v.1 If you remember, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things…” is Matthew’s structural marker. Each of the five discourse sections in the Gospel is concluded with a statement either identical to or very like this one. In each case what follows is a new section of historical narrative. The unique feature of this last use of the phrase is the addition of the word “all,” an addition which may indicate that this is the conclusion of the final section devoted to the Lord’s teaching. The Lord’s teaching is now complete.
v.2 Since 16:21 the Lord has been insistently preparing his disciples for his arrest, his death, and his resurrection. But there is irony in his “as you know,” because, as events will prove, as often as he predicted these events, his disciples never grasped what He was saying to them.
The fact that the Lord’s arrest will take place the night of the Passover is, of course, no coincidence. The cross is the fulfillment of which the Passover in Egypt was an enacted prophecy, an anticipation. “After two days” means in Jewish parlance, “the day after tomorrow.” Depending on the time of day at which Jesus said this, it was either Tuesday or Wednesday of the passion week.
v.3 The Pharisees largely disappear from view in this last section of the Gospel. Now the official rulers of the Jews take over and make the elimination of Jesus their business. These two groups formed the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews. We know about Caiaphas from other sources. He was high priest from A.D. 18 to 36. Given the fact that there were 28 high priests from 37 B.C. to A.D. 67, Caiaphas’ tenure was unusually long. He obviously had the knack of getting along with the Romans. He would know how to get what he wanted from them. But, he would be a man jealous of his position. He would not want any public rioting for which he might be blamed. [Morris, 644]
v.5 They needed to get him while he was in Jerusalem and accessible to them, but they feared a public reaction if the crowds were present when an arrest was made. Many Galileans were in the capital for the feast and the response of the crowds, who had been enthusiastic in welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem and had listened avidly to his teaching, was hard to predict. It was to this dilemma that Judas was to provide a solution, as we will read in v. 14.
v.6 Now follows an incident far removed from the hostility and intrigue that surrounded Jesus in the capital. As we shall see, this incident took place some days earlier, but Matthew puts it here to make a point. Simon the leper was presumably a man whom Jesus had healed – if he were still a leper he could not have had guests to a meal. His former name stuck as a recollection of his former plight and what he had been delivered from. It has been wondered from earliest days whether this Simon was the father of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. The other gospels tell us that those three were present on this occasion, that Martha was serving the meal, and Mary was the woman who anointed Jesus. So it has seemed at least quite possible that this happened at their home, which would then have been Simon’s home as well. If so, that family had received two remarkable gifts from the Lord: the healing of Simon, the father, and the raising of Lazarus, Simon’s son and the womens’ brother. No wonder Mary would wish to demonstrate her gratitude!
v.7 The perfume is identified in Mark and John as nard, an extremely expensive luxury imported from India. John gives the price as 300 denarii, effectively a laborer’s yearly wage, as he would not have been paid for Sabbaths and holidays. The anointing of a guest with oil would not have been unusual. What was unusual was the extravagance involved in using such an expensive perfume.
v.8 Mark says that “some” complained; John draws attention to the fact that Judas apparently took the lead in voicing this complaint. But Matthew makes it the complaint of the Lord’s disciples in general. He was there, of course, and knew very well that Judas wasn’t the only one with misplaced priorities that night. The significance of this beautiful action was lost on most of them, at least at the time. Naturally, they think first of the money involved and, human nature being what it is, they probably spoke of the poor more as a pretense than out of genuine concern for the welfare of needy people. That certainly was true in Judas’ case.
v.11 The Lord is, of course, not minimizing the importance of generosity to the poor. Remember, in the previous section he has laid great stress on the importance of his disciples living lives of compassion for others. Such compassion will be a standard of judgment on the Last Day. But if ever there were a time to forget about money, this was the time. If ever there were a moment to seize for another purpose, this was it.
v.12 Anointing of the body was ordinarily done after death. Jesus is not necessarily suggesting that this is what the woman was thinking as she anointed the Lord, only that this was the material effect of her act of devotion.
v.13 “This gospel” seems here to refer especially to the Lord’s passion, his suffering and death, for which this woman’s devotion was a, perhaps unintended, preparation. In any case, the Lord has no doubt that his death will not be the end. This good news will be preached throughout the world, as he said already in 24:14.
The disciples may not have understood what Mary did nor the beauty of her act; but it be another story for the vast multitudes that would follow Jesus in the ages to come.
