Jesus was a king, but he didn’t ask for the luxuries that usually attend royalty. With his inversion of power where the king served everyone in his kingdom, his servants actually thought it was crazy to give the king an extravagant gift:
Matthew 26:6-13 (my translation, compare NIV)
6 While Jesus was at Simon the leper’s home in Bethany, 7 a woman with an alabaster jar of expensive aromatic oil approached him and poured it out over his head where he sat. 8 Seeing what she did, his disciples were indignant and said, “What was the point of this waste? 9 Couldn’t this have been sold for a good sum and given to the poor?” 10 Jesus realized and said to them, “Why are you causing trouble for the woman? She has done a good deed for me. 11 You always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me. 12 In throwing this perfume over my body, she was preparing for my burial. 13 I tell you the truth, wherever this good news is proclaimed throughout the whole world, what she did will be mentioned in memory of her.
What could prompt such a deep display of affection, such an outpouring of great honour? Perhaps she was a friend of Simon the leper — presumably healed if the party was at his place. Or maybe she was a relative of Lazarus, the guy Jesus raised from his tomb here in Bethany (John 12:1-3). Whatever her story, the outpouring of recognition she gave Jesus was remarkable, filling the house with a fragrance fit for a king.
Matthew just told of another house, just two miles west. Hanging over the high priest’s residence was the scent of death (26:3-4).
This woman’s actions took the disciples by surprise. They recognized Jesus as God’s anointed ruler, but he’d never asked for such luxuries. He’d told them that you care for your king by caring for his people: The king will say to them, “Truth is, whenever you did it for the least of these my family, you did it for me” (25:40). Clearly, this woman just didn’t get how Jesus’ kingship worked.
Jesus came to her defence, refusing to have her shamed for her generosity. He honours her, explaining how much her gift means to him — far more than any of them realized. In just two days, the body she anointed would be dead, shamefully dishonoured with a public execution of the worst kind.
She honoured him. Did some of this regal aroma still cling to Jesus when Judas hugged him in the garden? When the temple guards arrested him? When Herod mocked him as a king? When Pilate questioned him about his kingdom? When Jesus hung between heaven and earth as the rejected king of the Jews, and gave up his spirit?
Anointing Jesus turned out to be the most important thing this woman did in her life. She honoured the king with a regal gift, while his friends criticized her and his enemies planned his death.
Do you see what Jesus did here? He received her gift as a memorial of his life. He was about to give his followers a memorial meal (26:17-30). And if this gift is a memorial for his life, it also stands as a memorial of her values and insight: in memory of her.
Tens of thousands of people met Jesus, and we know nothing of them. But this woman is remembered around the world, across the centuries, wherever the good news of King Jesus is proclaimed. She honoured the king at the very moment the world was dividing over him.
I wonder what happened when she went home that evening and told her family what she had done. Did they react like the disciples, indignant at the waste of the family’s resources?
What would Jesus’ words have meant to her on Friday night? And on Sunday, when others took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb where his body was no longer interred?
Within two months the king she honoured had ascended his throne, seated at the right hand of the majesty on high. The anointed one poured out his anointing on his people to empower them. Was the woman who anointed Jesus one of those who received his anointing, one of the women of Acts 1:14?
Many of us who preach and teach today have expectations of how people should respond to Jesus. So, when people respond to him in ways that don’t meet our expectations, the danger is that we’re as critical as the disciples were.
There are many ways to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Instead of telling people how they should respond, let’s look for the unexpected ways our friends and neighbours may be honouring our Lord.
Open Matthew 26:6-13.
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 618 (omitting references):
Hosts of banquets customarily provided oil to anoint the heads of guests of notable social status, but the outpouring of love here is more costly than the mere use of oil in customary acts of hospitality. People often used expensive alabaster bottles, which were semitransparent and resembled marble, to store the most costly ointments. They would seal the ointment to prevent evaporation, requiring the long neck of the jar to be broken and the ointment to be expended at once. Archaeologists have uncovered such long-necked flasks in first-century tombs near Jerusalem, suggesting the frequent once-for-all expenditure of this expensive perfume at the death of loved ones.