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A PERFUME OF SWEET ODOR
—MATT. 26:6-16.—JAN. 6.—
“She hath done what she could”
PRECEDING LESSONS showed us incidents in our Lord’s journey toward Jerusalem, via Jericho—the healing of the blind men by the wayside, the conversion of Zacchaeus, and the parable of the young nobleman, given because they were nigh unto Jerusalem, and because the disciples and many of the multitude expected that the Kingdom of God would immediately be manifested,—set up in earthly grandeur, etc. The distance from Jericho to Jerusalem was only about twenty miles, and Bethany, the home-city of Lazarus (whom our Lord raised from the dead) and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, was quite near to Jerusalem
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and with them Jesus decided to spend his last Sabbath-day in the flesh. We may presume that the day was happily spent according to the observance of the Sabbath required by the Jewish law; but the narrative, passing over the events of the day unnoticed, draws special attention to the feast or supper made for our Lord in the evening, after sundown, when the Sabbath was considered ended, and the first day of the week beginning.
This feast was at the house of Simon the leper, yet Simon is not mentioned in connection with the narrative, and it is quite probable that he was then dead. It is conjectured that Simon was either the father of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, or else that Martha was the widow of Simon, and that Lazarus and Mary were younger than she. These items, however, are merely tradition, nothing in the Scriptures throwing any light upon the matter. We remember that on the occasion of a previous visit to this home, our Lord was entertained; and Mary became so absorbed in listening to the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth that for the time she neglected the ordinary affairs of life, until her more practical, but possibly less spiritually-inclined, sister commented upon the fact, which brought forth our Lord’s declaration to the effect that while service is quite acceptable and appreciated, veneration and fellowship are still more appreciated—”Mary hath chosen the better part.”
The two sisters had the enviable privilege of serving the Lord and ministering to his comfort in the feast of our lesson, just before the agonies which closed his earthly life. As before, so now, the service of the two sisters took somewhat different form, but probably this time by mutual agreement and prearrangement; Martha herself served the table with others assisting, and Mary was left free to render her peculiar service, of which this lesson is a memorial. From some source she had procured a valuable alabaster vase of choice perfume. She had either purchased the vase, and manufactured the perfume herself, at great expense of time, etc., or had spent for its purchase a considerable sum of money. She had anticipated our Lord’s coming, and had fully arranged matters so that at this feast she might treat him in a manner in which very few except the worldly great were ever treated;—kings, emperors, etc., were thus anointed with perfume, but very rarely indeed could others afford such a luxury, for the facilities for manufacturing perfume then were quite inferior to what they are now, and even if the perfume were of home manufacture and of fine quality the cost in time, etc., would be great, and the perfume would be so valuable that it was usual to sell it to the very wealthy.
The feast had begun, and Jesus, with the disciples and other guests, were at the table, which, according to eastern custom, was long and narrow, the guests not sitting upon chairs, but reclining full length upon couches or divans, with the head extending over the table, and the feet extending back to the rear, the weight of the shoulders poised upon the left elbow, while the right hand was used in partaking of the food.
While Martha and her associates were serving, Mary came forward and, breaking the seal upon her alabaster vase, she began to pour the precious perfume upon our Lord’s head, and subsequently, as John’s record of the matter informs us, going to our Lord’s feet she poured some of it upon them, and wiped them with the hair of her head. Mary’s affection for our Lord was so deep and so strong that it could not be satisfied with any of the ordinary methods of expression. If the kings of earth were perfumed and anointed, much more did she esteem it fitting that her friend, her Lord, the Messiah, should be anointed with the best that she could procure for him. Her love was so intense that it knew no economy—nothing could be too good for her Beloved. She would give expression to the rich sentiments of her heart by giving him the finest and most costly of sweet natural odors. Our Lord appreciated the matter fully—the sweet odor of the heart-love which prompted the act, still more than the sweet odors which filled the entire house.
But the disciples, more selfish and less able to appreciate Mary’s true sentiments, and the propriety of their expression in this form, found fault with her, and the records show that their leader and mouthpiece, who incited the fault-finding spirit amongst the others, was Judas, the treasurer of the little company, whose disappointment
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was great that the value of this ointment did not find its way into his money-bag, and thus a part of it, at least, to his own private uses; for we are told, “He was a thief, and carried the bag.” His objection seems to favor the thought that Mary may have prepared the perfume herself, for he does not object to its having been purchased for a large sum, but that it might have been sold for three hundred pence. (Mark 14:5.) Estimating the value at 300 Roman pence, or denarii, worth about 16 cents each, the value of the ointment would be about forty-eight dollars, but much more than this amount would be represented in today’s values; for we are to remember that a denarius represented a workman’s wages for a day, and hence that 300 denarii would practically represent a workman’s wages for a year. It was indeed an extravagant action, but it represented an extravagant love, and was expended upon one whom God and the angels delighted to honor, and whom Mary seems to have appreciated much more nearly at his true value than did his other associates of the hour.
