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18. THE ANOINTING IN BETHANY;
OR, THIRD LESSON ON THE DOCTRINE OF THE CROSS
The touching story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary at Bethany forms part of the preface to the history of the passion, as recorded in the synoptical Gospels. That preface, as given most fully by Matthew, includes four particulars: first, a statement made by Jesus to His disciples two days before the pass over concerning His betrayal; second, a meeting of the priests in Jerusalem to consult when and how Jesus should be put to death; third, the anointing by Mary; fourth, the secret correspondence between Judas and the priests. In Mark’s preface the first of these four particulars is omitted; in Luke’s both the first and the third.
The four facts related by the first evangelist had this in common, that they were all signs that the end so often foretold was at length at hand. Jesus now says, not “the Son of man shall be betrayed,” but “the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified.” The ecclesiastical authorities of Israel are assembled in solemn conclave, not to discuss the question what should be done with the object of their dislike — that is already determined — but how the deed of darkness may be done most stealthily and most securely. The Victim has been anointed by a friendly hand for the approaching sacrifice. And, finally, an instrument has been found to relieve the priests from their perplexity, and to pave the way in a most unexpected manner for the consummation of their wicked purpose.
The grouping of the incidents in the introduction to the tragic history of the crucifixion is strikingly dramatic in its effect. First comes the Sanhedrim in Jerusalem plotting against the life of the Just One. Then comes Mary at Bethany, in her unutterable love breaking her alabaster box, and pouring its contents on the head and feet of her beloved Lord. Last comes Judas, offering to sell his Master for less than Mary wasted on a useless act of affection! Hatred and baseness on either hand, and true love in the midst.410410On the apparent discrepancy between the synoptists and John as to time, and on all other points belonging to harmony, see the commentaries, especially Alford and Stier.
This memorable transaction of Mary with her alabaster box belongs to the history of the passion, in virtue of the interpretation put upon it by Jesus, which gives to it the character of a Iyric prelude to the great tragedy enacted on Calvary. It belongs to the history of the twelve disciples, because of the unfavorable construction which they put on it. All the disciples, it seems, disapproved of the action, the only difference between Judas and the rest being that he disapproved on hypocritical grounds, while his fellow-disciples were honest both in their judgment and in their motives. By their fault-finding the twelve rendered to Mary a good service. They secured for her a present defender in Jesus, and future eulogists in themselves. Their censure drew from the Lord the extraordinary statement, that wheresoever the gospel might be preached in the whole world, what Mary had done would be spoken of for a memorial of her. This prophecy the fault-finding disciples, when they became apostles, helped to fulfill. They felt bound by the virtual commandment of their Master, as well as by the generous redaction of their own hearts, to make amends to Mary for former wrong done, by telling the tale of her true love to Jesus wherever they told the story of His true love to men. From their lips the touching narrative passed in due course into the gospel records, to be read with a thrill of delight by true Christians to the end of time. Verily one might be content to be spoken against for a season for tulle sake of such chivalrous championship as that of Jesus, and such magnanimous recantations as those of His apostles!
When we consider from whom Mary’s defense proceeds, we must be satisfied that it was not merely generous, but just. And yet surely it is a defense of a most surprising character! Verily it seems as if, while the disciples went to one extreme in blaming, their Lord went to the other extreme in praising; as if, in so lauding the woman of Bethany, He were but repeating her extravagance in another form. You feel tempted to ask: Was her action, then, so preeminently meritorious as to deserve to be associated with the gospel throughout all time? Then, as to the explanation of the action given by Jesus, the further questions suggest themselves: Was there really any reference in Mary’s mind to His death and burial while she was performing it? Does not Jesus rather impute to her His own feeling, and invest her act with an ideal poetic significance, which lay not in it, b.lt in His own thoughts? And if so, can we endorse the judgment He pronounced; or must we, on the question as to the intrinsic merit of Mary’s act, give our vote on the side of the twelve against their Master?
We, for our part, cordially take Christ’s side of the question; and in doing so, we can afford to make two admissions. In the first place, we admit that Mary had no thought of embalming, in the literal sense, the dead body of Jesus, and possibly was not thinking of His death at all when she anointed Him with the precious ointment. Her action was simply a festive honor done to one whom she loved unspeakably, and which she might have rendered at another time.411411It is natural to connect the annointing with the raising of Lazarus, and to find in gratitude for the restoration of a brother to life the motive to that deed of love. It has been suggested that the ointment may originally have been provided for the burial rites of Lazarus. We admit further, that it would certainly have been an extravagance to speak of Mary’s deed, however noble, as entitled to be associated with the gospel everywhere and throughout all time, unless it were fit to be spoken of not merely for her sake, but more especially for the gospel’s sake; that is to say, unless it were capable of being made use of to expound the nature of the gospel. In other words, the breaking of the alabaster box must be worthy to be employed as an emblem of the deed of love performed by Jesus in dying on the cross.
