Jesus had just told His disciples that He would be delivered up for crucifixion in a few short days, at the time of the Passover (1-5). While He was prophesying about His death, influential members of the Sanhedrin were plotting at the residence of Caiaphas, the high priest, to bring it to pass. They were willful participants in the eternal plan of God. Sovereign determination and human involvement are both declared as causes of Christ’s death, yet there is complete harmony in how the two work together.
This entire chapter (Matthew 26) informs us of the preparations made for our Lord’s death. They can be placed in two different categories. There are preparations by others - the scheming religious leaders, the devoted woman with the costly oil, and the traitor Judas. There are also preparations by Jesus Himself - the institution of the Lord’s Supper, His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and His arrest and trial.
This morning, we will be looking at the passage that tells us about a woman who prepares Jesus for His burial by anointing Him with an expensive perfume. Jesus said that “wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her” (13).
What she did has become part of the story of His life! The fact that we are hearing that story today is proof that her act of devotion lives on.
I. The Deed - what was done
Matthew says, “A woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table” (7). Jesus had evidently been invited to a home for a meal. While He was reclining at the table (not sitting as our version puts it), a woman poured expensive perfume on His head.
It was customary for guests in a home in that culture to have oil placed on their heads as a kind gesture of welcome and friendship. The most familiar of Psalms has the expression, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil . . .” (Psalm 23:5). There was another occasion when Jesus was in Galilee that a sinful woman came while He was in the home of Simon the Pharisee and anointed Him with oil. Luke says, “And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she know that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil” (Luke 7:37-38).
On normal occasions, however, a much cheaper oil would be used. What made this event extraordinary was the cost of the fragrant oil. Matthew simply calls it “very costly fragrant oil.” Mark tells us it was “very costly oil of spikenard” (14:3), which literally means “oil of nard.” Friberg’s Greek lexicon says the word means (1) a fragrant plant native to India (spike)nard; (2) an aromatic oil extracted from its roots spikenard, oil, ointment, perfume of nard (MK 14.3). John’s Gospel tells us it was worth three hundred denarii, which constituted the yearly wage of an average workman.
The oil was contained in “an alabaster flask.” Mark says she “broke the flask” in order to pour it on Him (14:3). This was a vessel with a rather long neck which would be broken off when used. It would have been an expensive container for an expensive perfume. .ATR says, “the flask was of . . . a carbonate of lime or sulfate of lime, white or yellow stone, named alabaster from the town in Egypt where it was chiefly found. It was used for a phial employed for precious ointments in ancient writers, inscriptions and papyri just as we speak of a glass for the vessel made of glass. It had a cylindrical form at the top, as a rule, like a closed rosebud (Pliny).”
The use of such an expensive perfume is an indication that she did not regard Jesus as an ordinary guest! She regarded Him as a very special person and signified it by anointing Him with oil fit for a King. “An alabaster of nard was a present for a king” (Bruce, in ATR).
II. The Place - where the deed was done
This happened “when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper” (6). Bethany was a village on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives (Mark 11:1), about 2 miles east of Jerusalem, on the road to Jericho. It derived its name from the number of palm-trees which grew there. It was the residence of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. It is frequently mentioned in connection with memorable incidents in the life of our Lord (Matt. 21:17; 26:6; Mark 11:11,12; 14:3 Luke 24:50; John 11:1; 12:1).
In Bethany was a house where “Simon the leper” resided. We are not given any information about Simon, but it was his home that Jesus was now in. Presumably, he was at home and had invited Jesus to dine with him. Presumably, he was a leper at one time, but not any longer. People with leprosy were quarantined and were required to stay away from others. “Therefore Simon could not have had the disease at this time” (Morris). He must have been cured of the dreadful disease, but was still known as “Simon the leper.” Perhaps, Jesus was the One who healed him!
John’s account of this event (chapter 12) has Lazarus, Mary, and Martha present in Simon’s house. Martha is serving (just like in another place, Luke 10:38-42), Lazarus is at the table with Jesus, and Mary is the one who anoints Him (12:2-3). It has been suggested by some that Simon the leper was their father, and that this was the very home Jesus gathered in so many times before.
