THE WOMAN WHO DID WHAT SHE COULD—MARK 14:3-9
Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God (1 Thessalonians 4:1).
This verse tells us that every believer in Christ—in fact—every human being—should seek to please the living God. We should seek to make our God happy by walking in a manner which agrees with His revealed will for us.
On the other hand, the Word of God also clearly declares that even true believers are in this life unable to perfectly walk in a manner pleasing to God, for we all still have remaining sin in our hearts which still breaks out in sinful thoughts, words and deeds. Remember the ongoing struggles of as eminent a saint as the Apostle Paul with his remaining sin which caused him to lament:
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present in me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. (Romans 7:18).
However, there is a further issue which confronts us when we consider the matter of pleasing God. Although we should please God, and yet since we can never perfectly please God in this life, is it ever possible to actually please God the Father or His Son Jesus Christ by the way we live? Is it ever legitimate to view even a specific task at a specific time as having been done in such a manner that the Lord is truly pleased with us—that He looks on with a smile of approval? I am convinced that there are many sensitive Christians who really, deep down in their hearts answer "no" to that important question. And if they would not be willing to dogmatically answer "no", they are still often living practically as if the answer is "no". Such individuals—could I be speaking to someone reading this? ? often wrestle with looking at God as being harsh and unreasonable. And they can often become very discouraged and even be tempted to throw off the whole Christian faith and quit trying to please God because it's simply not possible, and therefore, certainly is not worth the grief of trying.
It is my intention to consider a passage in God's Word which deals head on with the question, "Is it ever possible to act in such a way in this life that I actually please God?" That passage is Mark 14:3-9 where we find recorded the account of the woman who did what she could in anointing the Lord Jesus.
Repeatedly over the years I have returned to this passage to preach the same basic sermon while in different locations. Why have I done this? The answer is quite simple and straightforward. Each time I preach it, I find that it is good for my own soul to be reminded of the truths taught by the text before us; and I also find that it ministers to a real need in the hearts of God's people. Notice then with me the words of our text:
And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. And she broke the flask and poured it on His head. But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, "Why was this fragrant oil wasted? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor." And they criticized her sharply. But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the whole world, what this woman did will also be spoken of as a memorial to her."
Let's first of all briefly review the details of this account, adding details from the parallel accounts in Matthew 26:6-13 and John 12:1-8. Then we will seek to open up the one major theme from this passage which is especially the burden upon my heart.
I. A Brief Review of the Details of the Account.
A. The setting of this incident (14:3a).
-- According to John 12:1, this incident took place just six days before Jesus' final Passover and crucifixion.
-- A dinner was being held in Jesus' honor in Bethany—the hometown of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, who were so dear to Christ. This particular meal was located in the home of Simon the Leper. John tells us in his Gospel that the recently-raised from the dead Lazarus was present, and that Martha was serving. Matthew tells us that Jesus' disciples were present too.
We are next told of:
B. The anointing of Jesus by a woman (14:3b).
-- While Jesus was lying on a couch to eat at the table (as was the custom there), a woman came in, broke the neck off a stone bottle of very expensive perfume, and poured it on the head of Jesus.
-- John adds that there was quite a large quantity of this perfume—evidently about a pint. He also tells us that it was not only poured on Jesus' head, but also on His feet, and that the woman wiped off the excess perfume with her hair.
-- Of most importance, John identifies the woman for us. It was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus who were also present (John 11:2). It was the Mary who had been scolded earlier by her busy sister for sitting and listening at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:38-42). And it was the Mary who had recently witnessed Jesus raising her beloved brother from the dead (John 11).
This brings us to:
C. The indignant objections of the disciples (14:4-5).
-- Matthew tells us
that it was the disciples who objected to what Mary did here. They considered this use of
the perfume to be a waste. Its value was more than a year's normal wages for an average
working man. Why hadn't it been sold so that its great value might have been given to the
-- John records one more very significant fact. Let's now focus upon his parallel account in 12:3-6:
Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, who would betray Him, said, "Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.
