How did a simple, sinful woman get such an expensive item?
See Luke 7:36-50
Here is the text of a talk I gave at my church on a Sunday morning not long ago based on this passage from Luke about Mary and the "alabaster box" of ointment. I hope you will find it helpful.
The actual timing of this event isn’t given. Luke may well have inserted this story for ironic effect after verse 34:
Luke 7:34 The Son of man has come eating and drinking; and you say, 'Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'
Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him but reluctantly, it would seem. None of the traditional courtesies of welcome were extended to Jesus. No kiss of friendship, no servant with a basin of water and a towel to wash is dusty feet, no anointing oil for his head. There were other invited guests who would have been extended these courtesies. Simon was deliberately treating him not as an honoured guest but rather as if the invitation had not been his idea and he had only reluctantly acquiesced. He would show his displeasure to those who had pressured him into the invitation and to his fellow Pharisees at the table that, although others in his household might well be under the spell of this Nazarene carpenter, he had no such regard for him.
Was Simon the Pharisee the same as Simon the Leper in Matthew 26:6? This is in the context of a similar incident perhaps played out by the same woman we are about to meet in Luke 7. Who is she?
In both cases she has full access to the house. This account is the same as the feast that followed the raising of Lazarus and at which Mary Magdalene sat in rapt attention at the feet of her Lord. Was it she, then, as she had upon her conversion and forgiveness called for the precious ointment, and who then anointed the Lord’s head with it in anticipation of his burial? We know she was there.
In Matthew 26, we are told that it is Simon’s house but no mention of Simon. Was he, the proud Pharisee, now incapacitated by the dread disease which now had become his nickname? Did he ever humble himself to be healed by the itinerant preacher he had once invited to dinner and for whom he openly displayed his disdain? Was this is the same house in Bethany that was to be Jesus’ refuge so often during his ministry? If so, it was probably Lazarus, Martha, and Mary who insisted that Simon invite Jesus to dinner and he did so but under protest. Was Simon their father or, perhaps, only their elder brother? In any case the house was his but Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived there too.
Who was this woman in Luke 7? John, I think seals her identification as Mary Magdalene:
John 11:1,2 Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.)
We know that Mary Magdalene, the sister of Martha and Lazarus had had her troubles:
Luke 8:2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,
Mark 16:9 Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.
What does the phrase “Seven demons” signify?
Matthew 12:43-45 When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. 44 Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. 45 Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.
2 Peter 2:20 For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning.
Peter states in plain language what the Lord illustrates in a parable. The seven demons in the parable are therefore equivalent to Peter’s “the pollutions of the world”. The use of the number seven indicates completeness – in this case total moral depravity. She was “of the city”, a sinner. Since she was part of a wealthy family she was more likely a “party girl” of notoriously loose morals rather than an actual prostitute.
Notice that this woman had free access to the house. She asked for and “received” the alabaster box of ointment – she called for a servant of the house to bring it perhaps. This word “brought” occurs 11 times in the NT. In the other 10 places it is used, it is always translated as “received”. She received the alabaster box of ointment, she didn’t “bring” it.
Mary, in the overwhelming emotion of true repentance, righted the slights of her kinsman upon Jesus. She washed his feet with her tears and anointed them with costly oil and she kissed them. Here was true repentance!
How did Simon react? There was no compassion for this fallen woman who was, in all probability either his own daughter or sister. His thoughts were coloured with utter contempt and the only concern he had was:
Luke 7:39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, "This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner."
“This man is no prophet he said to himself. If he were a prophet, he would not suffer himself to be touched by this unclean wretch!” Her obvious repentance was no source of joy to this hard, self-righteous man but only the outward appearance and rules of ritual defilement were of concern to him. What he didn’t realize but what Mary understood full well was that the Lord could not be made unclean by the attentions of a repentant sinner; the opposite was the case. Her moral defilement, rather than being transferred to Jesus, was immediately removed and she was made clean and was freed from her bondage of sin and degradation. He was not defiled; she was made clean.
The Lord’s pointed little parable and subsequent rebuke of Simon were stark and withering. One can only imagine how Simon must have shuddered as the eyes of the Judge of all the earth held his own and the righteous indignation of the King laid bare the mean-spirited soul of this Pharisaic hypocrite.
Mary loved much, we are told, because she was forgiven much. She realized her sinfulness: leading a dissolute life of debauchery, at odds with her family. Lost in sin and dissipation. She felt she was beyond hope and so gave herself over to the baser side of her nature. Until Jesus came into her life. In him she found hope and forgiveness and purpose and her appreciation knew no bounds. He had set her free and from then on she devoted herself to his service and became one of his dearest disciples.
Luke 8:1-3 Now it came to pass, afterward, that He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, 2 and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, 3 and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others who ministered to him from their substance.
Her wealth would no more be frittered away in the gratification of the flesh but put to use in support of her Master and friend.
What of us?
Are we here to partake of our meal with the Master because it’s what we do on a Sunday? Would we, like Simon the Pharisee, rather be somewhere else? Do we find the meeting ritualistic, predictable, boring, perhaps, in the end, unhelpful?
Or are we like Mary, full of a deep appreciation of our sinfulness and weakness and of our need for our Lord even if those at table with us don’t seem to share that depth of repentance and love? Are we here, like Mary, not just for ourselves but also to minister to him and his disciples of our substance and of ourselves? It seems so little to ask in the light of all that has been done for us.
The depth of Mary’s love for her Master was subsequently converted into selfless dedication to him and his disciples. She left that place – which, because of her actions, had become a place of worship – filled with hope and joy. If she had focused instead on the fellowship of the others at that table, she would have been filled with cynicism and hopelessness. Instead, she left with the benediction of her Lord ringing in her ears and filling her heart: Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.
As we leave this place brothers and sisters, may we, like Mary, truly have been with Jesus, conscious of our need and filled with appreciation for his grace and hearing his voice in our hearts as she did so long ago. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.
I hope you have found this helpful.