Beloved Mary! We can, perhaps, imagine to some
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extent the emotions which filled her heart as she prepared this costly expression of her devotion, the sentiment of which she hoped others would appreciate. But now, on the contrary, she beholds the “indignation” of her friends and guests, the Master’s nearest companions; and her heart sinks within her as she fears that the Lord himself will view the matter in a similar light, and reject and disapprove her libation. What a load is lifted from her heart, when she hears our Lord pronouncing her work a noble deed, and reproving his disciples for lack of sympathy in her sentiment, telling them that this perfuming of his body was in preparation for his burial. It was probably in the midst of this discussion of the matter between Jesus and the apostles that Mary, having anointed his head with the perfume, went to his feet, and began anointing them also, wiping them with her hair, as an evidence that the most precious thing of her personal adornment was gladly at the service of her Lord.
Probably Mary had no thought of perfuming our Lord’s body for burial, and his words to this effect would be as astounding to her as to the others who heard them. It was customary with the ancients to spend considerable care and money upon the persons of their dead in preparing them for burial; sweet spices and perfumes, etc., were lavishly bestowed, just as today it is the custom to provide handsome caskets and many and expensive flowers and fine monuments, as expressive of the love and appreciation in which the dead are held by their friends. In Mary’s conduct in the pouring of the precious perfume upon the Savior while he was yet living, we have a most excellent suggestion in respect to the proper course to be pursued toward those we love. It is far, far better that we should unstop our alabaster vases of perfume, and pour them upon the heads and upon the weary feet of our friends, while still they live, than that we should wait until they have expired, and then give our attention to the cold, inanimate and unappreciative corpse. Our alabaster boxes are our hearts, which should be full of the richest and sweetest perfumes of good wishes, kindness and love toward all, but especially toward the Christ—toward the Head of Christ, our Lord Jesus, and toward all the members of his body, the Church; and especially on our part toward the feet members who are now with us, and on whom we now have the privilege of pouring out the sweet odors of love and devotion in the name of the Lord, and because we are his. The poet writes:
“How oft we, careless, wait till life’s sweet activities are past,
And break our ‘alabaster box of ointment’ at the very last!
O, let us heed the living friend, who walks with us life’s common ways,
Watching our eyes for looks of love, and hungering for a word of praise!”
The heart of each truly consecrated child of God is like the alabaster vase,—a receptacle for the holy spirit, the spirit of love, the choicest perfume and most precious to the Lord and to men. It is expensive, because it cannot be gathered rapidly, but requires patient perseverance in well-doing to be “filled with all the fulness of God.” Again, it is like Mary’s vase in that it gives forth its odor not before, but after the seal is broken and the contents poured forth. It differs from hers, however, in the fact that it may be continually poured out and yet its fulness all the while increase.
Our hearts and their holy love are like Mary’s vase again, in that they should be poured upon the Lord himself—upon the Head first, but subsequently upon the members of his body, even the humblest, the lowliest, the feet. And this should be our service, even tho it be unappreciated by others, who instead would think that we should pour our love and devotion upon sinners, or upon the poor heathen world. They realize not what abundant opportunities there will be for blessing the heathen world in the future, in the Millennial age, which God has set apart for their blessing, and in which his disciples will have abundant opportunity for co-working with him in the general uplifting of the world of mankind. Those who upbraid us for pouring out our heart-treasures upon the members of Christ, the Church, do so through ignorance, and if at times it has caused some discouragement to us, let us hearken to the words of the Master, declaring that such is a noble course that has his approval, and that it is proper as a prelude to the burial of the entire Church, the body;—that it will be appropriate that this shall be done to the Church rather than for the poor world, up to the time when the Church shall have finished the earthly pilgrimage;—up to the time when the sufferings of Christ having been fulfilled there shall be no longer opportunity to bless and refresh and comfort the body of Christ, respecting whom our Lord declares that what is done to them is done to him.—Matt. 25:40.
So, then, let the Marthas serve the Lord in one way, and the Marys pour out their most precious spikenard perfume, assured that neither service will be forgotten; for both are told and have been told for eighteen centuries, as memorials to their praise, testimonies of their love, which the Lord appreciated and accepted, however they were viewed by others.
OPPOSITION FROM SELFISH HEARTS
In this connection it is well to notice sharply that the one who made the greatest ado on behalf of the poor, and who objected most to Mary’s expression of her devotion, was the thief and murderer, Judas. And the principle, to a considerable extent, seems to hold good all down throughout this Gospel age: that those who make the greatest outcry on behalf of mission work and in opposition to the expenditure of costly time in
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the anointing and blessing of the consecrated members of the body of Christ, are not always those who have the interests of the heathen exclusively at heart, but are frequently those who have an “axe to grind,” a selfish interest in some way to serve. And not infrequently these hypocrites mislead others of the Lord’s dear people, who are thoroughly conscientious, even as Judas, by his sophistry, for a time misled the other apostles into indignation against Mary for the doing of the very thing which was pleasing to the Lord, and on account of which he decreed that wherever this Gospel should be preached her conduct should be mentioned as a memorial.