Evidently, the deceitful and wicked Judas Iscariot was the first to raise an objection. And since there appeared to be a degree of reasonableness to his objection, evidently others of the disciples took up the same theme as well. In Mark 14:5c, we are told that these individuals scolded or harshly criticized Mary.
Having seen the indignant objections of the disciples, we come to:
D. Jesus' defense of Mary's actions (14:6-9). Mark's account is fullest here, which is why I am focusing on this account among the three parallel ones available.
-- Jesus responded quickly with His own rebuke—"Let her alone!"
-- He then asked a pointed question—"Why do you trouble her?"
-- He next evaluated her action—"She has done a good work (or beautiful thing) for Me".
-- He further explained her action at 2 different points—vv. 7 & 8b. Her action was appropriate at this time because she was seizing an opportunity which was fleeting—to prepare the Lord's body in advance for burial.
-- He evaluated her action again—"She has done what she could."
-- And then He predicted that wherever the Gospel would be preached throughout the world, what this woman did would be told in her memory. This was a prediction which has certainly been fulfilled—even as we consider this passage.
This then is a brief review of the facts of the incident.
II. Now I wish to pursue in some detail One Major Theme Underscored by This Incident. In this true story we have a clear example of a deed which is pleasing to Jesus the Son of God. We will notice three things regarding this deed which pleased God:
A. The possibility of doing what pleases Jesus,
B. The description of that which pleases Jesus, and:
C. The fruit or result of doing what pleases Jesus.
So first of all:
A. The possibility of doing what pleases Jesus. Deep down, many Christians have a hard time believing that it is ever possible to please the Lord Jesus. After all, isn't our most holy act always polluted with the sins of impure thoughts and motives? Who can ever say that in this action or that, that she truly did the best that she could? Isn't it true that we could always do better?
All these things are true to an extent. What sensitive, sincere Christian would dare say otherwise? And yet, there is a balancing truth which must likewise be kept in view, or we will definitely be greatly hindered in our Christian walk and growth in grace, and may even sink into a great and seemingly endless pit of despair. It is that important balancing truth seen in the two brief phrases by which Jesus evaluated Mary's actions:
Notice first the last part of verse 6—"She has done a good work for Me." He did not complain that she had interrupted His meal (even though she had!). Nor did He find fault with her for smelling up the room with the perfume and drowning out the flavor and aroma of the food (even though she had!). He didn't complain about the smelly liquid all over His head and feet (there was a pint of it, remember!). He didn't criticize her methodology of pouring and wiping, or find fault because she did not wash His feet with water first. And He did not join in with the disciples and rebuke her for her wasteful practices and poor stewardship of the things God had given her.
Instead, He stood against the popular opinion of the moment and declared, "She has done a good deed to Me."
But there is a second phrase of evaluation from our Lord's lips which is limited only to Mark's account and which is found in the first part of verse 8—"She has done what she could." I.e., she had done what she was able to do.
Both of these phrases clearly indicate that it is possible to do what pleases Jesus in definite areas of our lives at specific times in our lives. Does that truth sound foreign to you dear believer? Or are you able to embrace it from the heart and to live in light of it? Does your view of Jesus and of His heavenly Father have any room for a Jesus and Father who can be pleased and satisfied with your actions? There should be room for it, or else you are denying this portion of the Word of God and have a perverted view of the Savior. You are falsely picturing Him as being harsh and unreasonable. If your view is so twisted, you need to repent of your error and more fully fill out in your heart and mind all that the Scriptures teach about our Lord.
But perhaps to you such a perspective seems to be too soft on the sin which so easily besets us. If so, you need to remember that only six days later this same Savior who was pleased with Mary was going to be hanging on a Roman cross under a darkened sky bearing God's wrath for her sins. Here certainly was not one who was too soft and lenient toward sin.
Having seen the possibility of doing what pleases Jesus, consider with me in the second place:
B. This description of doing what pleases Jesus. There are at least six elements of this deed of Mary's which should be noted—two are the foundational heart responses of Mary's which motivated her to do what she did, and the other four are fruits of these foundational heart responses. Together these six elements describe what pleased the Lord here.
