1 It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2 for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” 3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Allow me to propose that there are and always have been in the church two general types of Christians. The categories are not always nice and neat and, at times, people might fluctuate between the two. However, I believe we can say that, in general, the membership of the average church will consist of “nominal Christians” and “authentic Christians.”
By “nominal Christians” I mean Christians whose beliefs are largely inherited. They oftentimes grew up in and around Christian culture and picked up the language and beliefs of the Church. They consider themselves Christians, and perhaps they are—perhaps, that is, they have had a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ and placed saving faith in Him along the way—but they are more “nominal” than “convictional.” Where this tends to flesh itself out is when the ostensible beliefs of the nominal Christian are challenged by dominant cultural mores or when holding to Christian beliefs would bring the nominal Christian into conflict with or under the ridicule of non-Christian culture. The nominal Christian may not immediately abandon their unpopular beliefs, but they will usually modify them or mute them or take the sharp edges off of them. When it comes to paying a price, the nominal Christian does not have enough actual conviction to hold tenaciously to their beliefs because, when all is said and done, they are oftentimes not actually beliefs.
Then there are “authentic Christians.” By “authentic” I do not mean “super” or “perfect,” for no Christian is. The authentic Christian may tragically fall or lapse into nominalism and need to repent and return to an authentic walk with Christ. They may, like Peter, deny their Lord and need, like Peter, restoration before the Lord. But the authentic Christian has the Holy Spirit working within him or her and cannot comfortably stay in such a position for very long. They will be grieved when they fall or when they modify the faith to meet the perceived demands of the dominant culture. The authentic Christian actually believes the truth of the gospel. They are real to him or her. They matter. They are convictions. When and if their beliefs come into conflict with the culture, the authentic Christian feels a deep allegiance to Jesus Christ and faithfulness to His teachings. He or she sees abandoning or modifying these beliefs as treason against the King and finds the notion detestable.
What is most interesting is when nominal Christians and authentic Christians come into contrast within the church. It happens all the time: the theoretical comes into contrast with the actual and the two stare at each other with some sense of confusion about how they can both profess to be Christians but think or behave so very differently in this or that circumstance. When all is at peace, the differences are hard to spot, but allow conflict or persecution or the need to take a stand to arise and the differences become clear.
Our text presents us with a classic example of this awkwardness, indeed, of this conflict between the nominal and the authentic. As Jesus approaches the cross, an authentic disciple, an actual believer who understands what the coming of Jesus means for her life and for the world, does something that is offensive to the nominal believer.
Genuine faith in Jesus trends toward shocking displays of radical devotion.
Our story begins at a dinner party. Jesus and the disciples are dining at the house of a man named Simon. In Jerusalem, the religious leaders are plotting the capture and execution of Jesus. And it was here, in Bethany, with these powerful religious and political realities swirling around Jesus, that a disciple of Jesus shows a shocking display of radical devotion.
1 It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2 for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” 3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.
To call this display “shocking” is to understate what happened here. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary offers the needed historical background information:
Anointing was common at feasts (see Luke 7:46: “You did not put oil on my head”). Alabaster jars were made from translucent calcite stone and stood five to nine inches high. A narrow neck restricted the flow of oil or perfume. Breaking the whole jar indicates that its entire contents were used. Nard was a highly valued plant from India. Its value is pegged here at three hundred denarii, which represented almost a year’s wage for a day laborer. According to Mark 6:37, two hundred denarii was sufficient to provide a meal for five thousand people.
A social divide existed between male space and female space in the ancient world. Men and women did not intermingle even in the home. Women only crossed into the public male world to wait on men and then retreated.
Furthermore, Henry Turlington explains that nard oil “was extracted from the root of a plant native to India (Nardostachy jatamansi)….it quite possibly describes the oil of the pistachio nut which was used as a base for perfumes.”
Imagine this scene: Jesus and the other men are eating. Then, from the shadows, a woman emerges. A hush falls over the room and possibly some disapproving murmurs. Who is this woman that would dare to enter this room of men, much less this room in which the famous Rabbi Jesus was present?
Yet their incredulity will quickly turn to outrage in the face of what the woman does next. She takes the alabaster flask or jar, breaks it, and pours 300 denarii on Jesus’ head. It is no exaggeration to imagine that many of the men stood to their feet in shock or pushed away in amazement. What on earth could this extravagant display mean? We will explore this question in a moment, but, for now, let us observe in this woman a fundamental truth of authentic Christianity: genuine faith in Jesus trends toward shocking displays of radical devotion.
300 denarii! Unbelievable! An entire year’s wages. And she pours it out on Jesus. Just pours it out!
Before we move further into the story, let me ask you this question: is your walk with Jesus trending more towards safety and status quo or more toward what this woman did, shocking displays of radical devotion? Are you reclining with the masses or standing beside Jesus responding with radical love and discipleship?
Martyn Lloyd-Jones once wrote of “people who decide to take up Christianity instead of being taken up by Christianity.” Lloyd-Jones continued, “They have never known this feeling of constraint, this feeling of, `I can do no other, so help me, God’, that they must, that everything else has to be excluded, that the truth has so come to them that they must accept it.”
This woman had not merely taken up Christianity, she had been taken up by it. She had passed the point of no return. Jesus was everything to her. He was worth everything she had. And if following Jesus in the way that the Holy Spirit was calling her to follow Him appeared shocking or uncouth to others, even other believers, then that was just fine.
How about you? Have you taken up Christianity or have you been taken up by it? Are you trending toward greater devotion or less devotion? Are your acts of service getting larger or smaller? Are you “safer” or “more dangerous”?