So often the lessons of the Bible come in the form of an anecdote like this. It is just a snapshot of faith in action, but a memorable one, indeed, as Jesus said at the time, more than unusually memorable. Our Creator and heavenly Father have given us the power of imagination to extrapolate a single incident like this into an understanding of how we ought to live our lives. By drawing such special attention to this woman’s act and by commending her act to us in that way, the Lord as much as taught us to see our lives as one constant anointing of the Lord’s head with very expensive perfume.
“I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” The Lord is saying that what Mary did is something of capital importance. Or, in other words, take careful note of what Mary did. Follow her example if you want to know how to be my disciple.
Indeed, there is more than this. In Mark and John this incident is placed before the passion week. It seems clear that it occurred before the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As we have learned already in our studies in the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew often organizes his material thematically and not necessarily chronologically. It is hard to believe, frankly, that he doesn’t place this incident here, after his long section of teaching on the distinction between true and false disciples, precisely to show us what a true disciple looks like in flesh and blood. Here is a picture of the faithful steward, the wise virgin, the disciple who makes good use of her talents, and the person whose life will be vindicated on the day of judgment. Here we have, as it were, a snapshot of an authentic Christian life.
Think of John Bunyan and his sanctified imagination. He took a single scene from the biblical history – that of Abraham making his way as a pilgrim to the Promised Land – and a single remark – that in Hebrews 11 about Abraham being a stranger in this world, a pilgrim who was journeying to a better country – and turned them, by the power of his magnificent imagination, into an entire account of the Christian life. And the vast multitude of followers of Jesus Christ who have read Pilgrim’s Progress have never stopped thinking about their lives as a pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. They have, ever since they first read that immortal book, encountered each day of their own lives the immortal characters and locations of Bunyan’s masterpiece: the Slough of Despond, the Hill Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation, Vanity Fair, the Delectable Mountains, and, at last the river, and, along the way such people as Evangelist, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Faithful, Talkative, and all the rest.
Well, such is our task this morning and throughout our Christian lives: to see Mary anointing the Lord with this expensive perfume and, in turn, seeing ourselves doing the same. We are being summoned to imagine ourselves doing what she did, responding to Jesus as she did, for the same reasons – for the new life he had given to her, perhaps so wonderfully to her father, and so magnificently to her brother. But, we must respond in our own way. We may have the poor with us, but we do not have the Lord Jesus Christ with us, at least not as Mary had him with her. So, what is it in Mary’s act that makes it a picture of every Christian’s life? What made it something the Lord said would always be remembered? What made it in the Lord’s mind a lesson for all his disciples? Well, I think, it is Mary’s devotion that the Lord is drawing to our attention, devotion as a measure of true faith in him.
“A curse,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “on all those who do not love the Lord Jesus.” Well, there is no curse on this woman. There is blessing now and forever for her because she so loved the Lord that she forgot herself and everyone else to demonstrate her devotion to him.
Everywhere in the Bible the Lord is said to expect his people to demonstrate their love for him in the sacrifices they make for his sake. What this woman did is a picture of a kind of life very often described in the Bible. Devotion, expressed by sacrifice, is a key demonstration of true faith, living faith in Jesus Christ. It has always been so. When the sacrifice is missing, the Lord knows the love and devotion are missing also.
In Isaiah’s time the Lord complained against his people:
“You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored me with your sacrifices. You have not brought any fragrant calamus for me or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices.” [43:22-24]
Those things also were expensive. They cost something to give. But real love does not calculate the price. The suitor does not attempt to find the cheapest diamond to put on the finger of his beloved. He feels like David, who could have had the land for the temple for the asking, paid nothing for it, but said instead:
“I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”
And so he insisted on paying for what he could have had for free. Love this pure, this high, this deep is a compulsion, a constraint that demands to be expressed and expressed in ways that convey its depth and height.
There is no doubt that the impressiveness of what Mary did is the result of the fact that most others would not have done it! Not even those who would have called themselves and been known by others as his disciples. When they saw her open that jar of perfume over Jesus’ head, they didn’t smile and wish they had thought of it first. Their first thought was horror at the waste. That perfume was extremely expensive. It was not your ordinary perfume. Nard is an aromatic herb that grows in the high Himalayan pasture land of India and Tibet. It was very costly because it was gathered in such remote regions and had to be shipped such great distances on camel back. John makes a point of telling us that this nard was the genuine article, pure nard, not a less expensive mixture.
What is this but David leaping and dancing before the ark? Michal, his wife, you remember, also criticized his devotion. She thought his behavior lacking in decorum and dignity, but David, like Mary, had to express his devotion! Oh no! The more expensive the better! Or, in his case, dancing before ark, the more his behavior demonstrated his devotion the better.