And so it is today: this gospel is preached in more than 350 languages—to every important nation in the world. But we presume that it was not merely Mary that our Lord wished to memorialize, but especially her deed: he wished that all who should know the good tidings should know also of his appreciation of such devotion to him, to his body, and that the more it costs us the more he appreciates it. In view of this, let each one who would be pleasing in the Lord’s sight seek continually to pour the perfume from his heart and life upon other members of the body of Christ, and let him realize that in so doing he will not only be pleasing to the Lord, but will be receiving also a blessing himself; for as no alabaster vase could pour forth perfumes upon others without itself being thoroughly involved in the perfume, so our hearts, as they pour forth upon others of the members of the body the sweet perfume of love and devotion to the Lord and his cause, will be sure to bring a blessing to ourselves, even in the present life—our Lord’s approval and benediction now and everlastingly.
Some of the methods employed in connection with present endeavor to anoint the members of the Lord’s “body” for burial,—with the perfume of his truth and grace—call down the condemnation of fellow-disciples. As for instance, the expenditure of time, energy, and large sums of money this present year in the “Volunteer” work has been, and will be misunderstood by many of the Lord’s dear children,—and be bitterly reproved by those who are of the Judas stripe. Yet realizing the Lord’s approval we have quite sufficient to make our cup of joy overflow. Fellow-disciples tell us that we should not be handing the meat in due season to the household of faith, but to sinners; that we should not be seeking to anoint the saints with the sweet perfume of present truth, but should, on the contrary, be going to the outcasts of society, engaging in slum-work or in foreign-mission work. The real difficulty with the Judas class, however, is that they fear that the circulation of the truth amongst the Lord’s people would cut off the revenue which otherwise might flow into their coffers: they fear the loss of numbers and influence in sectarianism. But their fears are largely imaginary; for the perfume of the truth is only designed
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to fall upon “the members of the body of Christ,” and our expectations are that the Lord will guide it to these, and that to others it will be of no effect. And since the members of the body of Christ, the consecrated ones, are so few, their anointing and their separation from Babylon, and their burial, will be comparatively unnoticed so far as numbers are concerned,—tho their taking away as the “salt” and the “light” of those systems, will indeed be a serious loss, conspiring to their downfall in the great time of trouble approaching.—Matt. 5:13,14.
Let us not forget to note clearly and distinctly the wide difference between love and selfishness, as exemplified in the opposite courses of Mary and Judas. Mary, full of burning devotion, was willing to sacrifice much to honor, comfort and please her Lord. Judas not only was unwilling to sacrifice on his behalf, but on the contrary was willing to sell him to his enemies for thirty shekels—the price of a slave. Not only so, but the devotion of the one seemed not to impress the other favorably, but rather the reverse; the devotion of Mary, and our Lord’s approval of it, seem to have aroused the opposite spirit in Judas, for he went straightway to negotiate with the chief priests for our Lord’s betrayal into their hands.
It would appear from the Greek text, and the rendering of the same in the Revised Version, that Judas received the money for his work in advance: “They weighed unto him thirty pieces of silver.” He completed the contract; he sold himself to work evil, and that against his benefactor, his Lord, of whose power he was fully conversant, and of which, indeed, he had received so abundantly that he himself had been enabled to heal the sick and cast out devils. How strange that any could be so perverse! No doubt he had a way of reasoning the matter to himself which made his crime appear to him less heinous than it does to us. No doubt, also, others who today are willing less directly to sell the Lord for earthly advantage or influence or money find ways of excusing their perfidy; but in proportion as our hearts are loyal and devoted, as was Mary’s, in that same proportion will the Judas course appear heinous and impossible to us.
Yet these climaxes of character are not reached suddenly. Mary’s love had been growing from the first; it was greatly strengthened by her course in sitting at the Master’s feet and receiving from him spiritual nourishment, which our Lord declared to be a still better part or course than that pursued by her sister, tho the latter was not disapproved. Mary’s faith and love had been still further increased as she witnessed the
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Lord’s power in various ways, and especially at her brother’s awakening from the tomb. She had cultivated this love and appreciation for the Lord until it filled her entire heart, and found its expression in the costly libation which she had just poured upon his head and his feet. Judas, on the other hand, had long been permitting the spirit of selfishness to more and more intrude upon his heart; he had permitted himself to think of what money would do, and had given his thought largely toward its accumulation. It had fettered his soul, so that he was unable to appreciate the Lord’s character, even tho he knew him intimately from daily association, so that he was unable to measure anything except from a monetary standpoint. And these bands of selfishness gradually grew so hard and tight about his heart that they squeezed out everything of character, of love, devotion and friendship, and thus gradually he came to be the representative of, and his name the synonym for, the grossest of ingratitude and meanness, selfishness and treachery. One lesson for us here is, to cultivate love and the appreciation of whatsoever things are just, good, lovely and pure; and to fight down and eradicate so far as possible (especially from our own hearts and lives) everything selfish, mean, ignoble, dishonorable.
— December 15, 1900 —