You really have to respect the high priests and the scribes. They know what’s right and they know what’s 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 don’t have a problem arresting him or killing him, they just want to avoid a riot. Now that’s class. That’s brilliance and genius. It’s 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. They’ve 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 aren’t afraid to tackle the tough topics.

Jesus must have appreciated the chance to get out of Jerusalem and enjoy a good meal at Simon’s house. Simon didn’t get many visitors. He’s a leper and lepers just do not have much of a social agenda. There’s a certain, poetic timing to the gathering in Bethany that’s 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 Simon’s 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 didn’t 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 doesn’t over think the giving of this gift. She doesn’t deliberate this act of worship. She doesn’t ask permission to enter the house and make this offering. She simply does what Jesus calls "a beautiful thing."

Pay close attention to what isn’t described in this text. We don’t know her name. We don’t 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 that’s a little more reasonably priced. These are hard times and we need be good stewards of the funds. Let’s ask Judas how much we have in the budget then take bids on perfume and go with the best value. After all it’s the Lord’s money. And besides that does he really need to be anointed?"

"Let’s 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 what’s right and they know what’s 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, wouldn’t 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 there’s 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. I’m glad you’re 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. It’s not as though you won’t have the opportunity to help the poor again. But as for me, I’ve been trying to tell you all that’s going to happen and you just don’t 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? Let’s cherish and obey the teaching on giving and devotion but let’s not forget this woman who gives extravagantly and excessively. There’s an old saying, "Duty makes one do things, love makes one do things beautifully." Jesus appreciates the gift. We can too. Let’s cry, smile, cheer or shout "Amen!" when we remember this unnamed woman and let’s appreciate those who come after her who strive to do a beautiful thing for Christ. Jesus doesn’t 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 ...

  1. What she does is beautiful not because it is calculated and discussed: Don’t misunderstand, there is a place for thinking and counting the cost, but at some point we have to go beyond logic and policy. The disciples saw giving as something to quibble about. They were focused on the "business" of helping the poor. They saw giving as an obligation and seasonal activity. But they miss the beauty of this woman’s gift. If they had been paying attention and not just following routine or their own expectations they would have known what was ahead for Jesus. As we remember this woman, we are reminded that giving and doing good are not important simply because we can prove how it is reasonable and expedient. It can be beautiful – and that can be enough.
  2. What she does is beautiful because it is an expression of love: What the woman does and gives is an extension of her love for Christ. When our works and service are simply an extension of who we are in Christ they become a lot like the gospel. Have you ever experienced a well-timed gift of grace? It may have been something as simple as a cheerful word on a rotten day or a sign of hope in the depths of tragedy. My guess is that those who were the agents of those beautiful things were just being themselves. I doubt this woman had any thought what was about to take place. She just wanted to honor the one who had blessed her. Notice that I am not saying you have to be a naturally cheerful or hopeful person. We don’t know if this woman was naturally optimistic or had been bitter for years. All we know is that she loved Christ and she wasn’t afraid to act on that love.

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 isn’t 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 wasn’t 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.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 17 April 2005

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