LEARNING FROM MARY OF BETHANY
Worship As A Way Of Life
“There came a woman with an alabaster vial of costly perfume … and she broke the vial and poured it over His head.” Mark 14:3
Some Christians think that worship is only possible in church, that it consists only of great hymns and spontaneous expressions of praise, and that it takes place only when warm feelings flood the soul. Many Christians have warped ideas about worship. What is worship anyway?
What Is Worship?
When we look at all the Scriptures on the subject of worship, we can sum them up simply in this way: Worship is the acknowledgement of who God is and what God does, directed to God Himself. This acknowledgement must be from the heart – not just some outward mechanical religious motions. Worship of God without love of God is inconceivable. The acknowledgement may be by lip or by life. That is, either verbal praise and thanksgiving to God for Who He is and what He does, or it may be non-verbal deeds done in such acknowledgement.
For example, a Christian who, in spite of ridicule, refuses to lower his moral standards, is worshiping the Lord. By his life, he is acknowledging to God His standards of holiness. A Christian who, without bitterness, accepts as from God what others label as tragedy is also worshiping the Lord. He is acknowledging to God His sovereignty and His claims over life. Non-verbal worship is far more acceptable to God than merely mouthing prayers and praises on Sunday morning from otherwise complaining lips and compromising lives (Isa. 1:10-17). The ideal, of course, is to have all our words and actions characterized by worship – in the crucible of life as well as in church. Worship is not just one of several categories in the Christian life. It should be the sum total of the Christian life.
Various aspects of worship are touched on in the account of the Lord being anointed by the woman in Mark 14:3-9. We believe her to be Mary of Bethany, the one who learned the Word “at the feet of our Lord” (Lk. 10:39), because of the parallel account in John 12:1-8. We can learn much about worship from her.
It Involves Sacrifice
Worship involves sacrifice! This is emphasized by what it cost Mary to anoint the Lord. Pure nard was very expensive perfume imported from India. Three hundred denarii (Jn. 12:5) was about a year’s wages for the average worker in those days. So a lot of hard work and sacrifice went into Mary’s worship. Does my worship of God cost me something, or is it just “cheap perfume” involving no real sacrifice? Will my worship involve any sacrifice of time for the Lord?
Mary’s action of pouring perfume over the Lord’s head should not be considered improper. It was the common practice in that dry and dusty climate for guests to have their feet washed and their heads anointed with oil. What is unusual, however, is that Mary did not use ordinary anointing oil, but very costly perfume. Mary’s action was extraordinary. Think of what she could have done with a year’s wages! Yet she sacrificed it all out of love for her Lord. Think of what we could do with a year’s salary! Are we willing to sacrifice that much at one time for our Lord? Whether by lip or by life, worship involves sacrifice (Heb. 13:15-16; Rom. 12:1). How much is our worship of God costing us?
No Holding Back!
Worship does not hold back. It goes all out. This is one step further than sacrifice. It is possible to sacrifice some, but still only “go half way.” This is not the way of worship. Look again at Mary’s action. The Lord was a dinner guest at the home of Simon, the leper. Perhaps he had been healed by the Lord. In that culture the people lay on short, backless couches around a low dinner table. They ate with one hand while propping themselves up on the other arm. Mary, her brother Lazarus and her sister Martha were also guests. In the course of the meal, Mary came up to the Lord’s couch, broke open the alabaster (a white, translucent fine-textured stone) flask and poured out the contents of expensive perfume over the Lord. John 12:3 says it was an entire pound. That’s a lot of perfume! No wonder “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (Jn. 12:3). Mary did not hold back in her act of worship. She did not anoint the Lord with only a few drops of her precious possession. She gave the whole thing. This is true worship!
In Mark 14:8 the Lord says, “She has done what she could.” The full force of this statement is lost in our English translations. It sounds as if Jesus is saying, “Mary did what little she could.” But He is actually saying “Mary did all she could.” She went all out! What about us? In reference to our worship, does He say that we have given a few drops of what we could, or can He say that we have done all that we could? Am I holding anything back just for me? Worship does not hold back. It goes all out!
Not A Waste!
Worship is not a waste. We read that some of the guests, Judas as well as other disciples, were up tight over Mary’s act of worship (Jn. 12:4; Mt. 26:8). They called it wasteful and said the money would have been better spent to help the poor. Such remarks seem reasonable enough. After all, a year’s salary can go a long way in meeting the needs of the poor. Why waste it on a flask of expensive perfume when ordinary anointing oil would have done the job? Perhaps Mary was caught up in the emotion of the moment and should have been more restrained. But such reasoning is squelched by our Lord. He not only defends her action, but commends it as a “good deed” (Mk. 14:6).
Many people today find fault with Christians, saying they waste time in prayer and praise when the crying needs of the world surround us. How can we rightfully waste time, for example, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, when children are starving? Notice that the Lord Jesus does not tell them to forget about the needs of the poor in order to worship Him. Instead He encourages them to make a constant effort to meet those constant needs (Mk. 14:7). In fact, meeting the needs of the poor in the name of Christ is worship. It is acknowledging to God His care and concern for His creatures. But to care for the poor only, without an expressed love for Christ is not worship. Some Christians tend to become unbalanced in either direction at this point. Proper integration is to constantly praise the Lord for everything and constantly let that praise ripple out in our actions for the benefit of others. How is our worship in this area?
The depth of Mary’s worship is further brought out in verse 8. What does the Lord mean when He says, “She has anointed My body beforehand for burial.” Mary knew that the Lord was about to give up His life. She seemed to have understood our Lord’s teaching about His death and resurrection far more than the others, even the disciples (Mk. 8:31-33; 9:31-32). The normal procedure was to anoint a body with spices after death (Jn. 19:40). Mary realized that the Lord would soon be taken from them, so she anointed His body for burial while she had the chance. John 12:3 makes clear that this anointing was not just confined to the head. So Mary’s act was more than the common custom of anointing the head of a dinner guest. There was a depth of worship here that went beyond what appeared on the surface. The other guests saw only an apparent waste of expensive perfume. They read Mary’s act as an emotional extravagance. The Lord knew that it was a thoughtful, reasonable act of worship.
It Has Eternal Value
It is this depth of worship that is commended by our Lord and pronounced unforgettable (Mk. 14:8-9). Mary’s deed was not a waste; it had eternal value. The anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany is remembered wherever the gospel message has spread throughout the whole world. The Lord Himself tells us that it will be remembered forever (Mk. 14:9). The same is true of your true worship. It will never be forgotten! Let our lips and lives acknowledge God in everything – our work life, social life, family life, thought life. Let worship be our way of life.
By David Reid
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.