The commendation of Jesus is indeed a rich reward. Some have already merited and secured it: others, including ourselves, humbly trust it may be theirs when they stand before the Son of Man at the judgment seat which will disclose its fateful secrets.

Amongst those who received the Master’s commendation in the days of his flesh was Mary, the sister of Lazarus. The home at Bethany stands out in the gospel records as the one place where Jesus could find human affection and true refreshment for body and soul. Its doors were always open to him: there he found peace. Little wonder, therefore, that it is recorded that “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister (Mary), and Lazarus” (John 11: 5).

To this haven of rest Jesus came at the beginning of that crowded week which ended in his agony and crucifixion. He knew full well what that week had in store for him, and he “was straitened until it be accomplished.” How comforting it is to know that during those last days and nights the home at Bethany received him, and those kindly souls ministered to him and comforted him.

On the night of the Sabbath of that week we read that they made him a supper; probably it was the customary feast which in a Jewish household marked the close of the Sabbath. Martha filled her customary role in the busy preparation for satisfying material needs. Mary’s welcome to the Master was in different form: she took an alabaster box of ointment, most precious, and poured it on his head as he sat at meat.

It is always interesting to compare the records of the Gospel writers when they relate the same incident, and note the characteristic touches and slight differences which add so much to the vividness of the picture. Far from these differences invalidating the truth of the records, they serve to establish it; for they reveal those subtle divergences in point of view which stamp the records as being the outcome of independent testimony.

In this particular incident under consideration there are independent touches in the narratives which are worth studying. We note for example how much more detailed and pointed is the record of John in certain features compared with the records of Matthew and Mark. The latter do not name the giver of the precious gift of ointment: but John at once reveals her as Mary, and mentions that Martha and Lazarus were also present. He also adds that Mary anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair.

Both the sisters ministered to Jesus in their different ways: Martha by her practical skill in the domestic arts which provided abundantly for his physical needs. Mary’s ministration was of a different character and on a different plane. Did she realise how this visit of the Master would end? Could she discern the impending tragedy of Golgotha? The comment of Jesus on her action seems to suggest this.

But whatever the thought which inspired this great act of devotion, the act itself brought upon Mary the condemnation of some of those present. Matthew relates how “the disciples had indignation, and said: To what purpose is this waste?” John takes us to the very centre and origin of this uncharitable condemnation when he states that it was Judas Iscariot—the traitor-to-be—whose voice was raised against this “waste.” “Why,” asks Judas, “was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?” And the scathing comment is added: “This he said, not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief and had the bag, and bare what was put therein” (John 12: 6).

There is no record of any indignation being shown by the disciples at Martha’s ministration to Jesus. The feast of good things satisfying bodily needs called for no criticism. Even Judas could appreciate such a gift. But Mary’s gift—less obvious in its intention and more spiritual in its character—is condemned as “waste” even by some in the “inner circle.”

How comforting to Mary must the rejoinder of Christ have been! “Let her alone. Why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me …. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mark 14: 12).

Mark’s record adds a significant phrase to the commendation given by the Master: “She hath done what she could.” That throws an interesting light on the ministration of Mary, and on Christ’s point of view in estimating such service. We might have felt that Mary’s gift of the precious ointment and her devotion shown to the Master was of such a superlative character that any suggestion of limitation was out of the question.

Is there not in Mark’s phrase an indication that Mary’s desire for service to Christ extended far beyond the scope of the gift she had actually rendered? But desire to be of service and opportunity to render service may be very different matters. The danger is that because we cannot serve to the full extent we wish to serve we fall back into despondent inaction. Mary did not make that mistake: she did what she could: and her ministration was accepted by Christ and received his commendation, even though some of the “elect” were not slow in condemning it.

“She hath done what she could.” Is there no lesson for us in these words of the Master? Are we waiting for the big event, the great test, some service commensurate with our feeling of devotion to Christ? If so we might be missing the many certain opportunities for what we might consider “smaller” service which Christ would accept and commend. The judgment of Jesus may surprise us in the great day of account, as it did the disciples in the home at Bethany. There could be no greater disappointment to us than the realisation that we had failed to secure the Master’s commendation by neglecting the opportunities for service presented to us.

(1942 F. Turner)