Summary: Mary’s annointing Jesus with expensive ointment was worship to Jesus and an outrageous waste to Judas. What does this tell us about the worship we offer, or how we evaluate others’ worship?
Sixth Sunday in Lent: Palm Sunday
Readings: Isa. 52:13-53:12,;Psalm 24; Phi. 2:5-11; Matt. 26:1-16
Waste, or Worship?
About seven years ago, my daughter Alexa went on a summer missionary trip. A local church here in town had organized a week-long project in which teenagers from this community would provide some much needed manual labor for a mission agency working in Mexico. I think they actually spent most of their time digging huge holes in the ground for septic tanks for the mission agency’s offices and housing in a rural, underdeveloped part of Mexico.
Toward the end of this trip, the local mission leader took the American teenagers on a sight-seeing tour of the city, and one of the stops along the way was that city’s Roman Catholic cathedral. Alexa tells me that as she walked into the nave of the largest church she had ever entered in her life (up to that point), she was overwhelmed with the beauty of what she saw. The artistry, the obviously lavish investment of time, money, and creativity were stunning to her.
On one hand, this might not be surprising if you’ve just spent the previous week digging septic tanks! But, still – If the Ellis County Courthouse is just about the most ornate public structure you’ve ever seen first hand, a European-style cathedral will probably knock your eyes out the first time you encounter one.
And about the time she was catching her breath while gazing at all the splendor around her, the mission leader spoke up and said, “What a waste this is!” He waved his hand toward the entire interior of the Church and said, again, “Have you ever seen such a waste?”
Alexa was beholding a dense concentration of beauty and devotion to the worship of Christ, but the mission leader had nothing but scorn for it. I always wondered if he would have said the same thing about any number of Protestant Churches one can find in America or Europe, which are every bit as grand, every bit as adorned, every bit as invested with the labors – sometimes the life-long labors – of Christian artisans? If, perhaps, he should ALSO scorn these as well, I’d link his attitude to something other than a stereotypical Protestant aversion to something Roman Catholic. Today’s gospel lesson will help us sort this out.
The gospel lesson we heard read from Matthew’s gospel is also recorded in two other gospels – Mark chapter 14 and John chapter 12. We learn from these other two gospels that the woman is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. We aren’t sure if Simon the Leper was the women’s father, or, perhaps, Martha’s husband. At any rate, Jesus is with a family he loves, a family who loves him, a family for whom Jesus has wrought amazing miracles of salvation – the cleansing of Simon from his leprosy and raising Lazarus from the dead.
Matthew’s account is interesting for the way he embeds the anointing at Bethany between two other notices. In verses 1-5, we find Jesus telling his disciples again that he is soon to be crucified. Matthew notes that this is just two days before the Passover. And, down in verses 14-16 we are told that Judas had decided to betray Jesus to the chief priests for 30 pieces of silver. Between these two notices, Matthew includes the anointing at Bethany, which John tells us had occurred six days before the Passover.
The point: Matthew is giving us an amazing glimpse into the heart of Judas and the circumstances which issued in his betrayal of the Lord. At the same time, this episode in Bethany provides us a touchstone by which we may judge our own hearts as regards our worship of the Lord.
We have the scene set, and during dinner, Mary enters the room with an alabaster jar containing a very costly ointment. Mark and John call it spikenard, and Judas informs us that its value was in excess of 300 dinarii. In the economy of that day, 300 dinarii was the annual salary of a common workman. In today’s terms, the value of the ointment would be around $25,000. The alabaster jar was very likely more expensive than the ointment in contained. It was a costly mineral which was often carved into intricate containers for jewelry or perfumes. Imagine a hand-carved flagon, inside of which this exceedingly expensive ointment was sealed tight, so that it would not evaporate away or become contaminated.
So, what does Mary do? Mark tells us she first breaks the jar. This detail tells us it was likely sealed tightly shut. Mark and Matthew tell us that she pours the entire contents of the broken jar onto Jesus’ head. And, John tells us that she then begins to massage this ointment into Jesus’ feet using her hair.