Such, indeed, we believe it to be. Wherever the gospel is truly preached, the story of the anointing is sure to be prized as the best possible illustration of the spirit which moved Jesus to lay down His life, as also of the spirit of Christianity as it manifests itself in the lives of sincere believers. The breaking of the alabaster box is a beautiful symbol at once of Christ’s love to us and of the love we owe to Him. As Mary broke her box of ointment and poured forth its precious contents, so Christ broke His body and shed His precious blood; so Christians pour forth their hearts before their Lord, counting not their very lives dear for His sake. Christ’s death was a breaking of an alabaster box for us; our life should be a breaking of an alabaster box for Him.
This relation of spiritual affinity between the deed of Mary and His own deed in dying is the true key to all that is enigmatical in the language of Jesus in speaking of the former. It explains, for example, the remarkable manner in which He referred to the gospel in connection therewith. “This gospel,” He said, as if it had been already spoken of; nay, as if the act of anointing were the gospel. And so it was in a figure. The one act already done by Mary naturally suggested to the mind of Jesus the other act about to be done by Himself. “There,” He thought within Himself, “in that broken vessel and outpoured oil is my death foreshadowed; in the hidden motive from which that deed proceeded is the eternal spirit in which I offer myself a sacrifice revealed.” This thought He meant to express when He used the phrase “this gospel;.” and in putting such a construction on Mary’s deed He was in effect giving His disciples their third lesson on the doctrine of the cross.
In the light of this same relation of spiritual affinity, we clearly perceive the true meaning of the statement made by Jesus concerning Mary’s act: “In that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.” It was a mystic, poetic explanation of a most poetic deed, and as such was not only beautiful, but true. For the anointing in Bethany has helped to preserve, to embalm so to speak, the true meaning of the Saviors death. It has supplied us with a symbolic act through which to understand that death; it has shed around the cross an imperishable aroma of self forgetting love; it has decked the Saviors grave with flowers that never shall wither, and reared for Jesus, as well as for Mary, a memorial-stone that shall endure throughout all generations. Might it not be fitly said of such a deed, She did it for my burial? Was it not most unfitly said of a deed capable of rendering so important a service to the gospel, that it was wasteful and useless?
These questions will be answered in the affirmative by all who are convinced that the spiritual affinity asserted by us really did exist. What we have now to do, therefore, is to show, by going a little into detail, that our assertion is well founded.
There are three outstanding points of resemblance between Mary’s “good work” in anointing Jesus, and the good work wrought by Jesus Himself in dying on the cross.
There was first a resemblance in motive. Mary wrought her good work out of pure love. She loved Jesus with her whole heart, for what He was, for what He had done for the family to which she belonged, and for the words of instruction she had heard from His lips when He came on a visit to their house. There was such a love in her heart for her friend and benefactor as imperatively demanded expression, and yet could not find expression in words. She must do something to relieve her pent-up emotions: she must get an alabaster box and break it, and pour it on the person of Jesus, else her heart will break.