Notice first of all then the two foundational heart responses to the Lord Jesus which are revealed in this deed of Mary's:
1. Mary's actions here were believing. Jesus identified the specific purpose behind her anointing activity in verse 8 when He said, "She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial." This tell us a very important fact. When Mary was found sitting at the feet of her Lord earlier, she evidently was listening with ears of faith. She apparently had heard one of His repeated predictions of His coming death by crucifixion. And unlike Jesus' male disciples, she evidently had to some degree understood and believed what she heard. She also had apparently sensed that the great conflict was near. Therefore, she must have reasoned that if her Lord was going to die the death of a common criminal, she would probably not be able to prepare His body for burial after His death as they normally would. And thus she acted at this point in doing something which would normally have taken place after her Lord had died.
Mary's act was done in faith, believing what Jesus had said. Thus it was pleasing to Him. What an encouragement it must have been to Him—that some one actually believed and acted upon what He was saying as He faced the cross! We should be like Mary, believing what our Lord says, and acting accordingly. That is what pleases Him.
2. Mary's actions
clearly manifested love for Christ. Remember the contents of verses 6-7:
But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always.
Christ here did not deny that we should care for the needs of the poor. Rather, He was underscoring the fact that, by her act, Mary had clearly shown the devotion of her love to the Savior. She had taken upon herself a task—the anointing of her Lord for burial—which only the closest of relatives and friends would do once someone had died. Therefore, He declared, "She has done a good work for Me". Her obvious motivation of love for Christ pleased Him.
After all, is not the first and great commandment to "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37). It is true that we cannot today personally do deeds of kindness to a physically present Christ as Mary did, for He is now in heaven. However, according to Matthew 25:31-46, the Lord Jesus views deeds of kindness toward His brethren to be the same as deeds done to Him personally. And we still may do good deeds to Him directly by seeking to advance His kingdom and name and glory in the earth even while He is in heaven. Thus there are still many practical ways in which we may show our love to the Savior. And it is still true that deeds which flow from love for Christ, and which are motivated by love for Christ are those which are pleasing to Him.
Where there is the true response of faith toward Christ, and of love for Christ, certain further responses will also be present which are pleasing to Christ and which were highlighted for us in the example of Mary:
3. There was whole-souled commitment or consecration to Christ. We see this in our text from the fact that Mary's deed was so costly. Again, this perfume was worth over a year's wages for the average working man. It was no small thing for Mary to so pour it out on Jesus. It cost her something. Here it cost her a lot.
Where is here a word of exhortation for those who do not seem to be very serious about following Jesus—who follow a philosophy of life of getting by on the least amount of effort and cost possible in what they do—especially in the spiritual realm. Here is a lesson to those who are unwilling to be stretched personally in order to serve the Lord—who just want a nice cozy, undisturbed lifestyle and Jesus too as sort of a guarantee that hell will be avoided.
If you would please the Lord—and if you would truly follow Christ and enter heaven—you must take up your cross, deny yourself and follow Christ in every area of your life. This does not mean that every action which pleases Christ must actually involve the level of personal cost that Mary's act here did. But acts which please Christ are those which come from a believing and loving heart which views all that one has and all that one is as belonging to the Lord, and as gladly available for His use.
4. There was also an ultimate concern to do what was right and pleasing to her Lord, no matter what the consequences. There were certainly consequences for Mary. For her act here was very unpopular among men. And note, those who here criticized her were not pagan Gentiles or even apostate Jews. It was Jesus' special disciples who harshly rebuked her. They questioned her wisdom, and her love for the needy around her. Nor was this the first time Mary had had to endure criticism for doing that which was right. Her own godly sister, Martha, had earlier found fault with her for not helping with the serving while Mary chose the one thing truly needed in sitting at Jesus' feet.