NOTE - One other note needs to be made about the time and place of this event. John places it before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem; Matthew and Mark do not mention when it took place but include it in their accounts after His triumphal entry. They arrange their narrative topically rather than chronologically. They use the story as a prelude to His suffering and death (Ridderbos).
III. The Person - who did this act
Both Matthew and Mark simply say it was “a woman.” The apostle John is the one who tells us it was Mary. There are several Mary’s mentioned in the NT. The most notable Mary, of course, is the mother of Jesus . . . Another Mary that figures prominently in the Gospel narrative is Mary Magdalene. Seven demons were cast out of her and she remained a devoted follower of Christ . . . The Mary in view here is Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. She is often brought to our notice in connection with the visits of our Lord to Bethany.
We are given several clues in the Gospels as to what kind of person she was.
1)She is contrasted with her sister Martha, who was "cumbered about many things" while Jesus was their guest, while Mary had chosen "the good part" (Luke 10:38-42). 2)Her character also appears in connection with the death of her brother (John 11:20, 31, 33). 3)On the occasion of our Lord's last visit to Bethany, the focus of our study today, Mary brought "a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus" (both His head and feet were anointed) as he reclined at table in the house of one Simon, who had been a leper. This was an evidence of her overflowing love to the Lord.
Oh, how Mary loved the Lord! She “did not regard Jesus as a casual, run-of-the-mill guest but as a very special person” (Morris). In anointing Jesus, she may have been giving symbolic significance to the fact that she regarded Him as King. Kings were anointed - see 2 Kings 9:6. The word “Messiah/Christ” means, “anointed one.” Whatever was in her mind, Mary was expressing her deep love for the Lord Jesus.
IV. The Reaction - what others thought of the deed
Matthew records two reactions to Mary’s tremendous act of love and devotion. The first is that of the disciples, which was one of criticism; the second is that of the Lord Jesus, which was one of commendation.
1. The Disciples Criticize (8-9). The Scripture says, “But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, ‘To what purpose is this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.”
It must have been a cruel shock to Mary of Bethany to hear this comment. “The significance of the beautiful action was lost on the hard-headed disciples” (Morris). All they could see was waste. They could not see the devotion behind the act, only the price tag, and it appeared to them that Mary was throwing away something valuable.
Mark even records that some of the disciples became “indignant” (14:4). The word means, “to be indignant [angry] at what is judged to be wrong” (Louw-Nida Lexicon). They became angry because they thought it was wrong to take something so expensive and pour it out, even if it was on the Lord Jesus! In the alabaster flask it was valuable; when it was poured out, it no longer possessed worth.
John tells us that it was actually Judas who made the initial criticism, which means the others were expressing agreement and endorsing his opinion. He writes: “Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, who would betray Him, said, ‘Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it” (John 12:4-6).
Judas was dishonest. He was not interested in the poor; he only wanted the money. Had Mary sold the perfume and given Jesus the money for distribution to the poor, he, as the treasurer of the band, would have gotten his hands on some of it (embezzlement).
The disciples were insensitive. There hearts were cold and because of it, they lost out on the beauty of what Mary did in relation to Jesus. Certainly it is good to help the poor, but it is not a waste to render lavish praise upon the Lord! Leon Morris says:
“The disciples mostly came from humble homes and their life-styles since they became associated with Jesus were of the simplest, as, of course, was that of the Master himself who set the example. They were unaccustomed to extravagance and must have been easily shocked by it. They looked at the material profit that might have been made, and for poor men that was the important thing. And, of course, they could give their verdict a pious twist.”
2. Jesus Commends (10-12). Jesus weaves a rebuke to the disciples in with his commendation of Mary. He says, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial.”
Matthew tells us this is what the Lord said to the disciples when He became aware of what they had said. They had meant to keep their critical remarks to themselves, but either someone told Jesus or, as in so many other cases, He knew what they had said in some supernatural way. His rebuke to them is gentle. He simply asks them why they are bothering the woman.