Herein Mary’s act resembles closely that of Jesus in dying on the cross, and in coming to this world that He might die. For just such a love as that of Mary, only far deeper and stronger, moved Him to sacrifice Himself for us. The simple account of Christ’s whole conduct in becoming man, and undergoing what is recorded of Him, is this: He loved sinners. After wearying themselves in studying the philosophy of redemption, learned theologians come back to this as the most satisfactory explanation that can be given. Jesus so loved sinners as to lay down His life for them; nay, we might almost say, He so loved them that He must needs come and die for them. Like Nehemiah, the Jewish patriot in the court of the Persian king, He could not stay in heaven’s court while His brethren far away on earth were in an evil case; He must ask and obtain leave to go down to their assistance.412412See Neh. i. and ii. Nehemiah, like Mary, may be spoken of wherever the gospel is preached, to illustrate the heart of the Redeemer and interprest His thoughts. Or, like Mary, He must procure an alabaster box — a human body — fill it with the fine essence of a human soul, and pour out His soul unto death on the cross for our salvation. The spirit of Jesus, yea, the spirit ox the Eternal God, is the spirit of Mary and of Nehemiah, and of all who are likeminded with them. In reverence we ought rather to say, the spirit of such is the spirit of Jesus and of God; and yet it is needful at times to put the matter in the inverse way. For somehow we are slow to believe that love is a reality for God. We almost shrink, as if it were an impiety, from ascribing to the Divine Being attributes which we confess to be the noblest and most heroic in human character. Hence the practical value of the sanction here given by Jesus to the association of the anointing in Bethany with the crucifixion on Calvary. He, in effect, says to us thereby: Be not afraid to regard my death as an act of the same kind as that of Mary: an act of pure, devoted love. Let the aroma of her ointment circulate about the neighborhood of my cross, and help you to discern the sweet savor of my sacrifice. Amid all your speculations and theories on the grand theme of redemption, take heed that ye fail not to see in my death my loving heart, and the loving heart of my Father, revealed.413413There is a tendency among theologians of an ultra-scholastic habit of mind to treat all that is said of love in connection with the atonement as sentimental, or at most, as available only for popular purposes, and to represent the judicial aspect of the atonement as alone of scientific validity. Thus a recent writer on the History of Doctrines (Shedd) says: “All true scientific development of the doctrine of the atonement, it is very evident, must take its departure from the idea of divine justice. This conception is the primary one in the biblical representation of this doctrine.” This author is greatly in love with “soteriologies” of scientific pretensions. He idolizes Anselm as the author of the “first metaphisique of the Christian doctrine of atonement,” and as the first to challenge for the doctrine of vicarious satisfaction “both a rational necessity and a scientific rationaltiy.” Anselm did certainly carry the passion for à priori reasoning on the subject of redemption to its extreme limit. He aimed to demonstrate not only a hypothetical necessity for an atonement in order to salvation, but an absolute necessity. A certain number of sinners, he maintained, must be saved to fill up the numbers of the fallen angels, as “it is indubitable that rational nature which is or is to be happy in the contemplation of God is foreknown by God in a certain rational and perfect number which can neither be more nor less” (Cur Deus Homo, i. c. 16). How happy is one to get away from such science so called to the supper-room in Bethany! Let the august attribute of justice get its due place in the theology of atonement, but let not “love” be relegated from theology to popular sermons. Christ’s death satisfied both divine justice and divine love, and the glory of the gospel is that the same event satisfied both.
Mary’s “good work” further resembled Christ’s in its self-sacrificing character. It was not without an effort and a sacrifice that that devoted woman performed her famous act of homage. All the evangelists make particular mention of the costliness of the ointment. Mark and John represent the murmuring disciples as estimating its value at the round sum of three hundred pence; equal, say, to the wages of a laboring man for a whole year at the then current rate of a deniers per day. This was a large sum in itself; but what is more particularly to be noted, it was a very large sum for Mary. This we learn from Christ’s own words, as recorded by the second evangelist. “She hath done what she could,” He kindly remarked of her, in defending her conduct against the harsh censures of His disciples. It was a remark of the same kind as that which He made a day or two after in Jerusalem concerning the poor widow whom He saw casting two mites into the temple treasury; and it implied that Mary had expended all her resources on that singular tribute of respect to Him whom her soul loved. All her earnings, all her little hoard, had been given in exchange for that box, whose precious contents she poured on the Saviors person. Hers was no ordinary love: it was a noble, heroic, self sacrificing devotion, which made her do her utmost for its object.
Herein the woman of Bethany resembled the Son of man. He, too, did what He could. Whatever it was possible for a holy being to endure in the way of humiliation, temptation, sorrow, suffering, yea, even in the way of becoming “sin” and “a curse,” He willingly underwent. All through His life on earth He scrupulously abstained from doing aught that might tend to make his cup of affliction come short of absolute fullness. He denied ~limself all the advantages of divine power and privilege; He emptied Himself; He made Himself poor; He became in all possible respects like His sinful brethren, that He might qualify Himself for being a merciful and trustworthy High Yriest to them in things pertaining to God. Such sacrifices in life and death did His love impose on Him.
While imposing sacrifices, love, by way of compensation, makes them easy. It is not only love’s destiny, but it is love’s delight, to endure hardships, to bear burdens for the object loved. It is not satisfied till it has found an opportunity of embodying itself in a service involving cost, labor, pain. The things from which selfishness shrinks love ardently longs for. These reflections, we believe, are applicable to Mary. With her love to Jesus, it was more easy for her to do what she did than to refrain from doing it. But love’s readiness and eagerness to sacrifice herself are most signally exemplified in the case of Jesus Himself. It was indeed His pleasure to suffer for our redemption. Far from shrinking from the cross, He looked forward to it with earnest desire; and when the hour of His passion approached, He spoke of it as the hour of His glorification. He had no thought of achieving our salvation at the smallest possible cost to Himself. His feeling was rather akin to this: “The more I suffer the better: the more thoroughly shall I realize my identity with my brethren; the more completely will the sympathetic, burden-bearing, help-bringing instincts and yearnings of my love be satisfied.” Yes: Jesus had more to do than to purchase sinners for as small a price as would be accepted for their ransom. He had to do justice to His own heart; He had adequately to express its deep compassion; and no act of limited or calculated dimensions would avail to exhaust the contents of that whose dimensions were immeasurable. Measured suffering, especially when endured by so august a personage, might satisfy divine justice, but it could not satisfy divine love.
