The Woman Who Prepared Jesus for Burial

English service - February 18, 2023

Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison


Mark 14:1-9


The Woman Who Prepared Jesus for Burial


    Everyone joining in today’s worship, whether online or in person, it’s good to be with you again.  You may recall a few months ago when we learned a story of a woman who came to a dinner party and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.  Today, as a part of the same message series of “People Jesus Praised,” I’d like to explore a similar one in Mark 14. 


    Actually, each one of the four gospels has an episode of Jesus at dinner in a home, when a woman comes and treats Him especially kindly as a guest.  The Luke 7 story we explored recently comes much earlier in that gospel than the ones in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12.  Also, the woman in Luke’s account has a bad reputation, apparently for sexual sin, but there is nothing like that about the ladies in the other stories.  So I understand the Luke 7 story as coming from a separate place and time.   


    But it’s not quite clear whether the other three stories are different versions of that same events, or if they are separate from each other.  Was the dinner held in the home of Lazarus or Simon?  Or maybe one of them was the father and one the son in the same home?  Perhaps they were the same person with two names, like Simon Peter?  Did these things happen two days before the Passover Festival or six?  Did the woman put oil on Jesus’ feet or head?  Did she then use her hair to dry Him off?  It’s very difficult to know clearly from the wording of the stories.  So I’m not going to try to sort out all of these questions today but try to stay pretty much within the version that Mark presents.  I think the message that we receive there is basically the same as the one that Matthew and John tell us.  It shows us a good deal about the kind of person Christ singles out for praise.  And this will help us find our direction as we continue the process of growing into mature, inwardly strong human beings.       


    In v. 3 we read, “Jesus was in Bethany. He was at the table in the home of a man named Simon, who had a skin disease.”  Early in Mark’s story of Jesus’ work (1:40-45), we read of Him healing a man of leprosy.  Could it be this man’s home where the dinner is now being held?  It’s possible. 


    It’s remarkable to me that even though Jesus knows He is going to die soon, He chooses to spend some of His last hours with friends at a kind of dinner party.  He does not go into a depression, refuse to be with anyone, think about nothing but His own problems.  He stays in communication with people who are important to Him and pays attention to their needs and how He can meet them.


    What would you spend your time on if you knew that you were going to die within the next week?  People of great faith in the Christian tradition have often encouraged fellow believers to look at our lives from the viewpoint of our death, not only when we are close to dying but routinely.  It may sound overly gloomy or even bad to spend valuable time looking at things from such a negative perspective.  But those who do it say it helps them to focus on what really matters and lasts.  For example, at the point of your death, you may realize how little value there is in many of the things you so often spend your resources on, such as making a more money, looking a little nicer, impressing people a bit better, and so on.  Seeing things from the end point can help us make the decisions to begin, strengthen, or mend important relationships while we still have a chance.  Saying the things that, if we don’t, we will someday wish we had, can be a result of looking at your life that way, for instance.


    While Jesus is with His friends at this meal, a woman comes to Him with “a sealed jar of very expensive perfume” (v. 3b).  Who is she?  Is she the Mary of Bethany who appears in John 11 and 12?  If so, Jesus has just raised her brother, Lazarus, from death, perhaps a day or two before.  In that case, it is not difficult to imagine that she would be deeply moved and overflowing with appreciation and praise.  Besides her love for her brother, the chance she and her sister have to live comfortably likely goes down dramatically if they are not married and their brother is no longer there to work and provide a living for the family.  Jesus may well have saved Mary and Martha from poverty, too, by saving Lazarus.  If so, it is easy to understand how she may feel so deeply grateful to Him.


    But, again, Mark does not identify her.  Some have said she might be Mary Magdalene, whom Luke (Luke 8:2) and Mark (16:1,9) mention in their gospels.  We learn that Jesus has delivered this Mary of Magdala from seven evil spirits.  If she is the one at the dinner in today’s story, it is easy to imagine her wanting to give a great gift to thank Jesus for her mental health and freedom from demon possession.  But there are really quite a few ladies named Mary, even among those noted in the Bible stories.  So it’s difficult to say that this particular one is in the Mark 14 story.  We can only assume that if we needed to know exactly, God would have told us through His word.


    The woman comes to Jesus, but from where?  Is she the lady of the house or a servant coming from the next room to greet Jesus as she would any guest normally by putting a drop or two of oil on that person’s head as a sign of welcome?  Possibly.  But the wording may suggest that she comes from outside the house and may not have been invited.  We’ve learned recently that many homes in this part of the world in Bible times are arranged so that it is not difficult to simply walk in from the outside.  Also, she is a lady coming to a place where men are eating.  That’s not considered normal in this culture.  It’s likely part of why the people there react in a negative way to what she does without seeing its greater meaning. 


