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18. Mary Magdalene

18-4 The Jesus-Mary Magdalene Relationship

Mary’s Response To Jesus

The smell of Mary’s ointment “filled the house” (Jn. 12:3). Yet every one of the 11 OT references to a house being filled refers to the temple being filled with the Shekinah glory (1 Kings 8:10,11; 2 Chron. 5:13,14; 7:1,2; Is. 6:4; Ez. 10:3,4; 43:5; 44:4). John’s sensitive use of language  is surely seeking to draw a parallel. She was glorifying the Name by her gift, senseless as it may have seemed in the eyes of less spiritual people. There is a definite connection between spikenard and what incense was made from. What may seem to have no practical achievement in the eyes of men can truly be a sweet smelling savour to God. We need to remember this at times in bearing with our brethren’s efforts for Him. To judge them in a utilitarian way is to fall into the same error as the disciples did. The efforts of others are described later in the NT in the same language- the same word for “odour” occurs in Phil. 4:18 to describe the labour of believers which is “wellpleasing to God”. The way Mary anoints the Lord with spikenard is surely to be connected with how earlier she had washed His feet with her tears. The spikenard was “precious” (Jn. 12:3 RV), not only in its value materially, but in the way Mary used it in some kind of parallel to her tears. She perceived the preciousness of her tears, her repentance, her grateful love for her Lord. And any tears we may shed in gratitude of forgiveness are likewise so precious in His sight  

The question arises as to why Mary anointed the Lord’s feet, when anointing is nearly always of the head. The only time the foot of anything was anointed was in Ex. 40:11, when the pedestal  / “foot” of the laver was anointed in order to consecrate it. This pedestal was made from the brass mirrors donated by repentant prostitutes (Ex. 38:8 = 1 Sam. 2:22). In this there is the connection. Mary the repentant whore wanted to likewise donate way she had to the true tabernacle and laver, which she perceived to be the Lord Jesus. Her equivalent of brass mirrors was her pound of spikenard. And it could be that she had been baptized at her conversion, and saw the Lord as her laver. And this was her response- to pour all her wealth into Him. She anointed him for His death- for she perceived that it was through death that the Lord would fulfill all the OT types of the laver etc. 

“Let her alone” translated a Greek phrase which essentially means ‘to forgive’, and it is usually translated like this. The Lord isn’t just saying ‘leave off her, let her be as she is’; He is saying ‘Let her be forgiven’, which is tantamount to saying ‘let her express her gratitude as she wants’. The root for her gratitude was her sense of forgiveness. This heightens the connection between Mary and the woman in the city who was a sinner of Lk. 7.  

Mary anointed the Lord’s head (Mt. 26:6) in order to reflect her belief that He really was the Christ, the anointed one. She gave her life savings for this belief. It can be apparently painless to believe that Jesus is Christ, and yet the implications of accepting this simple fact can transform a life. What she did was surely rooted in her understanding of Song 1:12, where Solomon’s lover has spikenard (s.w. LXX Jn. 12:3) which sends forth its smell “While the king sitteth at his table”. Clearly enough she saw Jesus right there and then as the King- even though His Kingdom was not of that world. Her love for Him, her reflection upon the Old Testament, and her perception of Him as her future Lord and King to the extent that she even then treated Him as such, so certain was her faith in His future victory and worthiness…this all motivated her to give the quintessence of her life’s work for Him. And it should for us too.

The similarities between the anointing record in Lk. 7 and those of Jn. 12 etc. require an explanation. Could it not be that the Gospels are showing us that the intensity of Mary’s faith and love at first conversion was held by her until the end of the Lord’s ministry? We need to ask ourselves whether the fire of first love for Him has grown weak; whether over the years we would do the same things for Him, feel the same way about Him, cry the same tears over Him…or have the years worn our idealism away? 

Martha was “anxious and troubled about many things” (Lk. 10:42 RV), but the Lord perceived that Mary was anxious and troubled about the “one thing” that was “needful”- and the context demands we understand this “one thing” as hearing the Lord’s words. For her, as she sat there at His feet, it was an anxious and troubling experience. To hear the Lord’s words is in this sense a troubling experience. Whilst we are saved by grace, the extent of the imperative within the Lord’s teaching is without doubt ‘troubling’ to the sensitive believer in Him. For we cannot hear Him without perceiving the enormous imperative which there is within those words for the transformation of our human lives in practice.  

It can be that we take the exhortation to “be careful for nothing” as meaning that we are intended to live a care-free life. But the sentence goes on: “but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”, and a few verses later we read of how the Philippians were “careful” to support Paul’s ministry in practice (Phil. 4:6,10). The idea is surely that we should have no anxiety or care about the things of this life- and the world in which we live is increasingly preoccupied with the daily issues of existence. The same Greek word for “careful” or “anxious” (RV) is repeatedly used by the Lord in the context of saying we should not be anxious (Mt. 6:25,27,28,31,34)- but rather, we should be anxious to serve and hear the Lord in practice. We must “be careful to maintain good works” (Tit. 3:8), “care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25), “care” for the state of others (Phil. 2:20). So the NT teaching is that we should not have the anxious care about our daily existence which characterizes the world, but rather, should translate that into a life of anxiety for others.  