A third feature which fitted Mary’s “good work” to be an emblem of the Saviors, was its magnificence. This also appeared in the expenditure connected with the act of anointing, which was not only such as involved a sacrifice for a person of her means, but very liberal with reference to the purpose in hand. The quantity of oil employed in the service was, according to John, not less than a pound weight. This was much more than could be said to be necessary. There was an appearance of waste and extravagance in the manner of the anointing, even admitting the thing in itself to be right and proper. Whether the disciples would have objected to the ceremony, however performed, does not appear; but it was evidently the extravagant amount of ointment expended which was the prominent object of their displeasure. We conceive them as saying in effect: “Surely less might have done; the greater part at least, if not the whole of this ointment, might have been saved for other uses. This is simply senseless, prodigal expenditure.”
What to the narrow-hearted disciples seemed prodigality was but the princely magnificence of love, which, as even a heathen philosopher could tell, considers not for how much or how little this or that can be done, but how it can be done most gracefully and handsomely.414414Vide p. 25. And what seemed to them purposeless waste served at least one good purpose. It symbolized a similar characteristic of Christ’s good work as the Saviour of sinners. He did His work magnificently, and in no mean, economical way. He accomplished the redemption of “many” by means adequate to redeem all. “With Him is plenteous redemption.” He did not measure out His blood in proportion to the number to be saved, nor limit His sympathies as the sinner’s friend to the elect. He shed bitter tears for doomed souls; He shed His blood without measure, and without respect to numbers, and offered an atonement which was sufficient for the sins of the world. Nor was this attribute of universal sufficiency attaching to His atoning work one to which He was indifferent. On the contrary, it appears to have been in His thoughts at the very moment He uttered the words authorizing the association of Mary’s deed of love with the gospel. For He speaks of that gospel, which was to consist in the proclamation of His deed of love in dying for sinners, as a gospel for the whole world; evidently desiring that, as the odor of Mary’s ointment filled the room in which the guests were assembled, so the aroma of His sacrifice might be diffused as an atmosphere of saving health among all the nations.
We may say, therefore, that in defending Mary against the charge of waste, Jesus was at the same time defending Himself; replying by anticipation to such questions as these: To what purpose weep over doomed Jerusalem? why sorrow for souls that are after all to perish? why trouble Himself about men not elected to salvation? why command His gospel to be preached to every creature, with an emphasis which seems to say He wishes every one saved, when He knows only a definite number will believe the report? why not confine His sympathies and His solicitudes to those who shall be effectually benefited by them? why not restrict His love to the channel of the covenant? why allow it to overflow the embankments like a river in full flood?415415On the apparent waste in the economy of redemption, there are some good remarks in the writings of Andrew Fuller, and especially in Three Conversations on Particular Redemption. He says: “It accords with the general conduct of God to impart His favors with a kind of profusion which, to the mind of man that sees only one or two ends to be answered by them, may have the appearance of waste.”
Such questions betray ignorance of the conditions under which even the elect are saved. Christ could not save any unless He were heartily willing to save all, for that willingness is a part of the perfect righteousness which it beloved Him to fulfill. The sum of duty is, Love God supremely, and thy neighbor as thyself; and “neighbor” means, for Christ as for us, every one who needs help, and whom He can help. But not to dwell on this, we remark that such questions show ignorance of the nature of love. Magnify. pence, misnamed by churls extravagance and waste, is an invariable attribute of all true love. David recognized this truth when he selected the profuse anointing of Aaron with the oil of consecration at his installation into the office of high priest as a fit emblem of brotherly love.416416Ps. cxxxiii. There was “waste” in that anointing too, as well as in the one which took place at Bethany. For the oil was not sprinkled on the head of Aaron, though that might have been sufficient for the purpose of a mere ceremony. The vessel was emptied on the high priest’s person, so that its contents flowed down from the head upon the beard, and even to the skirts of the sacerdotal robes. In that very waste lay the point of the resemblance for David. It was a feature that was likely to strike his mind, for he, too, was a wasteful man in his way. He had loved God in a manner which exposed him to the charge of extravagance. He had danced before the Lord, for example, when the ark was brought up from the house ox Obed-edom to Jerusalem, forgetful of his dignity, exceeding the bounds of decorum, and, as it might seem, without excuse, as a much less hearty demonstration of his feelings would have served the purpose of a religious solemnity.4174172 Sam. vi.