    She puts perfume on Jesus’ head.  It may be a bit confusing to us to think of Jesus wearing perfume.  “Jim was wearing perfume the other day.”  If someone says that about me, I think I’ll start feeling uncomfortable.  But it is thought of in a positive way in Christ’s time and culture.  This perfume is made of pure nard.  That is a type of aromatic oil that people in Israel in Bible times will sometimes buy from traders from the Ganges River in India.  It’s made from the nard plant.  (Take a look at this picture of one.) 





    Certainly not just anyone can afford to buy it.  It’s worth “more than a year’s pay” (v. 5).  Something like 4,500,000 yen is the average income in Japan today, so this is pricey aromatic oil.  It is not likely that the woman has worked and earned money to buy it herself, with the limited number of jobs open to women in this time and culture.  It is more probably from her family.  It may well be a kind of financial security they have been keeping, knowing that there is a good market for this quality of oil, should they need to sell it.  But now she makes other plans and brings it to the dinner where Jesus is.  That is a possible way to read the story.  


    The container itself is not cheap, either, being made of alabaster, which people in this time use because it contains and keeps precious oils well.  (Above is a photo of an alabaster container.  The woman’s may look something like this, with a seal or a neck that will be broken when it is time to use the oil.)


    The unnamed woman “. . . poured the perfume on Jesus’ head” (Mark 14:3).

The woman in the romantic poem of Song of Songs (1:12) says, “The king was at his table. My perfume gave off a sweet smell.”  Christians have understood the man in this poem as a symbol of Christ and the woman symbolizing His Church, or followers.  These Old Testament words come to life in the woman’s act of putting fragrant oil on Jesus’ head.  When she does this, it is basically an act of worship.  She is offering incense of a type, honoring and glorifying Jesus.


    Her act and Jesus’ praise of it teach us about the attitude and state of mind that God wants us to have in our times of worship.  When are they?  Sunday mornings, yes, but in all of life, every day and hour, our overarching reason for being here in this world is to glorify God.  Our work, our play, our conversations, even the big percentage of each day we spend just maintaining life (cooking, cleaning, eating, sleeping, etc.), are all experiences through which we can honor God.  We glorify Him most by living in ways that He is happy with, according to His teachings, with the attitude and spirit He puts in us.  In other words, it’s by giving Him our best.  That is true worship and gives Him great joy. 


    God is happy with this woman’s behavior, but some of the people at the meal aren’t.  Mark tells us (v. 4) that they “became angry. They said to one another, ‘Why waste this perfume?’”  “Waste.”  To them, giving this valuable of a gift to Jesus is a waste.  Again, this is worship of a type.  In fact, much or all of worship will seem to be a waste to many people. 


    One example is the “drink offering” that we read about here and there in the Bible.  Jacob pours out a drink as an offering to God in the Genesis 35 story of him when he sees the stairway to heaven.  The Old Testament Law (Numbers 15:5, for example) teaches God’s people to pour out wine (often a quart) as a symbol of their offering themselves and their commitment to Him.  If you pour out something valuable, you recognize its worth but don’t drink it for yourself.  It is a gift made to honor and strengthen the relationship between the giver and receiver.  Paul in II Timothy 4:6-8 even describes his life as a drink offering.  He says he is being poured out as he approaches the time he apparently will be killed for his faith.  In this sense, his whole life is a form of worship.  He willingly gives it to God.  With that attitude in mind, he is able not only to end his life and work but complete them.  He can say (v. 7), “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”     


    His spirit has something important in common with that of the woman who pours her gift on Jesus.  It looks like a waste to some people.  Her oil could have been used more efficiently.  In fact, something at the heart of worship of God is a rebellion against the god of efficiency, which we so often see running this world.  Worship is proclaiming that there is something more important—Someone more important—than being useful, practical, and logical in all things.


    One man’s prayer has stayed in my mind for many years.  It was something like this.


    God, I’m going to be honest with you in my prayers today.  I don’t feel like being here at church this morning.  I thought about staying home and doing something more relaxing and constructive with my time.  I thought I should come here, and did, but I confess that I’m not completely sure why.  I don’t feel like I’m getting much out of being here recently.  Sometimes it seems like a waste of time.  I know I’m supposed to come to church not only for myself but others.  Yet I struggle to see how this all helps others that much, either. 


