You really have to respect the high priests and the scribes. They know whats right and they know whats wrong, but most of all they have that special gift that makes them exceptional religious leaders the gift of timing. When anyone else would just arrest Jesus and kill him whenever they wanted, the high priests and scribes have the decency not to do it during the Passover feast. They dont have a problem arresting him or killing him, they just want to avoid a riot. Now thats class. Thats brilliance and genius. Its all about timing and execution. Arrest Jesus during Passover and there will be a riot and after all no one wants to ruin the holidays. Arrest Jesus later and the crowd will be on their side.
You really have to admire and respect their calculation. Theyve thought through everything and have engaged Jesus in clever debate. First there was the question about his authority. That was simple and straightforward, "Just show us your credentials Jesus." Then they made it a bit tricky "Is it right to pay taxes?" That question would test Jesus to see how quick he is: if he says yes, then he supports the blasphemous worship of the emperor, but if he says no then he supports rebellion. Next, they test him with some controversial and complicated theology. Most questions along these lines involve the future and the afterlife and this one is no exception. They test Jesus with a scenario involving a woman who is married to seven different brothers. She marries and then they die and on it goes. Now in the resurrection who is she married to? You have to respect the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees: they pay attention to the details and they arent afraid to tackle the tough topics.
Jesus must have appreciated the chance to get out of Jerusalem and enjoy a good meal at Simons house. Simon didnt get many visitors. Hes a leper and lepers just do not have much of a social agenda. Theres a certain, poetic timing to the gathering in Bethany thats different from the calculating and reasoned timing of the religious leaders: it was the holiday season Passover. Everyone was remembering what God had done for the people of Israel. The story of Moses and the plagues and crossing the Red Sea were told. Typical of the holiday season, the poor and the unfortunate were given special attention. Perhaps Simon was celebrating with Jesus and his disciples out of appreciation for what God had done for him through Jesus.
Calculation and timing are the last things on the heart of the weeping woman who barges into Simons house without an invitation. Jesus and his disciples are lounging around the meal spread out on the floor. She ignores custom and decorum and barges into the gathering for the menfolk. She brings with her a jar of imported perfume. Both the jar and the oil inside are the works of artists. Rather than treat such fine artwork delicately, she breaks the seal on this exquisitely crafted alabaster bottle and ruins it (they didnt have caps you break the bottleneck to open it!) And she pours out all the pleasant scented liquid on Jesus head. Not a little, not a dab all of it. And they can tell that this was high priced, luxury product because the aroma fills the room.
The woman is anointing Jesus. It is her way of showing her gratitude. It is her way of honoring Jesus. She doesnt over think the giving of this gift. She doesnt deliberate this act of worship. She doesnt ask permission to enter the house and make this offering. She simply does what Jesus calls "a beautiful thing."
Pay close attention to what isnt described in this text. We dont know her name. We dont why she did this. Yes, it is common to assume that this is Mary Magdalene and that she is showing gratitude to Jesus because she was a prostitute and Jesus forgave her. That might fit, but none of that is in this text. Nevertheless, Jesus says that this woman will never be forgotten. Mark and Matthew have done us a favor by not giving us too many details, because they know that we, like Jesus, should simply appreciate the beauty of her gift which comes from love and devotion, not reason and obligation. When we dissect the giving of the gift we make the same mistake of the disciples ...
"Why such a waste!?" they cry out. "I mean anointing Jesus is good, but why not get some perfume thats a little more reasonably priced. These are hard times and we need be good stewards of the funds. Lets ask Judas how much we have in the budget then take bids on perfume and go with the best value. After all its the Lords money. And besides that does he really need to be anointed?"
"Lets think this through because this really could have been used to help the poor and we do need to be thinking about how we can finance the cause in Jerusalem ..."
"Lady, what were you thinking?" "Do you have any more of that ointment I am sure that Jesus would like to see it put to better use than just grooming his hair."
You have to respect the disciples. They know whats right and they know whats wrong, but most of all they have that special gift that makes them exceptional religious leaders the gift of timing. If the woman had just come to them first, they could have managed her anointing a little better. They could have given her time to calm down and stop crying. They could have helped her see that a gift given to the poor honors Jesus just as much. Then the expensive perfume, truly a work of art, wouldnt have been wasted. You have to respect their sense of decorum and timing. You have to respect their sense of propriety and their ability to calculate what is the most worthwhile and effective course of action.
And then theres Jesus who has had about all he can stand of calculating, reasoning, thinking it through, propriety, and doctrine. Jesus sees his disciples acting like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes and so he speaks ...
"Leave her alone! Why are you bothering her? She has done something beautiful and you missed it. Im glad youre concerned for the poor and you ought to help them as often as you can and what she has done is not preventing you from doing so. Its not as though you wont have the opportunity to help the poor again. But as for me, Ive been trying to tell you all thats going to happen and you just dont get it. At least what this woman has done has prepared me for my burial. She understands the good news. And whenever the good news is told what she did will be told so that she will be remembered too."
Why do we need to remember her? I think we need to remember her because the living Jesus still sees his disciples acting like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, especially when it comes to service and giving gifts. We "lay by in store" and we "give as we have been prospered," but are we able to do a beautiful thing? Lets cherish and obey the teaching on giving and devotion but lets not forget this woman who gives extravagantly and excessively. Theres an old saying, "Duty makes one do things, love makes one do things beautifully." Jesus appreciates the gift. We can too. Lets cry, smile, cheer or shout "Amen!" when we remember this unnamed woman and lets appreciate those who come after her who strive to do a beautiful thing for Christ. Jesus doesnt just give an embarrassed nod and say "Thank you kindly." He praises this woman. She is not just asking about the greatest commandment or thinking about it she is acting it out "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind!" And though some would call her behavior inappropriate and excessive, Jesus knows/sees her heart and declares that she does a beautiful thing!
How can we as disciples eager to do good works do our work beautifully? Remember this woman ...
This unnamed woman becomes part of the story because she loves Jesus. She gives her fortune away because she loves Jesus. She experienced the gospel and she was responding with thanksgiving. She knows how the story ends and she isnt afraid to be part of it.
The disciples and religious leaders cannot see the beautiful thing because they have written their own ending to the story and they hold on to that. They have their own agenda. But this woman came without the desire to control or convince. She was not thinking about what the Lord could do for her, but how much he had already done. She wasnt focused on how to get him to forgive, but how he had already forgiven her of so much. She gave Jesus all she had to give without regard to herself.
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