David, Mary, Jesus, all loving, devoted beings, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, belong to one company, and come all under one condemnation. They must all plead guilty to a waste of affection, sorrow, labor, tears; all live so as to earn for themselves the blame of extravagance, which is their highest praise. David dances, and Michal sneers; prophets break their hearts for their people’s sins and miseries, and the people make sport of their grief; Marys break their alabaster boxes, and frigid disciples object to the waste; men of God sacrifice their all for their religious convictions, and the world calls them fools for their pains, and philosophers bid them beware of being martyrs by mistake; Jesus weeps over sinners that will not come to Him to be saved, and thankless men ask, Why shed tears over vessels of wrath fitted for destruction?
We have thus seen that Mary’s good deed was a fit and worthy emblem of the good deed of Jesus Christ in dying on the cross. We are now to show that Mary herself is in some important respects worthy to be spoken of as a model Christian. Three features in her character entitle her to this honorable name.
First among these is her enthusiastic attachment to the person of Christ. The most prominent feature in Mary’s character was her power of loving, her capacity of self devotion. It was this virtue, as manifested in her action, that elicited the admiration of Jesus. He was so delighted with the chivalrous deed of love, that He, so to speak, canonized Mary on the spot, as a king might confer knighthood on the battlefield on a soldier who had performed some noble feat of arms. “Behold,” He said in effect, “here is what I understand by Christianity: an unselfish and uncalculating devotion to me as the Saviour of sinners, and as the Sovereign of the kingdom of truth and righteousness. Therefore, wherever the gospel is preached, let this that this woman heath done be spoken of, not merely as a memorial of her, but to intimate what I expect of all who believe in me.”
In so commending Mary, Jesus gives us to understand in effect that devotion is the chief of Christian virtues. He proclaims the same doctrine afterwards taught by one who, though last, was the first of all the apostles in his comprehension of the mind of Christ — the Apostle Paul. That glowing panegyric on charity, so well known to all readers of his epistles, in which he makes eloquence, knowledge, faith, the gift of tongues, and the gift of prophecy, do obeisance to her, as the sovereign virtue, is but the faithful interpretation in general terms of the encomium pronounced on the woman of Beth any. The story of the anointing and the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians may be read with advantage together.
In making love the test and measure of excellence, Jesus and Paul, and the rest of the apostles (for they all shared the Master’s mind at last), differ widely from the world religious and orologies. Pharisees and Sadducees, scrupulous religionists, and unscrupulous men of no religion, agree in disliking ardent, enthusiastic, chivalrous devotion, even in the most noble cause. They are wise and prudent, and their philosophy might be embodied in such maxims as these: “Be not too catholic in your sentiments, too warm in your sympathies, too keen in your sense of duty; never allow your heart to get the better of your head, or your principles to interfere with your interest.” So widely diffused is the dislike to earnestness, especially in good, that all nations have their proverbs against enthusiasm. The Greeks had their μηδὲν ἄγαν, the Latins their Ne quid nimis;418418The Scotch proverb to the same effect is, “Nae owers are guid.” expressing skepticism in proverb-maker and proverb-quoter as to the possibility of wisdom being enthusiastic about any thing. The world is prosaic, not poetic, in temperament — prudential, not impulsive: it abhors eccentricity in good or in evil; it prefers a dead level of mediocrity, moderation, and self-possession; its model man is one who never forgets himself, either by sinking below himself in folly or wickedness, or by rising above himself, and getting rid of meanness, pride, selfishness, cowardice, and vanity in devotion to a noble cause.
The twelve were like the world in their temperament at the time of the anointing: they seem to have regarded Mary as a romantic, quixotic, crazy creature, and her action as absurd and indefensible. They objected not, of course, to her love of Jesus; but they deemed the manner of its manifestation foolish, as the money spent on the ointment might have been applied to a better purpose — say, to the relief of the destitute — and Jesus loved nothing the less, seeing that, according to His own teaching, all philanthropic actions were deeds of kindness to Himself. And, on first thoughts, one is half inclined to say that they had reason on their side, and were far wiser, while not less devoted to Jesus than Mary. But look at their behavior on the day of their Lord’s crucifixion, and learn the difference between them and her. Mary loved so ardently as to be beyond calculations of consequences or expenses; they loved so coldly, that there was room for fear in their hearts: therefore, while Mary spent her all on the ointment, they all forsook their Master, and fled to save their own wives. Whence we can see that, despite occasional extravagances, apparent or real, that spirit is wisest as well as noblest which makes us incapable of calculation, and proof against temptations arising therefrom. One rash, blundering, but heroic Luther is worth a thousand men of the Erasmus type, unspeakably wise, but cold, passionless, timid, and time-serving. Scholarship is great, but action is greater; and the power to do noble actions comes from love.
