Image of Mary washing Jesus' feet to anoint him with nard oil, with a blue circle on top and words, "Mary anoints Jessus, symbolism and meaning.Image of Mary washing Jesus' feet to anoint him with nard oil, with a blue circle on top

Extravagant Worship: Mary Washing Jesus’ Feet

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Jesus came to Mary’s (of Bethany) defense when her sister complained that she was not helping with the serving. He would do so again, when Mary, in an act of love and worship, again does something completely unexpected. She interrupts a dinner and anoints Jesus. Some view Mary washing Jesus’ feet as a simple act of love and in many ways it was. But there is more profound symbolism and it hints to Mary’s understanding of the teachings of Jesus.

The Four Stories of a Woman Washing Jesus’ Feet (or Anointing)

Each Gospel shares an account of a woman washing or anointing Jesus’ feet. Because they differ in details (with Luke being the most different) scholars debate whether these are all the same event, two separate events, or three different ones. (See Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8). Matthew and Mark’s accounts are so similar that most agree that at least those two describe the same one. In my Bible study on this topic, you can explore these different accounts in more detail and come to your own conclusions.

Believing whether they are one, two, or three stories does not detract from the common theme in all the accounts: Jesus honors women. He honors women who have reputations of being sinners; he honors emotional women; and he honors women whom the culture has cast aside. He doesn’t do it to ignore their sin or past—but he honors their recognition that the only way out of their shame is through Him.

Mary of Bethany Anoints Jesus

In John 12:1-8, Mary of Bethany is identified as the woman who anoints Jesus. He is having dinner in Bethany where Martha is serving and Mary pours a pound of expensive nard on His feet. She then wipes them with her hair. Judas is indignant at the gesture claiming the nard should have been used to help the poor (although his anger is rooted in his evil intentions). Jesus defends Mary and informs his audience that “the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

Was Mary’s act born only out of emotion? Or was there something else driving here? These are questions we will explore here.

Nard in the Bible

Verse 3 identifies the liquid used to anoint Jesus as nard. Nard (also known as spikenard), was an expensive ointment/perfume derived from a plant that grows only in the Himalayan mountains of India and Nepal. The word only appears five times in the Bible. Two refer to the anointing of Jesus. The other three are found in the Song of Solomon 1:12, 4:13-14.

Mary’s use of nard in the greater biblical context is significant. If we consider that the Song of Solomon is a love song between a King and his new bride and that the Church is the bride of the bridegroom, the great King (see Revelation 19:6-8)–a woman’s use of nard in John to anoint the feet of a King alludes to that greater reality. While the Church was not yet a concept that would have been in Mary’s conscience, her act plays into a greater symbolism of Christ and His Bride.

Nard, an Expensive Ointment

Judas in verse 5 gives us the approximate value of the nard, 300 denarii, almost a year’s wage for a laborer. Since nard was from the Himalayas, the long export routes made nard particularly expensive at a time when there were no trains or airplanes. Whether the nard was part of her dowry or just a very expensive perfume she had on hand, her willingness to use it on Jesus demonstrates two things:

  1. Her extravagant love for her King.
  2. Her understanding of exactly who He was

One doesn’t use something that valuable on someone who they do not deem important.

Wiping Jesus’ Feet with Her Hair

The modern reader might find that detail unusual, but Jesus’ contemporaries would have viewed it as scandalous. A Jewish woman would not be caught dead with her hair uncovered unless, well, she was willfully engaged in sinful activity. If we remember from the woman at the well, it was not even appropriate for a man to be talking to a woman in public and here Mary is touching Jesus and worse, using her loose locks to do so!

Why did Mary use her hair? Let me pose this question to you. In a moment of extreme emotion have you done something that was not rational? I know I have. Often, when overtaken by emotion, actions that follow do not always align with what is logical and normal. The same could have been true for Mary. I do believe Mary’s decision to anoint Jesus was intentional and rational which I will explain below. However, once she was in the moment, the crowd staring at her dumbfounded and her tears flowing, using her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet might have seemed like a good idea.

Alternatively, there could be a “rational” explanation. We learn from I Corinthians 11:14-15 that the glory of a woman is her hair. We can leave the debate on whether verses 14 and 15 are commands for all women or a cultural command for that time, but we can agree that the hair as the glory of a woman was at least a common cultural view. If that is how the culture viewed a woman’s hair, Mary, in using her hair, was placing her glory before the Lord as an act of humility. She was surrendering completely to Him.