The one thing that was needful is surely to be connected by the incident, also recorded by Luke, where the Lord tells the rich young man that he lacks “the one thing” (Lk. 18:22)- which in his case, was to give his wealth away. Yet Mary did this, when she poured out her life savings on the Lord’s feet. Sitting at His feet, hearing His words, led her to anoint those feet. She chose “the one thing”, of anxiously hearing His words, the lines in her forehead showing in intense concentration. And yet that learning of Him issued in something practical- she gave her life to Him in practice, by giving all she had to those feet. The rich young man lacked the one thing- for he was not then ready to give his life’s wealth to the Lord. Moving the spotlight onto ourselves, we can hear, and yet do nothing. We can read our Bibles without the intensity of devotion which Mary had, and without there being any direct translation of what we hear and read into practice. We can be as the rich young man, intellectually impressed, and yet totally failing to accept the tremendous practical demands behind the most simple, basic teachings of the Lord.  

Mary came seeking the Lord early in the morning…and this inevitably takes our minds to some OT passages which speak of doing just this:

-  “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;   To see thy power and thy glory” (Ps. 63:1,2). The resurrection of Jesus showed clearly both the power (2 Cor. 13:4) and glory (Rom. 6:4) of the Father. For Mary, life without her Lord was a dry and thirsty land. This was why she went to the grave early that morning. She was simply aching for Him. And she had well learnt the Lord’s teaching, that her brother’s resurrection had been associated with the glory of the Father (Jn. 11:40). She went early to the tomb to seek the Father’s glory- so the allusion to Ps. 63 implies. She was the one person who had actually believed in advance the Lord’s teaching about resurrection. And yet even she was confused- half her brain perceived it all and believed it, and was rewarded by being the first to see the risen Lord; and yet another part of her brain was simply overcome with grief, believing that the gardener had somehow removed the body some place else. And our own highest heights of spiritual perception are likewise shrouded by such humanity too.

- “I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me” (Prov. 8:17) is written in the first instance of wisdom. And yet the Lord Jesus has “wisdom” as one of His titles (Mt. 12:42; 1 Cor. 1:24,30). Mary sat at the Lord’s feet to hear His wisdom; to her, she showed in practice what it means to comprehend Jesus as “the wisdom of God”. She anxiously heard His words. And thus she sought Him early…because she so wanted to hear His wisdom again. Of course, she loved Him. But that love was rooted in respect and almost an addiction to His wisdom. It was this that she loved about Him, and it was this which led her to the grave early. And it was this which led her to the honour of being the first to see the risen Jesus.

- “Yea, in the way of thy judgments, O LORD, have we waited for thee; the desire of our soul is to thy name, and to the remembrance of thee. With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early” (Is. 26:8,9) makes the same connection between seeking the Lord early, and loving His words.  

Jewish women were not supposed to talk to men in public. The fact that Mary addresses the man whom she thinks of as “the gardener” shows how her love for Jesus, her search for Him, led her to break out of gender roles. She perceived that through His death, there was now neither male nor female, but a new kind of family (Jn. 20:14,15).

Jesus’ Response To Mary

Mk. 14:9 could mean that when the Gospel message is proclaimed in all the world at Messiah’s return, then what Mary had done would be told [before God] that He may mercifully remember her for good at the judgment. This may sound a forced interpretation to Western ears and eyes, but we must remember that the idea of ‘for a memorial’ denoted being spoken of for good before someone, in this case, the judge of all. What follows from this is that there will be a direct link between our deeds today, and the judgment process of tomorrow [or later today]. What we have done will be told before God, and He will remember us for good. On one hand, works are irrelevant. We are saved by grace. On the other hand, there will be a certain ‘going through’ of our deeds before Him. Quite simply, there is a direct link between our behaviour and our future judgment. Nothing will in that sense be forgotten.  

Jn. 11:6 records that “therefore”- because Jesus loved Martha & Mary, therefore He cured Lazarus. Spirituality can affect third parties; in this case, Lazarus was raised because of Martha and Mary’s faith. And so it can be that our prayers and intercessions for others can bring about some degree of salvation for them which otherwise wouldn’t happen. 

The Lord makes a clear allusion to Ps. 23 in saying that Mary had anointed His head with oil, and His feet with ointment (Lk. 7:46). There, it is God who is said to have anointed David's head, and prepared a feast in the presence of his enemies (Ps. 23:5). The historical background for this Psalm is when David fled from Absalom,  and God manifested in Barzillai prepared an unexpected feast for him, just the other side of the valley from where his enemies were. Perhaps  Barzillai also anointed David's head with oil at the time. It seems the Lord saw God as now manifest in Mary-He, through her, anointed His head with oil. And she did it at a time when the Lord was sitting at a great feast. It could logically follow that it was likewise Mary who had prepared the feast for Him. And if, as we have suggested, Simon the Pharisee was her brother or father or relative, then this would make sense. The whole thing surely has the ring of truth about it. Thus the Lord saw God as personally manifested through ex-hooker Mary. This should quieten all our doubts as to whether God really could be manifested through such as us. And note that Mary would have been the one who did the cooking.  

Martha later complained that Mary didn't pull her weight in this department. But the Lord replied that Mary had chosen between two 'parts' or options, the cooking and hearing His word. It was a conscious choice. It wasn't simply that she was a day dreamer or not domestically inclined. She could and had prepared a meal. But she consciously chose to not max out on doing work for the Lord, but on sitting still and hearing His words. We all have the Martha tendency to focus on works; and the point is, Mary could cook. It wasn't that she was incapable. But, she chose not to, to resign her possibility to justify herself by works in order to listen. " Stand still and see the mighty works of God" was Moses' appeal to Israel, and God's to Job. We like them need to suffer the same word of exhortation.