“While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”” (Matthew 26:6–13, NIV)
Whenever the gospel is preached people remember her. John alone of the gospel writers remember that her name was Mary and that she was the sister of Martha and Lazarus (cf John 12:3). But Mark and Matthew also remember this costly anointing: An alabaster jar filled with nard poured over the head of Jesus.
The disciples sitting around the table saw this as wasteful. Why dump expensive perfume all over Jesus? He was not a 20th-century middle school boy and this was not Axe Body Spray.™ Shouldn’t she have sold the perfume to some other conspicuous consumer so that the money could be used to care for the poor? Wouldn’t that be better?
John’s gospel puts the disciples’ objection in the mouth of Judas Iscariot’s and ascribes to him ulterior motives (John 12:4-5). Matthew and Mark both follow up their rendition with Judas making arrangements to betray Jesus into the hands of the chief priests. Yet, presumably, there were those around Simon the Leper’s table who just thought the money should just be better spent. Why with waste? There is absolutely nothing useful about dumping out a whole jar of nard.
Jesus response to Why this waste? is “Leave her alone! She has done a beautiful thing!” He acknowledges the ongoing plight of the poor. The poor you will always have with you . . . .These words allude to Deuteronomy 15:11, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Jesus wasn’t saying do not care for the poor, but he was acknowledging that there was a place for extravagance and beauty in the spiritual life.
“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.”As Christians, we call Jesus our Messiah—the Christ, the Anointed One. This extravagant act was Jesus’ anointing before he would be arrested, tried and killed as an enemy of the State.
The woman with the alabaster jar did what Makoto Fujimura describes as a generative act (Culture Care, IVP 2017). Her ostentatious and generous anointing was something beautiful in the middle of Jesus’ most trying and difficult week. Fujimura describes how as a young struggling (and starving) artist, his wife bringing home a bouquet of flowers fed his soul (15-16). Could it be that this one wasteful act fed the Son of God’s soul and gave him the strength to face the hard days he had ahead?
Do something wasteful today, something extravagant and beautiful that feeds your soul and gives you strength for the hard days ahead.
[The picture above is the Anointing of Christ, by Julia Stancova].