Judas’ Response

The Bible tells us that Judas was indignant not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief. He was thinking how much he could have taken from the purse if the perfume had been sold and he controlled the proceeds. But based on his spoken words (his outward appearance), the rest of the crowd would have agreed with him. And if we conclude that other similar accounts are all the same story then the other disciples did indeed take Judas’ side. They could not see what Jesus could.

In contrast, Mary outwardly broke every social norm, but Jesus saw her heart and understood her true intentions.

But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

I Samuel 16:7 (ESV)

The Burial

While the crowd negatively reacts to Mary’s gesture, Jesus defends her and tells them why she is anointing him. The ESV version of the Bible obscures the reason with the strange wording of the verse but other versions help clarify it.

Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. ESV

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. NKJV

Jesus answered, “Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of my burial. CSB

The reason for variation in the translations is because the Greek word behind the word “keep,” tēreō, literally means to guard or observe. In Greek, the inclusion of that word makes the text a bit ambiguous in its original language so various translations interpret it differently. However, if we use the accounts in Matthew (26:12) and Mark (14:8), they help to clarify the meaning of John 12:7. Jesus is saying that Mary was preparing him for His burial.

I often see commentators opine that Mary unintentionally was preparing him for his upcoming death and burial. The assumption is that Mary either did not know he was going to die or she, like the other disciples, did not understand when Jesus had told him that his death was imminent (see Mark 9:32). I certainly can see how her use of nard as a symbol to point to Christ and his Bride was unintentional because that was a concept that was further clarified after the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, Jesus, by the time Mary anoints him, had already told his disciples three times he was going to die.

Just because the disciples who were with him when Jesus made those declarations were oblivious, it doesn’t mean Mary would have also been clueless as word spread of the things Jesus said. Remember, Mary had been sitting at his feet in the account of Mary and Martha learning and soaking in His words.

Mary’s Anointing with Nard Points to a Burial Preparation

The Bible gives several reasons why someone would be anointed. (We further explore those reasons and their symbolism in my Bible study on Mary anointing Jesus). One reason was to prepare a body for burial after they had died. While it would be unusual for a person to be anointed before they died, for Mary to anoint someone for burial was in line with cultural norms.

It was also common to use nard oil for burials. Yes, nard was used as a perfume or for healing, but only small quantities would be used in those cases. Large quantities were typically only used to prepare a dead body for the tomb. Why? To mask the smell of the decomposing remains. I believe that Mary’s act of anointing, the use of nard, and the excessive quantities she used, all stand as evidence that her actions were indeed intentional. She understood Jesus would die shortly and out of love and unbridled emotion brought by the knowledge that “the end” was near for her Lord, she cast aside all decorum.

So when Jesus explains her behavior to His audience, I take Him at His word that she was preparing His body for burial.

And we cannot ignore how her actions must have ministered to His heart. When His other disciples, particularly the twelve, were either in denial or had not understood that he would be persecuted and killed, she did. I can only imagine He was moved by his dear friend Mary accepting and acknowledging His fate and her willingness to sacrifice what she had (her wealth and her glory) for Him.

Jesus’ Response

I have already explored other interactions between Jesus and women such as the account of the woman who touched his garment and the woman at the well. Jesus’ response to Mary is also consistent with His treatment of those women. Jesus was loving and compassionate. He also elevated women from positions of shame to positions of honor and was willing to break social norms to do so. For Mary, he did that twice. When she was trying to learn and when she was preparing Him for burial.

If Jesus had been like other men of His time, He would have felt embarrassed by the whole affair. A woman was touching Him and then was using her unbound hair to wipe His feet. Any other rational male would have pushed the woman away, but not Jesus. He loved. He accepted her act of worship. He broke through social, cultural, and historical realities because He was the Living Word made flesh.

Dig deeper into these scriptures by downloading my Bible study on the topic. Or you can get the full study, “Jesus Empowers Women” which includes this lesson and four others.

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Image of Mary washing Jesus' feet to anoint him with nard oil, with a blue circle on top and words, "Mary anoints Jessus, symbolism and meaning.

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