From Mary we learn that actions which please Christ are those which are done by one who is primarily concerned to please the Lord and not men, and therefore is willing to endure the frowns of men in order to please the Savior. Mary's example is a call to us to do likewise. For anyone who seeks to please the Lord will eventually feel the sting of the rebukes and criticisms of men—even of religious and even godly people. Some may oppose out of secretly wicked hearts like Judas Iscariot. Others may be hastily and unthinkingly jumping on someone else's bandwagon like the rest of the disciples did. But opposition will come, and if we would please our Lord, we must be willing to act in obedience to Him no matter what other people may say.
There is a further lesson from what we see here. Although there will be times when duty requires it, we had better use holy caution when evaluating and criticizing the earnest attempts of our brethren to serve Christ where He has put them. Or else we will end up facing a very displeased Christ, and may be quite embarrassed to find that our partners in criticism are very undesirable and wicked individuals.
5. Mary's act here was also rightly opportunistic. Christ would not long be with them, and the poor always would be. Mary seized the fleeting moment of opportunity to manifest her love to Christ. This is what pleases Him.
Our opportunities to in more direct ways serve our Lord may seem to be limited and all too infrequent. This is especially how a heart full of love to the Lord responds. But that which pleases Him is the readiness and eagerness of heart to buy up and seize those seemingly more direct opportunities when they come. And also, the readiness to serve Him in seemingly more indirect, insignificant ways day by day where He has put us, faithfully carrying out our duties.
6. Finally, and closely-related, Mary's act was realistically thorough. Remember again the first part of verse 8—"She has done what she could."
There was much that Mary couldn't do. She couldn't stop the coming chain of events ordained by God before the world began. She could not stop the jealous Jewish leaders from pouring out their fury upon her dear teacher's head. She couldn't stop the beatings and mockings and the decision of the kangaroo court. She couldn't stop the Roman soldiers from nailing Christ to a cross and suspending Him on it between heaven and earth. And aren't we glad she couldn't! God the Father and His Son knew best—and Christ therefore worked out our eternal salvation. But the Lord Jesus did not point to what she couldn't do. He instead declared, "She has done what she could".
What Mary did was certainly insignificant and even foolish in the eyes of the world around. If we would have asked Mary herself after our Lord spoke, she might not have even agreed with His assessment. Yet our Lord's words still echo down the passageway of time, "She has done what she could".
Dear, sensitive child of God, there is a word here for you. There is much that we can't do about the situations we face in life, isn't there? Labor as we might to raise our children, we cannot make them Christians. Try as we might to win friends and loved ones to Christ, we cannot do the regenerating work within. Try as we might, we are not always able to be reconciled with certain of our brethren ? at least not right away. Try as we might, we cannot ultimately build Christ's church. Only Christ can. Our desires to do good deeds to others are limited by the constraints of time, energy and material resources. Our efforts may be very insignificant in the eyes of a watching world. We may feel as if we are accomplishing nothing with our puny, insignificant lives. And we may always feel like there's more that we should and could do for the Master—to some degree that is true.
Yet regarding specific deeds, as we do them with the spirit and heart of a Mary—yes though mixed with sin—we may yet hear our Savior's voice as well—"she has done what she could"—He has done a beautiful thing for Me". We may with good conscience sense our Saviors approving smile, and be able to say honestly, "I did what I could". What a blessed comfort to one's soul when the desired results of our efforts are not realized—at least immediately—or when the Lord keeps us from doing what we greatly desire to do for Him—to be able with good conscience and in integrity to say this. That realistically I did what I was able to do in this effort—in this endeavor—without sacrificing other duties before God.
If your actions do not parallel Mary's—if there's not practical love for Christ and active faith in Christ—if your actions do not reflect a willingness to give your all to the Master—if His smile and not the smile of men is not your ultimate concern in life—if there's not eagerness to do what you can when you can—then you cannot honestly say this about those acts, can you? Wherever the problem may lie, repentance is needed.