How great is the devoted Mary compared with the coldhearted disciples! She does noble deeds, and they criticize them. Poor work for a human being, criticism, especially the sort that abounds in fault-finding! Love does not care for such occupation; it is too petty for her generous mind. If there be room for praise, she will give that in unstinted measure; but rather than carp and blame, she prefers to be silent. Then observe again how love in Mary becomes a substitute for prescience. She does not know that Jesus is about to die, but she acts as if she did. Such as Mary can divine; the instincts of love, the inspiration of the God of love, teach them to do the right thing at the right time, which is the very highest attainment of true wisdom. On the other hand, we see in the case of the disciples how coldness of heart consumes knowledge and makes men stupid. They had received far more information than Mary concerning the future. If they did not know that Jesus was about to be put to death, they ought to have known from the many hints and even plain intimations which had been given them. But, alas! they had forgot all these. And why? For the same reason which makes all men so forgetful of things pertaining to their neighbors. The twelve were too much taken up with their own affairs. Their heads were filled with vain dreams of worldly ambition, and so their Master’s words were forgotten almost as soon as they were uttered, and it became needful that He should tell them pathetically and reproachfully: “The poor ye have always with you, but me ye have not always.” Men so minded never understand the times, so as to know what Israel ought to do, or to approve the conduct of those who do know.
A second admirable feature in Mary’s character was the freedom of her spirit. She was not tied down to methods and rules of well-doing. The disciples, judging from their language, seem to have been great methodists, servile in their adherence to certain stereotyped modes of action. “This ointment,” said they, “might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.” They understand that charity to the poor is a very important duty: they know that their Master often referred to it; and they make it every thing. “Charity,” in the sense of almsgiving,419419We cannot regard as an improvement the exclusion of the word charity from the Revised Version. The motive is obvious enough, the fact that it is often employed in the sense of alms-giving. But it has a well-understood sense besides that, viz. “catholic love;” and it is altogether too precious a word in our religious vocabulary to be thrown away. The effect of the omission on the style of the R. V. is sometimes very unhappy. Thus in 2 Pet. i. 7, for “to brotherly kindness charity,” in the A. V., we have in R. V. “in your love of the brethren love.” What could be more helpless? is their hobby. When Judas went out to betray his Lord, they fancied that he was gone to distribute what remained of the supper among some poor persons of his acquaintance. Their very ideas of well-doing appear to be method-ridden. Good works with them do not seem to be co-extensive with noble deeds of all sorts. The phrase is technical, and limited in its application to a confined circle of actions of an expressly and obviously religious and benevolent nature.
Not so with Mary. She knows of more ways of doing good than one. She can invent ways of her own. She is original, creative, not slavishly imitative. And she is as fearless as she is original. She cannot only imagine forms of well-doing out of the beaten track, but she has the courage to realize her conceptions. She is not afraid of the public. She does not ask beforehand, What will the twelve think of this? With a free mind she forms her plan, and with prompt, free hand she forthwith executes it.
For this freedom Mary was indebted to her large heart. Love made her original in thought and conduct. People without heart cannot be original as she was. They may addict themselves to good works from one motive or another; but they go about them in a very slavish, mechanical way. They have to be told by some individual in whom they confide, or more commonly, by custom or fashion, what to do; and hence they never do any good which is not in vogue. But Mary needed no counselor: she took counsel of her own heart. Love told her infallibly what was the duty of the hour; that her business for the present was not to give alms, but to anoint the person of the great High Priest.
We may learn from the example of Mary that love is, not less than necessity, the mother of invention. A great heart has fully as much to do with spiritual originality as a clever head. What is needed to fill the church with original preachers, original givers, original actors in all departments of Christian work, is not more brains, or more training, or more opportunities, but above all, more heart. When there is little love in the Christian community, it resembles a river in dry weather, which not only keeps within its banks, but does not even occupy the whole of its channel, leaving large beds of gravel or sand Iying high and dry on both sides of the current. But when the love of God is shed abroad in the hearts of her members, the church becomes like the same river in time of rain. The stream begins to rise, all the gravel beds gradually disappear, and at length the swollen flood not only fills its channel, but overflows its banks, and spreads over the meadows. New methods of well-doing are then attempted, and new measures of well-doing reached; new songs are indited and sung; new forms of expression for old truths are invented, not for the sake of novelty, but in the creative might of a new spiritual life.