There was such a love in her heart for the Lord Jesus, such a love mixed with such a joy and gratitude and thrill, that she absolutely had to find some way to express it. Words were not enough. She had to do something to relieve her pent-up emotion. She had to show the Lord how much she loved him and how grateful she was to him. She had to get that most expensive thing she had in the house, break it open, pour it upon the Lord’s person, or her heart would break. [From Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, ad loc.]
But now, by imagination, we are to transfer that image of Mary in that fragrant house, wiping off that expensive perfume with her hair, as John tells us she did, to our own lives and ask: what would be the equivalent for me? How might I do for him what she did? How might I make so immoderate, so unqualified a sacrifice for him? Or to ask the question in another way: what is there in my life which the Lord would take, could take as a demonstration of my love and my devotion?
You know and I know how important it is for us to ask such questions of ourselves. We know all too well how often we clip and shave our devotion to the Lord, we give to him and to the poor in his name a little something out of our abundance, but hardly something that is going to make anyone else think we have given too much, that we have been too immoderate, too extravagant in our devotion to the Lord Jesus, that we have transgressed the boundaries of good sense or good taste in the measure of our affection and enthusiasm for Him! Whether it is in our own private worship, our public worship, our witness to others on his behalf, our kindness and generosity to others in his name, whatever it is, we know, don’t we, brothers and sisters, what our lives could be, should be, would be if they came closer to Mary’s splendid example of devotion for the Lord Jesus. And, what is more, we know full well, looking at Lazarus reclining at that banquet table, and seeing ourselves in our mind’s eye at the great banquet table some day, that nothing short of a devotion that would be almost irrational, perhaps even repugnant to an unbeliever’s mind, would be adequate response to grace as great as what has been lavished on us by Jesus Christ our Redeemer!
There have been a few times in my life, as I’m sure there have been in the lives of many of you, when I have felt what Mary felt, the same powerful constraint, the same compulsion to demonstrate in some way, some how my love for the Lord Jesus, my thanksgiving, my commitment and devotion. I know exactly what Mary was feeling as I know many of you do as well. It was the purest, truest moment of my life. I have often thought that I was never closer to the life of heaven than I was at that glorious moment.
But the Lord gives such moments of overwhelming emotion when and where he will. That is not his point here. We are not to sit and wait in hope that we might be overcome with feeling as Mary was. No, there is also here, Jesus clearly means us to understand, there is here a picture of true faith! There is a picture of one who really understands. This is what anyone does who thinks rightly about life, death, and Jesus Christ the Son of God! Perhaps not with such a flood of emotion. Perhaps not in such a singularly memorable way, but in ways that genuinely amount to the same thing.
We began by saying that here, as so often in the Bible, an anecdote sums up a great lesson. We have a snapshot of a true Christian life. Well it is not only here. The history of the church is full of such anecdotes and such snapshots. Some of them ought to be known to every Christian. For these acts of devotion have also been told virtually wherever the gospel has been preached. I know how certain such stories have fixed themselves in my mind as a picture of what I ought also to be and do. One of the reasons why Christians should know something of the church’s past and of her heroes is precisely to furnish themselves with snapshots of true faith in Christ and true devotion to him that they can then apply to their own lives; that they can then imitate in their own way. I know which such snapshots of Christian devotion have continued to define a godly life and true Christian devotion for me; to translate the Bible teaching about the Christian life into a picture in flesh and blood?
I haven’t time to tell you again about William Burns, the 19th century Scottish pastor whose preaching was the spark that ignited revival in Scotland in the 1830s. Burns could have had any great pulpit in Scotland and lived out his days wielding a great influence for Christ in his homeland. He could, in other words, have sold his perfume and given the money to the poor. But in the passion of his love for Christ he left it all for China and the difficult, frustrating, and often thankless life of a missionary. Years later, after his death far from home and loved ones, his possessions, all his worldly goods were packed in a single box and sent home to Scotland. When that box was opened it was found to contain two shirts, a pair of trousers, his Bible, one other book, and a Chinese flag. Not much to show for a life, or was it? What did Christ think of a life poured out like perfume to anoint him for burial with no thought of the cost?
Or think of the Moravian missionaries in the 18th century who entered leper colonies, fully aware that they would never be permitted to leave, so that they might share the gospel of Christ with the tragic victims of that disease, or others who sold themselves into slavery in the West Indies that they might bring the gospel to the slaves there. What was that but pouring out a jar of very expensive perfume over the Savior’s head?
