Bethany, which was located just outside of Jerusalem, served as a home base of sorts for Jesus and the disciples during the final days of His earthly ministry (Mark 11:1; see Matt. 21:17). There in Bethany, not long before our Savior went to the cross, one of the most familiar episodes in the Gospels occurred when Jesus was anointed with perfume. We turn to this story in today’s passage.
Mark tells us that this anointing took place in the home of Simon the leper (Mark 14:3). Since leprosy was a disease that required living apart from society while one suffered from it (Lev. 13:45–46), Mark’s description means that Simon was a former leper who had recovered from his illness. The parallel account in John 12:1–8 indicates that this anointing occurred at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; thus, it is likely that Simon was their father. John also tells us that Mary was the woman who poured the perfume on Jesus.
To understand the nature of Mary’s act, we must understand the value of the perfume she used. Mark 14:5 indicates that it was worth “more than three hundred denarii,” the equivalent of an entire year’s wages in those days. It would have been exceptionally rare for a woman in that era to own something so valuable, so some commentators suggest that the flask of perfume was a family heirloom, which would add sentimental value to the perfume’s monetary value. In other words, Mary gave a very costly gift to Jesus when she anointed Him in her home. Mark 14:8 indicates that she had some theological insight into what was about to happen to our Lord, for Jesus said that she anointed Him in preparation for His burial.
As is well known, the disciples objected to the extravagant gift, saying that it would be better to sell the perfume and give the money to the poor (v. 5). But Jesus corrected them, commending Mary’s act (v. 6). One commentator notes that in this, Jesus put commitment to Himself above love of neighbor, for the Bible frequently commends helping the poor. Thus, His comments were an indirect revelation of His deity, for the only commandment that is more important than loving our neighbors is the commandment to love God (12:28–34). His receiving of Mary’s gift (14:6–9) indicates that it is appropriate to give extraordinary—and what some may call extravagant—gifts to the Lord. When we give what we value to our Creator, He receives it gladly.