As Jesus sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on Jesus’ head (Mark 14:3).
We will look at this act, both in comparison to the other people mentioned in the text, and also in its own right. This, I believe, teaches us a lot about worship. This is an incident covered in all four Gospels. There are differences in the various accounts, as you would expect when the information comes from different witnesses (and has passed for decades through the oral tradition). But the central point is the same in each case. A woman makes a sacrificial act of worship towards Jesus, which others do not understand, or oppose outright, but Jesus highly commends.
We see clearly in Mark the contrast in approaches to Jesus. One woman did an extraordinary thing, a beautiful act of worship. Surrounding this are some very different responses and attitudes to this woman’s particular act. This passage asks me, ‘How much do I want to worship Jesus’? And, ‘Is there anything holding me back’?
The passage starts with the reminder that “the chief priests and the scribes” were looking for a way to arrest and kill Jesus. This was outright rejection. The passage we have read concludes with Judas deciding to betray Jesus (and help the “chief priests” with their plot). And in the middle were the detractors – those who couldn’t understand or couldn’t accept such a worshipful act, or perhaps couldn’t see themselves acting anything like this woman did. We’ll come back to this.
The woman herself, we suspect, was a woman whom Jesus had previously ministered to – Luke, in his version, calls this woman a “sinner” … which was probably code for a prostitute, while John, in his version, says she is Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Thus she was probably a woman who had encountered Jesus on an earlier occasion, been ministered to … and gratefulness had welled up in her (gratefulness that now spilled over). How do we show our gratefulness?
This woman entered the house where Jesus was, and while Jesus was eating at the table, broke open a bottle of very expensive perfume, and poured this lovingly over Jesus’ head. I like in John’s version the comment, that following the anointing of Jesus, “The house was filled with the fragrance of perfume” (John 12:3b).
The “alabaster jar” (v.3) was an elaborate vessel, with a long neck, made from expensive Egyptian marble. The contents were a fine fragrant imported perfume (probably made from the root of a rare plant found in India). The value is suggested to be at least three hundred denarii – equivalent to around a full year’s salary!! Thus you would expect that this perfume would normally have been used quite sparingly!!
But on this day, a fresh bottle was broken open, and the whole contents were used in one go! None of the perfume was held back! Is this our response to Jesus? Or would we be more liable to measure this out a little? Would we be more likely to consider what was more convenient or conventional? We will refer later to the depth of what this woman was indicating by this act. But returning now to the detractors …
How did some of the other dinner guests react?? In terms of ‘waste’. A ‘waste’ in relation to how the worth of the perfume could have been used to help the poor. Or, were the poor more of an afterthought, or an excuse, and they really thought it was just a waste giving this much attention to Jesus. The woman’s action could have just been seen as strange, unusual or even irrational, and out of these people’s comfort zones. And certainly they were unable to see beyond the act itself to its deeper meaning.
Just jumping ahead to clarify something – Jesus' reply concerning “the poor” in verse 7 … “for you always have the poor with you”, has been often misused to suggest that this is sort of a fait accompli – that this is something we should just accept and not worry about. This is of course not what Jesus is saying at all. Jesus is saying that we can care for the poor anytime (and of course on the basis of Jesus’ general teaching we should care for the poor at all times). It’s just that right now, in this moment, Jesus can be served, while the moment exists. It’s not either/or, but both!! I reckon Jesus would wholly endorse Deuteronomy 15:11, which reads, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land'.”
In John’s version of this story, Judas is named as the one who was most concerned about this ‘waste’. Mark leaves it to later to identify that Judas was displeased about the nature of this act of worship. Why would this have really been a problem for Judas? John (12:5f) tells us that it was Judas who said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor”? But then John comments, “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it”. What was Judas’ problem?? He had a problem maybe with money, or selfish motives! Maybe, he was disappointed that Jesus was not attending to his agenda? Maybe his unresolved issues were keeping him on the fringe of things? Maybe Judas was unwilling to undergo the sort of personal transformation and growth that would’ve kept him on track? Maybe he hadn’t let himself get to know Jesus well enough?
[It could be that the other disciples were being more than accommodating with Judas, possibly knowing what was happening with the common purse, but still trying to keep Judas within their number.]
As an aside, we might wonder what other dinner guests thought … the ones who hadn’t said anything? How do we react to lavish outbursts of worship from others?
We are told that particular guests … the ‘detractors’ … “scolded” the woman!!! Fancy being scolded for such a beautiful act! How hurtful! How discouraging!! Here displayed was a ‘critical spirit’, which was almost abusive, and certainly unwelcoming. Fortunately Jesus was present to override this discouragement with warm words of support. Jesus confronted them about unnecessarily bringing trouble to this woman.
Let’s look more closely at this woman’s beautiful act of worship. How would you describe it??? Some might say ‘outrageous’ or ‘extravagant’, but meant hopefully in a good way. Radical! Elaborate and unbridled! Pure and uncomplicated! There was no hidden agenda. It was unmeasured – there was no weighing up. Spontaneous, and trusting!! Just like the children Jesus used as an example of natural recipients of God’s Kingdom (Mark 10:15). Repentant! There was a thoroughness, a wholeheartedness; such love and devotion! All the sort of descriptions that our worship should have.
Lest we think that the dripping wet Jesus didn’t appreciate what the woman did … Jesus called this act (verse 6b) … “a good service for me”. The Greek word translated here as “good” could also be translated ‘beautiful, useful, precious, desirable’, leading to the NIV translation – “She has done a beautiful thing to me”. This certainly rises way above mere duty. This woman did the best that she could with the best that she had! This woman did all that she could with all that she had!!
The most specific “service” she offered was anointing Jesus’ body before his death and burial. It was customary for the dead to be prepared like this for burial; just like the women were seeking to do later when they found Jesus’ body missing from his tomb. The exception would be someone crucified as a criminal – they would not normally be anointed for burial. This also resembled the traditional anointing of a ‘king’. So, what did this woman understand that others had not seen? That Jesus was to be the Saviour of the world! That Jesus was a Servant King! This was worship as testimony … testimony to the One being worshipped! This woman was acknowledging that what Jesus was about to endure was on her behalf; and she was announcing her commitment to him. [Maybe she didn’t fully know the implications or meaning of what she was doing, but humbly followed anyway, whatever intuition or leading she had.]
As part of his defense of the woman, Jesus said, “… you will not always have me” (v.7b). This was true … Jesus would be crucified within a week of this event. What does this mean for us do you think?? We shouldn’t take our opportunities of worship lightly or for granted.
Jesus said that the story of this beautiful act of worship would be “told in remembrance of her”. It would be remembered and noted well for its importance. But Mark’s Gospel doesn’t identify this woman by name! Perhaps it was the actual act that was most important – that it happened – and that it could have been any of us!