategically between two separate occurrences where Jesus would be “handed over.” Jesus would be “handed over to” Caiaphas (Matthew 26:2) and “handed over by” Judas (Matthew 26:14-19).

As Jesus draws closer to the cross, he is confronted with egregious betrayals on every front. But standing in contrast to the radical rejections, we find Mary loving Jesus supremely.

This costly act of love is considered by the disciples to be a waste, but Jesus gladly receives it as a lovely gesture of genuine love. May our Lord help us all to love him with the same type of unbridled love as Mary.

For further reading:

How Are We to Be the ‘Sweet Aroma of Christ’?

What Can We Learn from Mary and Martha in the Bible?

What Does it Mean to Be Anointed by God?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Madeleine_Steinbach


Dr. Rick Kirby, along with his wife and children, lives in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer for organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Erskine Theological Seminary. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in India, Romania, Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffeeYou can find other works by Kirby at www.rickkirby.org.