It was love that made Mary free from fear, as well as from the bondage of mechanical custom. “Love,” saith one who knew love’s power well, “casteth out fear.” Love can make even shrinking, sensitive women bold — bolder even than men. It can teach us to disregard that thing called public opinion, before which all mankind cowers. It was love that made Peter and John so bold when they stood before the Sanhedrim. They had been with Jesus long enough to love Him more than their own life, and therefore they quailed not before the face of the mighty. It was love that made Jesus Himself so indifferent to censure, and so disregardful of conventional restraints in the prosecution of His work. His heart was so devoted to His philanthropic mission, that He set at defiance the world’s disapprobation; nay, probably did not so much as think of it, except when it obtruded itself upon His notice. And what love did for Mary, and for Jesus, and for the apostles in after days, it does for all. Wherever it exists in liberal measure, it banishes timidity and shyness, and the imbecility which accompanies these, and brings along with it power of character and soundness of mind. And to crown the encomium, we may add, that while it makes us bold, love does not make us impudent. Some men are bold because they are too selfish to care for other people’s feelings. Those who are bold through love may dare to do things which will be found fault with; but they are always anxious, as far as possible, to please their neighbors, and to avoid giving of fence.
One remark more let us make under this head. The liberty which springs from love can never be dangerous. In these days many people are greatly alarmed at the progress of broad school theology. And of the breadth that consists in sceptical indifference to catholic Christian truth we do well to be jealous. But, on the other hand, of the breadth and freedom due to consuming love for Christ, and all the grand interests of His kingdom, we cannot have too much. The spirit of charity may indeed treat as comparatively light matters, things which men of austere mind deem of almost vital importance, and may be disposed to do things which men more enamored of order and use and wont than of freedom may consider licentious innovations. But the harm done will be imaginary rather than real; and even if it were otherwise, the impulsive Marys are never so numerous in the church that they may not safely be tolerated. There are always a sufficient number of prosaic, order-loving disciples to keep their quixotic brethren in due check.
Finally, the nobility of Mary’s spirit was not less remarkable than its freedom. There was no taint of vulgar utilitarianism about her character. She thought habitually, not of the immediately, obviously, and materially useful, but of the honorable, the lovely, the morally beautiful. Hard, practical men might have pronounced her a romantic, sentimental, dreamy mystic; but a more just, appreciative estimate would represent her as a woman whose virtues were heroic and chivalrous rather than commercial. Jesus signalized the salient point in Mary’s character by the epithet which He employed to describe her action. He did not call it a useful work, but a good, or, better still, a noble work.
And yet, while Mary’s deed was characteristically noble, it was not the less useful. All good deeds are useful in some way and at some time or other. All noble and beautiful things — thoughts, words, deeds — contribute ultimately to the benefit of the world. Only the uses of such deeds as Mary’s — of the best and noblest needs — are not always apparent or appreciable. If we were to make immediate, obvious, and vulgar uses the test of what is right, we should exclude not only the anointing in Bethany, but all fine poems and works of art, all sacrifices of material advantage to truth and duty; every thing, in fact, that has not tended directly to increase outward wealth and comfort, but has merely helped to redeem the world from vulgarity, given us glimpses of the far-off land of beauty and goodness, concerning which we now and then but faintly dream, brought us into contact with the divine and the eternal, made the earth classic ground, a field where heroes have fought, and where their bones are buried, and where the moss-grown stone stands to commemorate their valor.
In this nobility of spirit Mary was pre-eminently the Christian. For the genius of Christianity is certainly not utilitarian. Its counsel is: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are venerable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, think of these things.” All these things are emphatically useful; but it is not of their utility, but of themselves, we are asked to think, and that for a very good reason. Precisely in order to be useful, we must aim at something higher than usefulness; just as, in order to be happy, we must aim at something higher than happiness. We must make right revealed to us by an enlightened conscience and a loving pure heart our rule of duty, and then we may be sure that uses of all kinds will be served by our conduct, whether we foresee them or not; whereas, if we make calculations of utility our guide in action, we shall leave undone the things which are noblest and best, because as a rule the uses of such things are least obvious, and longest in making their appearance. Supremely useful to the world is the heroic devotion of the martyr; but it takes centuries to develop the benefits of martyrdom; and if all men had followed the maxims of utilitarian philosophy, and made utility their motive to action, there would never have been any martyrs at all. Utilitarianism tends to trimming and time-serving; it is the death of heroism and self-sacrifice; it walks by sight, and not by faith; it looks only to the present, and forgets the future; it seats prudence on the throne of conscience; it produces not great characters, but at best petty busybodies. These things being considered, it need not surprise us to find that the term “usefulness,” of such frequent recurrence in the religious vocabulary of the present day, has no place in the New Testament.420420On the defects of utilitarian morality see Sir James Macintosh’s Dissertation, under Jeremy Bentham.