    That’s how I feel.  Please forgive me for whatever lack of faith it shows.  But I also see what Christ has done for me.  He not only spent some of His time but His whole life on earth for people like me.  Then He gave it all up and died to make a way for me to live.  Some people would call that a great waste, but when I remember it, I realize how much you care for me.  When I think of that, I want to be with you, too.  So here I am.  If I am wasting my time, that’s OK with me.  I will waste this time for you.  You are more than worth it. 


    In Christ’s name, amen.


    When the people at the dinner party find fault with the woman for her gift, they say, “The money could have been given to poor people.”  Of course, they are right in one way.  There is a custom in this culture of giving gifts to poor people on the Eve of the Passover.  Because the woman has given the great gift to Jesus, it won’t be possible to give others as much this time.  The people around her think this is a reason to criticize her.  They can argue that it would be more compassionate and more responsible use of God’s money not to use it all up at once.  There’s some logic behind their words, isn’t there.  And they are quick to use the logic as a weapon and attack her with it.  Her way of serving is not a way they expect to see, so they will not accept it or her.  They have no thought that her way of serving might please God just as much as the ways they have in mind.   


    Dr. David McKenna wrote:


    Criticism is a dangerous and delicate instrument. Like a scalpel, it can cut to heal or it can cut to harm. Only in the hands of the most skilled and best-motivated practitioners can it heal. More often than not, harm is done because critics cannot keep persons separate from issues.


    Mark shows how the disciples start their attacks against principles, but then they turn their weapons to her as a person.  It says, “So they found fault with the woman” (v. 5b).  But the original word seems a good bit stronger than “found fault.”  It is used in other situations to describe the snorting of horses.  Their criticism shows a lot of bad feeling toward her.


    Criticism often tells us more about the person who is criticizing than the one who is being criticized, doesn’t it.  In this case, Mark just tells us the critics are others who are at the meal.  John tells us it is especially Judas who has such hurtful words for her.  John points out a hidden agenda.  Judas sometimes has been taking money from the group’s treasury and spending it on himself.  That’s why he doesn’t want gifts going somewhere else—that will cut into what he can take.  His criticism has made his motives clear to see, and they are not noble.      


    But Jesus says (v. 6), “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”  The word translated as “beautiful” here in some versions is “good.”  The two words in English don’t mean the same thing, but there’s an important and strong link, isn’t there.  Jesus puts Himself on the side of artists, musicians, actors, and authors when He praises this woman’s act of devotion.  It is not “good” or “beautiful” because it is practical or produces something, as we noticed in v. 4.  It is like a sky filled with the vivid colors of a sunset in that way.  Its value goes far beyond being useful. 


    A beautiful part of this woman’s present is that she doesn’t have to give it.  At the heart of its meaning is that it is given freely out of love.  And love is sometimes extravagant.  Another wonderful thing about her gift is how it points forward to the gift that Jesus is preparing to give.  Christ will soon die on the cross for us.  He does not have to do this, yet He will freely choose to do so.  It will be a gift of love, start to finish.  And no present is any more extravagant than the 100% that our Lord will give up for us by offering His life as a sacrifice.  We are amazingly rich if we have received that gift.  Lord, help us to receive it more and more fully into our hearts, minds, and lives each day.


    Jesus reminds the critics in v. 7a, “You will always have poor people with you.”  His words here are not an excuse to do nothing for the poor.  Just the opposite, He makes clear that we are called to help those in need.


    Why does Jesus hold up this woman’s act of giving to us as worthy of praise?  In v. 8a, He says, “She did what she could.”  That’s not complicated, is it.  It brings the question straight to us.  What are the things we can do—for Jesus?  For someone the answer may be, “I can learn to operate a camera during worship.”  For another it may be, “I know how to speak this particular language.  I can use that ability to help people who need to communicate across the language barrier.”  Somebody else may be a natural leader and able to do committee work well.  Another person may feel a call to serve as a pastor or missionary.  When something terrible happens, we may be too quick to say, “We can only pray.”  It is true that nothing of lasting value in God’s view happens without prayer.  But another truth is that we all have some things we can do because we pray.  If we begin doing them for Christ, in His name, under His leadership, for His glory, it is amazing what then becomes possible.     


    In the case of the woman in today’s story, Jesus finds a special meaning in her service.  He says, “She poured perfume on my body to prepare me to be buried” (v. 8b).  This woman’s compassion is not just a powerful feeling but a specific, active expression of love.  It is also well-timed, which shows a wisdom and sense of God’s direction behind it.  Tomorrow the chance to help in this way will be lost.  In some ways at this moment, Jesus needs her gift of thoughtful kindness more than anyone in the world.  In one sense, Christ is “the poorest of the poor” now as He approaches death.  As she pays attention to the Lord’s leading and follows it, she is not forgetting but actually providing timely help for the “poor” Jesus.  This woman’s gift no doubt helps sustain our Lord through the coming time of darkness as He approaches and experiences death.  Who could put a price tag on its value?

