Matthew 26:1 – 16 – Jesus anointed at Bethany
Between men plotting behind closed doors to kill Jesus, and a greedy man, in secret, agreeing to betray Jesus, a woman publicly anoints Jesus. The contrast between the beautiful action of the woman and the ugly actions of the men and the man could not be sharper. Beauty in the midst of ugliness.
An unnamed woman amongst named men – Caiaphas, Jesus, Simon the leper and Judas. Nothing unusual about this in Scripture. But John in his account of this incident in his Gospel tells us who the woman is. She is Mary, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
But Matthew refers to her as “a woman” or “the woman”. This is important, because, in a very real sense, the unnamed woman is every woman or every man. And, so, in the interests of continuity with our passage, I will refer to her as “a woman” or “the woman”.
Just one other thing to say before looking in a bit more detail at the passage – the woman’s expression of love for Jesus is just a mere shadow of Jesus’ expression of love that will be revealed on the cross. Her love expressed amongst the ugliness of men’s thoughts and actions. His love expressed amongst the ugliness of men’s cruelty. Her sacrificial love remembered throughout the world. His sacrificial love shown for the world.
Jesus, near the beginning of his public ministry in the Sermon on the Mount, said – “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt.6:21). The woman’s extravagant generosity of ‘wasting’ her family heirloom on Jesus contrasts with the grasping greed of Judas in seeking 30 pieces of silver (a few month’s wages) as the price for betraying Jesus.
The chief priests and the elders of the people had decided to arrest Jesus by stealth and to kill him, but only once the feast had finished (because they were fearful of the people’s response). Jesus could so easily have kept out of sight. But, no, he remained focused on the cross.
Jesus is having a meal in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper. Bethany, in Hebrew, means ‘house of figs’. Figs were symbols of peace and prosperity, and the juice of figs had medicinal properties.
Jesus began his public ministry at the wedding feast in Cana. Now, his ministry moves to a close with another meal in Bethany. Cana was all about the ‘new wine’ of the kingdom, compared to the old, tired and insipid waters of the past. Cana was about celebration and anticipation. Bethany is also about anticipation – but this time the talk is of burial, rather than of renewal.
A woman comes up to Jesus as he is reclining at the table, and she pours an expensive ointment onto Jesus’ head. John tells us that it was a pound of pure nard. That is almost 330 grams of ointment. It is a considerable quantity. Nard is an oil-like perfume (not like our perfumes that are sprinkled on or dabbed on; this perfume is very sticky, not easily poured) extracted from the root and spike of the nard plant, ‘spikenard’, an aromatic plant with medicinal uses grown in India.
How expensive is expensive? Custom in those days to pass on from generation to generation heirlooms of sealed alabaster jars containing perfume. Jesus was anointed with the woman’s heirloom of perfume worth a year’s wages (over £14,000 in today’s figures). What was handed on from generation to generation as an investment for the future was poured out onto Jesus. The inheritance had been broken. There was nothing left to pass onto the next generation.
The woman chose to break her inheritance. She was prepared to give everything to Jesus. In stark contrast to the inadequacy of the male characters, especially Judas, she is portrayed very positively. She is commended by Jesus, while Judas is condemned.
Note John’s small detail about the fragrance of the perfume filling the house – a kind of detail lodged in the memory of someone who had been present. Apparently, one of the sayings of the rabbis was “(The scent of) good oil is diffused from the bed-chamber to the dining-hall while a good name is diffused from one end of the world to the other.” Perhaps John is making a transition from fragrance filling the house to the fragrance of the woman’s actions spreading throughout the world, as Jesus does with his words: “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Mt.26:13).
The disciples, especially Judas, had no right to criticise the woman for using her heirloom. Her extraordinary and extravagant generosity in pouring her very expensive ointment contrasts sharply with the greed that drove Judas to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (vv.14-16).
John tells us that it was Judas who voiced the disciples’ objection to the woman’s “waste”. John then adds that Judas objected because he was a thief, stealing from the money bag that was used to support Jesus and the disciples, and from which they gave to the poor.
Looking at the Gospel accounts of the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, we see a number of words or phrases. From the crowds’ “Hosanna” as Jesus rode into Jerusalem and “Crucify him” at his trial before Pilate, to Jesus’ cry “It is finished” on the cross, and finally to the angel’s “He is risen” at the empty tomb.
But there is another word or phrase – “Why this waste?” (26:8).
The woman’s expression of worship is considered a waste. She has offended the disciples / Judas, because she chose to worship Jesus sacrificially.
There will always be objections to Jesus – offending the human mind, the human heart. But what of our reactions to those who choose to worship Jesus in extravagant and sacrificial ways. Are we offended? Do we prefer to worship worship, rather than worship Jesus in the way the woman showed? Are we critical of other’s expressions of worship?
Jesus interpreted the woman’s action in terms of his death. In giving wholeheartedly to Jesus, she perhaps had a clearer understanding of what was happening than the others. An anointing that celebrated Jesus’ life, but also anticipated his death and burial.
In accepting her devotion, her worship, Jesus apparently makes a provocative comment. What with plotting, perfume and provocation, it is a heady mix of emotions. Jesus is not saying that the poor are unimportant, and that his followers need not be concerned for the poor. He had taught many times on the importance of caring for the poor (e.g. the parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46)). The woman had made a costly sacrifice to express her devotion to Jesus by anointing him for his coming burial. To her, Jesus was more valuable than personal property or financial security. Giving to the poor is one of the highest virtues. But the sacrificial offering of love and worship to Jesus is more important.
No offering lavished on Jesus is ever wasted (26:10). Jesus delights in loving, sacrificial devotion from his disciples. And no sacrifice made for Jesus is ever forgotten (26:10). Nothing done for Jesus is ever wasted, and nothing ever offered to Jesus is forgotten.
The woman loved Jesus above all (26:8-11). She loved Jesus with a costly love – her generosity contrasting with Judas’ greed. Jesus’ words – “… For she has done a beautiful thing to me.” (26:10). Beauty in the midst of ugliness. She was willing to love Jesus with what was most valuable to her. She loved Jesus for who he said he was – the Son of Man, the Messiah, her Saviour.
John 1:16 – “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” The woman’s beautiful action points us to the costliness of grace, to the beauty of grace, to the glory of the cross. By anointing Jesus for his death and burial, she is anticipating grace broken, bruised and bleeding for her salvation, for our salvation. As Kari Jobe’s song has it “What love is this / That you gave Your life for me / And made a way for me to know You / And I confess / You’re always enough for me / You’re all I need.”
The woman poured out the riches of her inheritance, her family heirloom. Jesus, on the cross, poured out his life, poured out “the riches of his grace” (Eph.1:7 – “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”). What love. What grace. What beauty.
Is my worship, my devotion, my love for Jesus as generous and costly as the woman’s? If not, why not? What needs to change?
The woman chose to worship Jesus using her inheritance. Judas chose to betray Jesus for a paltry sum of money. She counted the cost. He counted the pennies. Judas / the disciples rebuked her. Jesus commended her. Her actions showed how much she treasured Jesus, how much she cherished Jesus, how much she loved Jesus, how much she worshipped Jesus. Lord, may that be true for me today. Please come and change my heart.