Four further observations may fitly close these meditations on the memorable transactions in Bethany.
I. In all the attributes of character hitherto enumerated, Mary was a model of genuinely evangelic piety. The evangelic spirit is a Spilit of noble love and fearless liberty. It is a counterfeit evangelicism that is a slave to the past, to tradition, to fixed customs and methods in religion. The true name for this temper and tendency is legalism.
2. From Christ’s defense of Mary we may learn that being found fault with is not infallible evidence of being wrong. A much-blamed man is commonly considered to have done something amiss, as the only possible reason for his being censured. But, in truth, he may only have done something unusual; for all unusual things are found fault with — the unusually good as well as, nay, more than, the unusually bad. Hence it comes that Paul makes the apparently superfluous remark, that there is no law against love and its kindred graces. In point of fact, these virtues are treated as if illegal and criminal whenever they exceed the usual stinted niggard measure in which such precious metals are found in the world. Was not He who perfectly embodied all the heavenly graces flung out of existence by the world as a person not to be tolerated? Happily the world ultimately comes round to a juster opinion, though often too late to be of service to those who have suffered wrong. The barbarians of the island of Malta, who, when they saw the viper fastened on Paul’s hand, thought he must needs be a murderer, changed their minds when he shook off the reptile unharmed, and exclaimed, “He is a god.” Hence we should learn this maxim of prudence, not to be too hasty in criticizing if we want to have credit for insight and consistency. But we should discipline ourselves to slowness in judging from far higher considerations. We ought to cherish a reverence for the character and for the personality of all intelligent responsible beings, and to be under a constant fear of making mistakes, and calling good evil, and evil good. In the words of an ancient philosopher, “We ought always to be very careful when about to blame or praise a man, lest we speak not rightly. For this purpose it is necessary to learn to discriminate between good and bad men. For God is displeased when one blames a person like Himself, or praises one unlike Himself. Do not imagine that stones and sticks, and birds and serpents, are holy, and that men are not. For of all things the holiest is a good man, and the most detestable a bad.”421421Plato, Minos.
3. If we cannot be Christians like Mary, let us at all events not be disciples like Judas. Some may think it would not be desirable that all should be like the woman of Bethany: plausibly alleging that, considering the infirmity of human nature, it is necessary that the romantic, impulsive, mystic school of Christians should be kept in check by another school of more prosaic, conservative, and so to say, plebeian character; while perhaps admitting that a few Christians like Mary in the church help to preserve religion from degenerating into coarseness, vulgarity, and formalism. Be this as it may, the church has certainly no need for Judases. Judas and Mary! these two represent the two extremes of human character. The one exemplifies Plato’s πάντων μιαρώτατον (hatefullest of all things), the other his πάντων ἱερώτατον (holiest of all things). Characters so diverse compel us to believe in a heaven and a hell. Each one goeth to his and her own place: Mary to the “land of the leal;.” Judas to the land of the false, who sell their conscience and their God for gold.
4. It is worthy of notice how naturally and appropriately Jesus, in His magnanimous defense of Mary’s generous, large-hearted deed, rises to the full height of prophetic prescience, and anticipates for His gospel a world-wide diffusion: “Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world.” Such a gospel could be nothing less than world-wide in sympathy, and no one who understood it and its Author could fail to have a burning desire to go into all the world and preach it unto every creature. This universalistic touch in Christ’s utterance at this time, far from taking us by surprise, rather seems a matter of course. Even critics of the naturalistic school allow its genuineness. “This word in Bethany,” says one of the ablest writers on the Gospel history belonging to this school, “is the solitary quite reliable word of the last period of Christ’s life concerning the world-wide career which Jesus saw opening up for Himself and His cause.”422422Keim, Geschichte Jesu, iii. 224. If therefore the twelve remained narrow Judaists to the end, it was not due to the absence of the universalistic element in their Master’s teaching, but simply to this, that they remained permanently as incapable of appreciating Mary’s act, and the gospel whereof it was an emblem, as they showed themselves at this time. That they did so continue, however, we do not believe; and the best evidence of this is that the story of Mary of Bethany has attained a place in the evangelic records.
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