31st December 2023
"I've been pondering a fascinating Bible passage."
Doing a beautiful thing for Jesus
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
Let me give a few comments to help understand the passage.
This is a meal just a few days before the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, which is also described in Mark and in John, where the woman is named as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha.
Simon, we presume, must have been a healed leper, and the anointing of the 'sinful woman' in Luke is a very different and earlier event.
In this text we have a brief but wonderful picture in which a woman's warm, lavish devotion to Jesus is set in stark contrast with the cold, quibbling calculations of his disciples.
Jesus defends the woman, rebukes the disciples and says of her, 'She has done a beautiful thing to me.'
What wonderful praise!
As I thought about it, the question came to me: why did Jesus say this? Why was what she did 'beautiful to Jesus'?
Let me suggest four things.
First, it was an intrepid gesture. Even though Jesus treated women as equals, this was a very male culture where women would have been confined to the margins.
Yet this woman walks into the very middle of this very masculine gathering and spectacularly interrupts it.
I'm sure she foresaw that her action would be misunderstood and criticised, but she did it anyway!
Her brave gesture foreshadows the way that women were present at the cross and the resurrection, while, for the most part, the men are absent.
There's an inspiring image here of a woman who knew what had to be done and simply did it.
Second, it was an inspired gesture.
I would love to know what went on in this woman's mind.
But Jesus makes a very significant comment: 'she did it to prepare me for burial'.
Unlike his disciples who seem, even at this late stage, to be still thinking in terms of an earthly kingdom of power and glory, this woman glimpses not the crown, but the cross.
Jesus recognises her anointing of him as being like the anointing that you would give someone dying.
His comment that she did this to prepare him 'for burial' is striking; it implies he saw his death as meaning his burial would be too hasty for proper funeral preparations.
Here, as elsewhere in the gospels, a woman sees deeper than the men.
Third, it was an inordinate gesture.
Inordinate means going beyond proper or reasonable limits and that's certainly how the disciples saw it, probably encouraged by Judas.
John tells us that this was perfume worth a year's salary.
The woman made a gesture of reckless, extravagant, overflowing love, and she didn't count the cost.
Finally, this was a beautiful act because it was an illogical gesture.
At a common-sense level, the criticism the disciples offered is fair.
After all, the pouring out of the perfume achieved nothing of solid lasting value; indeed, it evaporated into the air.
Yet the woman is not thinking in those terms but, marching to a very different drum, offers an act of heartfelt adoration driven by her devotion.
And, in so doing, she was praised by our Lord himself.
There is a lesson for us here.
You see, the problem of the disciples was not that they were men, but they were modern men.
They thought in the way that, influenced by cost-benefit calculations and spreadsheets, we can see everything solely in terms of its function and its practical worth.
Today our every action is measured, subjected to statistics, expressed in business terms, treated to budget analysis and finally boiled down into 'metrics'.
Our thinking and our giving are no longer inspired by exuberance but suffocated by Excel.
We have become those who, in the words of Oscar Wilde, 'know the price of everything and the value of nothing'.
Yet there is an irony here: can anything of genuine value be valued?
What price can be put on such things as friendship and forests, sunsets and smiles, mountains and music, love and liberty?
This woman defied the mindset of balancing resources and demands with an act of outrageous, breath-taking and dazzling grace and generosity.
In doing so, she was merely responding to God's overwhelming goodness to us in a suitably grace-filled manner.
God's loving kindness demands an appropriate response from those who experience it.
Jesus lets the woman's action stand in judgement over the disciples' cold and critical attitude.
Yet it also stands in judgement over us.
What have we done of which Jesus could say, 'You have done a beautiful thing to me'?
Whether we do it with time or money, by word or by action, at home or abroad, by doing good or combating evil, let's seek to do something in 2024 that we can offer as a beautiful gift to Jesus.
Bible references available on request
is an Evangelist, minister, speaker, broadcaster and writer.
He has been in ministry for four decades.
He has spoken in towns, cities and universities in 69 countries.