Jesus knew what they were saying, and so he said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? It is a fine and beautiful thing that she has done for me. You will always have poor people with you, but you will not always have me. What she did was to pour this perfume on my body to get me ready for burial. Now, I assure you that wherever this gospel is preached all over the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Here is the setup for this scripture:
Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon, a man who had suffered from a dreaded skin disease. While Jesus was eating, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar filled with an expensive perfume, which she poured on his head. The disciples saw this and became angry. “Why all this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold for a large amount and the money given to the poor!” (Matthew 26:6-9).
Jesus then goes on to defend her actions.
There is a lot to love about this scripture. First of all, I love the idea that Jesus was eating in the home of a person who he presumably healed. It’s a safe assumption that Jesus healed him because there was no other cure for “dreaded skin disease” – only divine intervention. It’s so nice to know that some of the people who were healed stayed in relationship with Jesus and helped him out now and then.
So, while he was eating, a woman came and poured perfume on his head. The actual Greek word is “muron” which is translated as an anointing oil made of olive oil and other spices, including myrrh – the spice that was presented to Jesus at his birth by one of the wise men.
The original recipe for anointing oil was recorded in the Book of Exodus. Anything anointed with this oil was then considered to be holy:
The Lord said to Moses, “Take the finest spices—12 pounds of liquid myrrh, 6 pounds of sweet-smelling cinnamon, 6 pounds of sweet-smelling cane, and 12 pounds of cassia (all weighed according to the official standard). Add one gallon of olive oil, and make a sacred anointing oil, mixed like perfume. Use it to anoint the Tent of my presence, the Covenant Box, the table and all its equipment, the lampstand and its equipment, the altar for burning incense, the altar for burning offerings, together with all its equipment, and the washbasin with its base. Dedicate these things in this way, and they will be completely holy, and anyone or anything that touches them will be harmed by the power of its holiness. Then anoint Aaron and his sons, and ordain them as priests in my service. Say to the people of Israel, ‘This holy anointing oil is to be used in my service for all time to come. It must not be poured on ordinary men, and you must not use the same formula to make any mixture like it. It is holy, and you must treat it as holy. Whoever makes any like it or uses any of it on anyone who is not a priest will no longer be considered one of my people.’” (Exodus 30:22-33).
This recipe was like an official “holiness perfume,” a signature fragrance for those people and things set apart by God for his use. Priests (like Aaron) and kings (like Saul, David, and Solomon) in the Old Testament were anointed with this special oil. Whenever a person smelled that fragrance, it evoked the presence of God.
In the New Testament we learn that anointing was also used to prepare bodies for burial, presumably to consecrate them:
After the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint the body of Jesus. (Mark 16:1).
And finally, later, in the egalitarian spirit of the New Testament, anointing oil was used for the healing and restoration of ordinary people. To make them holy.
Are any among you sick? They should send for the church elders, who will pray for them and rub olive oil on them in the name of the Lord. This prayer made in faith will heal the sick; the Lord will restore them to health, and the sins they have committed will be forgiven. (James 5:14-15).
So when this woman in today’s scripture pours anointing oil over the head of Jesus, it is a powerful statement. I mean, it’s a pretty bold act to go and pour oil over someone’s head and it certainly got everyone’s attention. I doubt that the perfumed oil that the woman poured on Jesus’ head was the official formula described in Exodus. Nevertheless, even though it was probably not the official, signature fragrance of holiness, I think it was a prophetic act. I think God appointed her to do it to affirm Jesus’ divinity, his holiness, his kingship. Even though in the Jewish tradition this would normally be done only by a priest or a prophet, God chose this nameless woman, one of the many outcasts that he came to serve, would be the one to do the anointing. If the disciples (or any other men of this time) looked at it in this way they would have been highly offended by this lowly woman who presumed to have the power and authority to anoint him.
Instead, the disciples only looked at the practical and materialistic aspects of the act. They said that the oil should have been confiscated from her, sold, and given to the poor. Unfortunately, the typically clueless disciples get it wrong. Their thinking still isn’t aligned with Jesus’ philosophy.
Jesus doesn’t care about the money. He makes the startling statement that “You will always have poor people with you.” I’ve known some people who were offended by this statement, but it was just a restatement of one of the Laws of Moses: “There will always be some Israelites who are poor and in need, and so I command you to be generous to them.” (Deuteronomy 15:11). I also think it’s important to remember that Jesus was eating in the house of a man (Simon) who had been cast out of his village with no possessions because he had a dreaded skin disease (See Day 65) and that Jesus presumably healed and restored him. The only reason that Simon was prosperous enough to provide Jesus and his disciples with dinner was because of Jesus’ healing ministry. Someone tossing Simon a few coins here and there would not have alleviated his poverty. Healing was the prerequisite for the restoration of his prosperity.
Also, Jesus himself was poor. He had no home and no job. He was dependent on the generosity of strangers. And even though he was poor he didn’t agree with the disciples. He didn’t want money. He would rather have the oil. By chastising the disciples and choosing the oil over money he emphasized the importance of the immediacy of the moment and the precious nature of life. He reiterates for the umpteenth time that he’s going to die in a couple of days and he needs a little comfort. He tells them that there are things that are more important than money – like beauty and prophetic acts and creative expression and selfless generosity. And love. Because ultimately, no matter how you interpret it, it was surely a demonstration of her love for him. What he needed at that particular moment, in the face of his impending death, in these last hours of life, was a little love.
What does this scripture say to you?