Jesus then commends her with the words, “she has done a good work for Me.” The word “good” (kalos) can have the meaning of “good” or “beautiful” (NIV). “It appears that Jesus is not speaking of the action as morally upright but rather as a beautiful expression of devotion” (Morris), so the later is preferable. What she did was beautiful, i.e. noble and admirable.
Jesus then tells His disciples that the poor will always be with them so it is possible to help them at any time. But He would not always be physically present among them. “Their concern for ‘the poor’ is admirable, but it is a question of priorities” (France).
NOTE - This passage is not to be used to justify excuses for not helping those in need. That is not the point. In fact, in the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus spoke about helping others (vv. 31-46).
Jesus then explains something about Mary’s act that she probably didn’t even realize herself. Jesus said, “in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial” (12). She was probably doing far more than she knew!
NOTE - It is, of course, entirely possible that Mary may have had this insight. If so, then she is the first on among the followers of Christ to actually comprehend that He was going to His death. Jesus had told them many times of His coming death (as in v. 2), but they were slow to comprehend.
This particular oil, imported from India, was sometimes used to anoint the dead. But anointing the dead with oil was done after their death, not before! It was done to a corpse (Luke 23:56ff; John 19:39-40).
V. The Memorial - the continuing significance of the deed
Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” There are several other matters worthy of note in this statement of a theological nature. Let me point them out and then we will look at this act of anointing being a memorial for Mary’s love and devotion.
1) The death of Jesus would not be the end of His ministry. Jesus envisions the spreading of the gospel throughout the whole world! So His death is far from being the end. His death, is some ways, is the actual beginning.
2) The death of Jesus would be the basis of the gospel. This is the fifth time the word “gospel” has been used in Matthew (4:23; 9:35; 11:5; 24:14). It is a very significant word. It means “good news.” The report that would be announced about Jesus dying would not be bad news, it would be good news! The reason, as we well know, is because His death satisfied the justice of God and atones for sin.
But the main emphasis in the verse concerns the memorial that Jesus said which would be remembered as long as the gospel was preached in the world. Her deed made no sense to the disciples at that time. But it would be remembered by others and told over-and-over-again throughout the world. Some people have monuments built in their memory with famous words they have said inscribed on them (one for Franklin D. Roosevelt was unveiled this week in Washington, D.C.). “Mary will be remembered not by some stone obelisk, but by this beautiful and loving action” (Morris).
Wherever the Gospel of Matthew is read, the deed Mary did is remembered. We are remembering it today, in fulfillment of Christ’s prediction. Think about it: There probably isn’t a Sunday that goes by that somewhere in the world, a congregation of believers isn’t encouraged by the act of love and devotion performed by Mary. There probably isn’t a day that goes by that somewhere, someone in the world is not encouraged by her example in their personal reading of the Scripture.
J.C. Ryle said, “The pathway to lasting honor is to honor Christ.” Mary graciously traveled that pathway. The lives of many a king and emperor are not remembered today, but the grateful act of one humble Christian woman is remembered by Bible readers all over the world.
Do you love Jesus like Mary did? Do you worship Him like she did? The person who adores the Lord Jesus Christ as the Savior of his soul, will not quibble about how much it cost to worship and serve Him; he will not complain that he does not have the time. The true worshipper of Christ will give whatever he has in order to bring praise to His name!
Let me conclude by reading something MacArthur said, which puts this act of Mary in proper perspective.
“Genuine worship is the supreme service a Christian can offer to Christ. There is a time for ministering to the poor, the sick, the naked, and the imprisoned. There is a time for witnessing to the lost and seeking to lead them to the Savior. There is a time for discipling new believers and helping them grow in the faith. There is a time for careful study and teaching of God’s Word. But above all else that the Lord requires of his people is their true worship, without which everything else they may do in His name is empty and powerless.”
May there be many imitators of Mary in our midst today!