Such radical devotion is always offensive to nominal and “common sense” devotion.
Let us now observe how offensive authentic Christianity is to nominal Christianity.
4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
I am not trying to say that all who were shocked were not truly Christians, but Turlington observes that, in John’s gospel, “Judas Iscariot is identified with this view” and that “Matthew identifies the objectors as disciples.” Matthew’s account in Matthew 26 is most telling:
7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me.
Over here we have the disciples. They have walked with Jesus the longest, but they have frequently misunderstood Jesus. They are near Him, but that does not mean that they are always really near Him. There have been times when their faith appeared genuine. There have been other times when their faith appeared nominal. Judas is likewise in their midst. They are, we might say, a mixed bag.
And over here we have this woman. John says this is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Mary has been gripped by a singular truth: this Jesus is Lord of Heaven and earth…and He is sitting in her house! She has not spent as much time with Jesus as His male disciples, but she knows this Jesus. She has seen Him do mighty works of power. She has worshipped at His feet before this night. She knows His name and He knows her. She is a disciple of Jesus. She is an authentic Christian. She is not thinking of what the lost will think of her actions or of what Jesus’ more nominal followers might think. All she knows is this: she must give this Jesus everything.
So she acts. She breaks the jar. She pours the ointment. All of it. A shocking amount of it. The air in the room fills with the smell. The disciples are indignant! “This is waste!” they scream. “This could have been used to help the poor!” In this way, they judge her. Mark says they “scold” her.
What did this scolding sound like? “What is wrong with you woman? Be reasonable. Use your brain. You have wasted something very valuable!”
But she is undeterred. After all, such radical devotion is always offensive to nominal and “common sense” devotion.
I have seen this time and again in churches: people who have a safe faith do not know what to do with people who have a radical faith. The nominal always resent the authentic. The reclining follower always resents the standing disciple, to use a pertinent metaphor for this scene. I have seen comfortable parents pour cold water on the radical dreams of their children and I have seen comfortable churches ignore or suppress the more fervent efforts of the authentically changed in their midst.
Dostoevsky once wrote, “Some of our young ladies have only to crop their hair, put on blue spectacles, and dub themselves Nihilists, to persuade themselves at once that they have immediately gained ‘convictions’ of their own.” Indeed, and some or our Baptists have only to buy big Bibles, show up to church a lot, and say the right things to persuade themselves at once that they have immediately gained convictions of their own.
Or consider Leo Tolstoy’s description of Stepan Arkadyevitch:
Stepan Arkadyevitch had not chosen…his views; these political opinions and views had come to him of themselves, just as he did not choose the shapes of his hat and coat, but simply took those that were being worn. And for him, living in a certain society…to have views was just as indispensable as to have a hat. If there was a reason for his preferring liberal to conservative views, which were held also by many of his circle, it arose not from his considering liberalism more rational, but from its being in closer accordance with his manner of life.
Behold the nominal Christian: he has put on Christianity the way Stepan Arkadyevitch had put on his views, that is to say, he simply adopted whatever beliefs the culture said were appropriate. The nominal Christian does not know what to do with the authentic believer who cannot help but go overboard for Jesus! The nominal believer stands before authentic belief with bewildered incredulity.
But Jesus loves and history remembers the genuine excess of radical discipleship more than the domesticated safety of casual discipleship.
Yet Jesus loves the reckless believer! Look how he defends and then heralds this woman.
6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Church, Jesus loves and history remembers the genuine excess of radical discipleship more than the domesticated safety of casual discipleship.
What He says about this woman is really amazing:
- The woman did a beautiful thing.
- The woman did what she could.
- The woman anointed Jesus’ body for burial.
- The woman’s actions will be remembered.
Church, history does not remember the nominal Christian, the safe Christian, the Christian who is not willing to risk, to try, to act on his or her faith. But Jesus celebrates the bold faith and lives of authentic followers of Jesus.
And why is this? Is it not because the radical disciple who demonstrates shocking love is closer to the heart of Jesus’ own behavior than the safe disciple who does not really even know what he or she believes? Was Christ taking on flesh not a radical demonstration of shocking love, both of God and men? Was Christ humbling Himself to the point of death on the cross not a radical demonstration of shocking love?
Jesus was anything but nominal!
Church, how can we play it safe in the presence of a King like this? How can we not give all for the One who gave all?
But there is more. This woman was likely doing more than she realized. Jesus said she had anointed Him for burial. With this saying, the breaking of the alabaster box for the release of the sweet ointment takes on a renewed significance. Properly understood, Jesus IS the alabaster box who was broken so that the sweet aroma of Heaven could be released in the world. In doing what she did, the woman showed that she understood Jesus more than most.
Dear Christian, if you are indeed a Christian, do not clutch your alabaster jar to yourself in safety and in inaction. Break it and let the treasure fill the whole house with the sweetness of discipleship and love! Pour yourself out as Christ has poured Himself out for you! Do not take offense at the believer who gives everything. Rather, learn from him or her. Let us all learn from this woman, for instance. Let us break the jar and pour the ointment!
Oh God! Forgive us our safety and our comfort! Help us to break the jar so that we might really live!
May it start with me.
 David E. Garland, “Mark.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen. Ed., Clinton E. Arnold. Vol. I (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.285.
 Henry E. Turlington, “Mark.” General Articles, Matthew-Mark. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Gen. Ed., Clifton J. Allen. Vol. 8 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1969), p.380.
 David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure – Highlight Loc. 740-42 | Added on Wednesday, May 26, 2010, 08:34 AM
 Turlington, 381.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Idiot. (New York: Everyman’s Library), p. 440.
 Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina. (Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, Inc.), 8-9.