I tell you brothers and sisters, when you enter the kingdom of the love of God you have left the realm of little men and little women. You have entered the place of true chivalry, true heroism, true nobility, true sacrifice. But it is not for us to determine what sacrifices anyone else will make for the love of Christ and out of devotion to him. It is not for us to define the working of such love. You have perhaps heard the certainly apocryphal story of George Whitefield and John Wesley – partners in evangelism but opponents in theology.
“John Wesley was brought up in a rigid High Church household where the children were ordered by the ringing of a bell and were taught by their mother to cry silently. Whitefield was brought up in the local inn and had a much less ordered life. In adulthood, they worked together and went out on their evangelistic tours, and the story is told that they arrived one night at an inn, very tired. When they reached the room which they shared, George Whitefield threw himself on the bed exhausted while Wesley got down on his knees, opened his Bible and before setting to his devotions looked very reproachfully at…Whitefield and said, ‘George, George, is this your Calvinism?’ At 2am…George woke up and found John still on his knees, fast asleep over his Bible, so he shook him and said, ‘John, John, is this your Arminianism?’” [Pulpit and People, 92]
That never happened; it’s a funny story with a useful point. It is not for one Christian to determine how another Christian will demonstrate his devotion to the Lord. Nobody else poured very expensive nard over the Lord Jesus’ head. But many others would make great, glorious sacrifices for him. She wanted the Lord to know her love. And that is what ought to be true of every one of us. We ought to care that the Lord knows our love for him. We needn’t care too much if others know it, but we ought to care deeply that he knows it.
It may not be even for us to determine precisely how we ourselves will demonstrate our devotion to the Lord Jesus. For some it may be shown in some other part of the world living a very different life than most Christians live. For someone else it may be shown in faithfulness to a loveless marriage, or in a consistent Christian testimony in the midst of people who have nothing but scorn for Christian faith and life.
You remember, don’t you, the calling of Francis of Assisi? He had dreamed as a boy and then as a young man of doing great exploits in battle. He had always wanted to be a warrior, covered with glory. Then one day he was riding outside his town – perhaps while riding he was indulging in those very dreams of glory on the field of battle. But he saw coming toward him on the road, not the banners and spears of the army of Perugia, Assisi’s ancient enemy, but instead a single figure, whom, when he got closer, he realized was a leper. And he knew, in an instant, that his courage was being challenged, not as the world challenges courage, but as God does who knows the secrets of men’s hearts. We can imagine what transpired in those few moments in the heart of that man so soon to be one of the greatest men of the Christian church. And then he sprang off his horse and rushed to the leper and threw his arms around him and then gave to him everything he had to give. He then remounted and rode off. We don’t know how far he rode, but it is said that when he looked back, there was no man standing in the road. [From Chesterton, St. Francis, 52] That way of finishing the story was a medieval way of reminding us that when we show love to others in Christ’s name and for the love of Christ and out of devotion for him, we are as much as loving Christ himself. He is with us, as he was with Mary, in the others whom we love in his name. It matters not whether it was a leper or Christ himself – in either case it was expensive perfume being poured over the Savior’s head.
When people come to me to receive help in bearing up under their trials, I say to them, among other things, that they have been given a great opportunity, a special gift – even if it seems to them at the time the furthest thing from a gift. They have been given an opportunity to give glory to God, to express their devotion to him in the way that will matter most to him. They have been given the opportunity of demonstrating their devotion to the Lord just as really as Mary did here. They have been afforded the opportunity to do what matters most, by doing something very difficult, requiring a great sacrifice of them: viz. to bear patiently and with faith and love a very heavy cross. Is it the struggles of a marriage, of poor health, or living and working among people who are contemptuous of your Christian faith, is it poverty, or loneliness, or fear, or depression, or is it, as it must be for all of us, the conflict with sin? Whatever it is, you have been given an opportunity just like Mary’s to show your devotion to the Lord in a manner that proves it beyond any doubt!
However, in whatever way, you will have cause to thank God that he gave you the opportunity to pour some very expensive perfume over his head; to make others wonder what is wrong with you that you offer your devotion to the Lord Jesus in such an extravagant way. And, I tell you, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, you will soon be more glad for that opportunity afforded you than for all the pleasure and all the peace and all the comfort and all the success you ever enjoyed in this world. Apart from what the Lord said about John the Baptist, has he ever paid a human being a greater compliment than he paid to Mary? Can you think of anything you would rather him say about you?
I envy Mary and I envy her welcome in the kingdom of God! I want to be much more like her than I am!