    Does the woman have this thought of preparing Jesus for burial in mind when she chooses to break open the container and put the oil on Him?  Or is it more of a general feeling of love and appreciation that guides her? 

    It’s possible that she has carefully planned everything.  Mark has told us just a few chapters earlier (in 9:31b) about when Jesus, “. . . was teaching his disciples. He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be handed over to men. They will kill him. After three days he will rise from the dead.’”  It could be that the woman who puts the expensive oil on Jesus’ head has been with the group and heard Him say this.  She is paying close attention to His teachings.  When He is in Bethany before the Passover, she gets a sense that He is approaching the death He has been talking about.  She realizes that she has a chance to give Him a deeply meaningful gift by putting this oil on His head at this particular time.  That is one possible way to read the story.


    On the other hand, she may simply find herself overwhelmed with the feeling that the standard small amount of anointing oil for a guest it is not enough to express the feelings of gratitude and praise in her heart.  She may just see the container of nard nearby and pick it up before going through any process of thoughtful planning.   


    Her gift seems to surprise everyone there.  It may even surprise her.  But the story does not tell us enough to give a clearcut answer.  It does let us know what her act means to Jesus.  He sees its deeper meaning in the eyes of God, whether she does or not.  I find a lot of hope and encouragement in that.  Sometimes in our service to God and the people around us in His name, we can be frustratingly short on visible, measurable, reportable results.  And if we can’t see them ourselves, others may have even more trouble doing so and appreciate them even less. 


    But God sees.  Jesus understands that His Father is working on deeper levels than our eyes may allow us to recognize.  He knows the people whom our work will benefit, even if we never know about it.  The most meaningful work often takes years and years to bear fruit.  Many a parent has wondered if all the good things we tried to teach our children growing up ever made a difference at all.  Were they even listening?  When I return to the U.S. someday, or approach death in Japan, how many people will I be able to say know the saving love of God through the ministry I have done here?  When Open Door reaches our 35th anniversary next year, then our 50th and 100th and more in the years ahead, how many people will this church be able to say have become members of God’s family through ODC?  The truth is we do not know.  But that is OK.  We can leave that in the Lord’s hands and walk in assurance.  He will give His work through us all the meaning and power and blessing that He intends to give it, as we follow Him in the kind of active faith that the woman who anoints Jesus in today’s story shows.  Praise Him for the freedom and hope that come from knowing that.


    Have you ever noticed God doing something to use your service for Him in ways you had not expected?  If so, I’d like to hear your story.  Maybe Bible discussion or testimony time or another time would be a good chance for that.  Let us know, OK?


    Finally, Jesus makes a promise (v. 9). “What she has done will be told anywhere the good news is preached all over the world. It will be told in memory of her.”  In our meeting together today and remembering this woman through her story, we are demonstrating again that His words have come true.  Those that honor Christ, He will honor. 

God has chosen to place Christ above all.  May we join Him, and the woman who modeled a rich, vibrant faith through her gift, in putting Him first in all things.  Let’s search for and discover and create many ways to give our best to Jesus Christ, who deserves all that we have, especially our love.   


    Today I would like to finish with the words of an old hymn as our prayer of response to the message we have received.  If you will, please pray in silently in your heart as I read.


“What Can I Give to Jesus?”

What can I give to Jesus,

Who gave himself for me?

How can I show my love to him

Who died on Calvary?

Myself I give to Jesus,

Who gave himself for me:


Thus will I show my love to him

Who died on Calvary.

I give my life to Jesus,

My strength and health and all;

Assured he'll be my constant Friend,

Whatever may befall.

This will I give to Jesus,                                                   

Who gave himself for me:

Thus will I show my love to him

Who died on Calvary.

Thy Spirit give, Lord Jesus,

To strengthen me for this;

That I may have thy loving smile,

And share thine endless bliss.

Then shall I give to Jesus

A song more sweet, more free;

And ever show my love to him

Who died on Calvary.





Anonymous. (1956). What Can I Give to Jesus? Laudes Domini: a selection of spiritual songs, ancient and modern for use in the prayer-meeting.     

McKenna, D. L. (1982). Mark. The Communicator’s Commentary Series. Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.

Wikipedia. (2024). Nardostachys jatamansi.               Nardostachys_jatamansi