Mary of Bethany and Judas contrasted
The gospel stories often include closeups of individuals that highlight their responses to Christ and his ministry. Mary of Bethany and Judas Iscariot were two followers of Jesus that had two greatly different responses. Matthew and John artfully contrasted them in their gospels to teach us some important lessons about faith, love, devotion, and obedience to God.
The story begins as follows:
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. (Matthew 26:6-7)
The woman who anointed Jesus was Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus. She wasn’t one of the disciples that travelled with Jesus, but was a devoted follower nonetheless.
On this occasion, according to John 12:2, a dinner was being held in honor of Jesus. Jesus had raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead, and Lazarus was present at the dinner.
In those days people would show honor or love to someone by anointing them with oil or perfume, depending on the occasion. Mary showed her love to Jesus in the way she understood, by anointing his head with perfume. John’s gospel says Mary also anointed Jesus’ feet and the fragrance filled the whole house:
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:3)
Some commentators claim that John 12 describes a different event from the one recorded in Matthew. They believe this because of some minor differences between the two stories and in John’s account Mary poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet. But it’s probable that Matthew and John just described the same event from different views, and that Mary anointed both his head and his feet. Whatever the case, the two accounts are close enough that we will consider them the same event in this article.
The disciple’s reaction to Mary’s act was not a godly one:
When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” (Matthew 26:8-9)
In John’s gospel, we learn that it was mainly Judas who objected:
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:4-6)
Judas criticized Mary for “wasting all that good perfume” when it could have been used to benefit the poor. He only saw the monetary value of the perfume and had little appreciation for Mary’s heartfelt act of devotion. Judas had little perception of the work God was doing in people’s lives or even the work God wanted to do in his own life. And it’s doubtful that he had much concern for the poor, as he was stealing from the money bag.
Jesus rebukes the disciples
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.” (Matthew 26:10-12)
Mary may not have understood the full implication of what she did. But she was showing her devotion to the Savior. This was her offering to God, and it reflected her deep love for the Lord.
It was Mary who some time earlier sat at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching while her sister Martha complained that she wasn’t helping with the food preparations. At that time Jesus also defended Mary:
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
As Mary was attentive to Jesus’ teaching, she saw the image of God in Jesus, and she responded with faith and adoration. As her face turned to Jesus, her heart was filled with God’s light, producing a sincere love and pure devotion to the Savior. She had an eternal relationship with God through Christ that could never be taken from her.
A vessel prepared for God’s service
The apostle Paul taught about how God uses for his service those who cleanse themselves of sin and devote themselves to him:
In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. (2 Timothy 2:20-21)
Mary was a cleansed vessel chosen by God to carry out a most sacred duty. God in his sovereignty used her to help prepare Jesus for his sacrificial death and for his burial. It was a tremendous privilege and honor to have been used by God in this way.
There were other occasions in the gospel story when physical acts demonstrate deeper spiritual truths. For example, anointing with oil also represented God’s blessing on a person or healing of a person (see Mark 6:13, James 5:14). And we all know how Jesus washing of the disciples’ feet demonstrated sacrificial love and service of others (John 13:1-16).
Mary’s legacy recorded in Scripture
Because of her devotion, Jesus honored Mary in a most thoughtful way by proclaiming a blessing on her:
“Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:13)
As it turns out, Matthew and John recorded this story in their gospels. And as foretold by Jesus, now wherever the gospel is read, Mary is honored because of her act. We hold her up as an example of a devoted follower of Jesus.
Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus
The next thing Matthew records in this story is Judas’ infamous visit to the chief priests to negotiate with a price for handing Jesus over to them:
Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over. (Matthew 26:14-16)
Some commentators suggest that Judas felt slighted and offended over Jesus’ rebuke about the perfume, and now he had an axe to grind. He had been humiliated, and his sensitive ego couldn’t handle it. From then on, he was acting out of revenge.
Judas at the Last Supper
Soon after, Jesus and his disciples gathered to share the Passover meal. It was then that Jesus makes a most startling prediction: one of his own disciples would betray him.
When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?” (Matthew 26:20-22)
It’s clear that the others didn’t know anything about this. They all began wondering if Jesus was referring to them. But of course, Judas knew what he had intended to do. He had already set his plan in motion. His act was the most treacherous of acts: betraying the holy Son of God into evil hands. His heart was dark, and his glib speech couldn’t hide this fact.
Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.” (Matthew 26:23-25)
The name of the wicked
Jesus declared that it would have been better for Judas if he had not been born. In the same way Esau sold his inheritance for a meal (Genesis 25:29-34), Judas sold his spiritual inheritance and gave up his opportunity for redemption for a few silver coins. Matthew 27:1-5 records that Judas hanged himself and was destroyed in his rebellion against the Lord. But in spite of Judas’ character and his disobedience, God in his sovereignty used him to accomplish his will so that Jesus would be crucified for the sins of the world.
In the same way that Mary is honored for her act, Judas is also despised for his. Jesus’ words about Mary: “…wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told…” apply also to Judas, but in the negative. Whenever we hear of Judas, we think of the words traitor and treachery. Even those who don’t believe the gospel know Judas’ name and what it represents.
The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot. (Proverbs 10:7)
When we read this story, the contrast between these two disciples is impossible to ignore. One was faithful, godly, sincere, and loving. But the other was faithless, worldly, deceiving, and treacherous.
Mary of Bethany was repentant, humble, reverent, sacrificial, and perceptive of her true spiritual need. She was forgiven, redeemed, and saved from her sin. And she dedicated what she had in service to Christ as an acceptable offering to God. Mary’s name was written in God’s book of life. Her legacy is great and inspiring—it stands forever recorded in Scripture.
But Judas’ heart was dark. He had little love for eternal things or for God and focused on money and earthly things. He was opportunistic and took what earthly benefit he could gain from his experience with Christ. Judas wasted the time he spent with Jesus and his close relationship to him, preferring worldly gain to spiritual riches.
Mary and Judas were on opposite poles of a spiritual divide. They also represent two paths. Mary portrays the path of faith and love for the Savior. At the end of this path lies eternal life and glory. Judas and was on the opposite side of the divide. He illustrates the path of defiance and rejection of the most precious of gifts: a relationship with God through Christ.
Very few of us would ever want to identify with Judas and the choices he made. And none of us would want to associate our name with his. But can we identify with Mary and her extraordinary love for Christ?
My prayer is that you as a reader will take this story into account and desire with all your heart to follow Christ as did Mary. If you can’t, maybe your heart needs cleansing so that you might become a useful vessel to the Master. If you do follow her example of faith and devotion, your love for God will grow ever greater. And although like Mary your worldly stature and status may be small, what you receive from God in the process will never be taken away from you. And God’s promise to anyone who chooses this path is that at the end of your life:
…you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:11)
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