Having seen the possibility of doing what pleases Jesus, and the description of doing what pleases Jesus, notice in the third and final place:
C. The fruit of doing what pleases Jesus. Remember again the words of verse 9:
"Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the whole world, what this woman did will also be spoken of as a memorial to her."
Mary had the privilege of receiving right away that which in most cases we will not receive until the final day of judgement—the approving words and smile of her Savior and enduring honor. But for the faithful child of God, we are told that he will one day also hear the words, "Well done you good and faithful servant—enter into the joy of your Lord." We are also told that our light and momentary troubles now (and Mary had troubles, didn't she?) are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
This then has been the opening up of the one major theme which has been upon my heart to preach to you from our text. But there are some final lessons which I believe yet need to be underscored once again, or which flow from that which we have seen:
1. Especially those of us who are Christians should be careful to remember the words of the Apostle Paul which we observed earlier in 1 Thessalonians 4:1 where he urged believers to grow in pleasing God. We should earnestly seek to please God first of all in all that we do. This is a word especially to those of you who are wrongly slaves to the opinions others have of you. Others may be dead wrong in their opinions of you and of your actions, while at the very same time the Lord Jesus is pleased. (Just ask Mary.) Although a good name before others is important according to God's Word, it is Christ's opinion which ultimately counts—not everyone else's. It is not the opinion of your ungodly father or mother whom you could never please, that should really count with you dear adult Christian woman or man. Don't continue to be wrongly enslaved to his or her opinion as so many often are. Serve Christ and seek His smile ultimately. It is liberating to be delivered from the opinions of fallible and variable men to serve such a gracious, reasonable, able-to-be-pleased Master.
2. But also, there is once again a word here to the sensitive, "perfectionistic" Christian who can never see himself as being pleasing to Christ. What is so often your experience? Added to your own uninstructed conscience are often the accusing voices of the world and the Devil. How they delight to harshly tear you apart—even working through supposedly religious people or true Christians. To all such wickedly accusing voices the Lord calls out, "Let her alone—let him alone! Why do you trouble him?
Don't persist in embracing and hanging on to a wrong view of God. The Lord of Mary is your Lord too. And He is pleased when we do what we can, even when the desired results are not realized. Our success driven culture tries to tell us that we must have done something wrong if something seemingly good which we have attempted has not "worked out". But not the Lord. And we should ultimately listen to His voice, not the perverted voice of our society.
3. There is a word also to those of us who have individuals under our authority. Don't be someone who can never be satisfied. Be an accurate picture of God to them. As husbands to your wives. As parents to your children. This goes in reverse as well for those under the authority of others toward their authority figures (children to parents, wives to husbands, etc.).
However, we will never be able to be individuals who are satisfied with what others do, unless we first of all view God aright and see him as one who can be satisfied with us. We first of all must have well-instructed and good consciences in this area or we will be impossible to live with.
In closing, there is still a basic question with which the sensitive Christian may still struggle. How could the Lord Jesus ever be satisfied or pleased with any act I do? For I know my theology and my remaining sin still taints even my most holy acts.
God's Word gives two basic answers to that crucial question:
1. Because God the Father is satisfied with Christ's work. God is satisfied with His perfect obedience of the Father while He walked this earth as a man. The Father is satisfied with our Lords perfect obedience at the cross in bearing His wrath toward our sin. When we embrace this Christ by faith, our sins are pardoned for His sake, we are united with Him and wear His imputed righteousness. Therefore, when the Father looks on His justified children, He sees the perfect work of His Son and is satisfied.
But further, a perfectly holy God can be satisfied with what Christians do:
2. Because God is working in us what pleases Him. Listen to the words of Hebrews 13:20-21:
Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Why can God the Father be satisfied with what we do as Christians? Because He is the One who is ultimately working the works in our lives which please Him.
Can you say that these things are true of you at this moment, dear friend. Or are you still insisting on keeping your distance from the Savior? Do not continue to caricature Him as harsh and unreasonable. Run to Him in prayer and embrace Him by faith as a gracious, crucified Savior this very moment, and you will begin to taste and see what a wonderful Savior He is.
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