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Life of Christ (2007-2009)

Perfume

Matthew 26:1-16 and parallel passages

Lesson audio

Note: the section read from Touchstone magazine will be included as soon as we have permission from them to reprint here.

We should note at the beginning that there are significant differences concerning the central episode as recounted by Matthew and Mark, when compared to John’s Gospel. This is so much the case that some ancient scholars concluded there must have been two separate, similar incidents. Matthew and Mark have it at the house of Simon the Leper; John at Lazarus’ house. The dates seem different. The anointing is either the head or the feet. The woman is anonymous; she’s Mary of Martha and Mary. For purposes of our instruction, we shall treat them as one.

Mat 26:1-16 NIV

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, (2) "As you know, the Passover is two days away--and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." (3) Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, (4) and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. (5) "But not during the Feast," they said, "or there may be a riot among the people."

(6) While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, (7) 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. (8) When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. (9) "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor." (10) Aware of this, Jesus said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. (11) The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. (12) When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. (13) I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."

(14) Then one of the Twelve--the one called Judas Iscariot--went to the chief priests (15) and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?" So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. (16) From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

The Nature of Christ

It does not readily appear so, but we can glean some information about Christ himself from this short passage.

His foreknowledge

We sometimes forget that Christ knows the future; even during his advent, his mission and suffering were clear to him. He knows what he will suffer (crucifixion); he knows where (Jerusalem); he knows when (at Passover); he knows who will do it and how. But there are two additional bits of foreknowledge you might not have seen:

  • He sees clearly that the Cross is not the end, but that the Gospel will be preached around the world. How could this be without the resurrection?
  • He tells us that “it was intended”[1] that she use the perfume this way. He sees into her heart and knows what will be done; he knows that she has set this aside for Him.

The implications are important for us. What is there that he does not know about us?

His divinity

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” But evidently the Son of God has no such inhibitions. Matthew and Mark tell us this is the home of Simon the Leper – which automatically makes it off limits to the Jews. I suspect the disciples felt a little uncomfortable about it, too. Though perhaps it kept the Pharisees at a distance; who can say? What threat is leprosy to the Christ who will die shortly on the cross and be raised again on the third day?

Next, notice one of those curious statements which in any other mouth would be wildly egotistical. For the devout Jew, giving to the poor was commanded and expected. Who, then, could dismiss the call to give the money to the poor with the observation that – since he is here – the money is better spent on him? Do you see how arrogant this sounds in any mouth but that of the Son of God?

Look at the disciples’ reaction. The rebuke her for doing it; but they don’t criticize Jesus for that comment. They know that He is, intrinsically, worthy of such a sacrifice.

His humanity

Fully divine, Christ is also fully human – and quite a human being at that. One of the constants of his life is that the ordinary man listened to him gladly. The ordinary man is his protector in this instance; the Pharisees know that if they arrest him publicly, there will be a riot – and then who knows what happens? He is not aloof and distant; he is personal and “in your face.” The ordinary man loved Him, and does still.

There is a curious connection here. Christ is sold for thirty pieces of silver – the price of a slave in the Old Testament.[2] The Son of Man came to serve – and was priced accordingly. One other figure in the Old Testament was sold like that – Joseph. He brought twenty pieces of silver[3] - the servant is not above the Master, it seems.

The Nature of Evil

The modern humanist view is that man is basically good – but his culture has turned him to evil. (“Culture” is sometimes a code word for “Christianity.”) The Christian view is entirely different. Man was created good – but is fallen. Each and every one of thus is a sinner by nature. Therefore each of us is capable of immense evil. Permit me two examples.

Adolf Eichmann was instrumental in the Holocaust. A movie was made about this; it starred an actor named Werner Klemperer as Eichmann. I saw the movie several years after it was issued – by which time Klemperer had gone on to play Colonel Klink[4] on the television comedy Hogan’s Heroes. Despite a fine performance, I could not see Eichmann as villain in the film – only the bumbling fool.

It goes the other way too. A minister of our acquaintance was accused by his daughter-in-law of sexually molesting her children. One of the saddest aspects of this was that many of the man’s friends immediately assumed he was guilty (and said so.) Lifelong friendships were ruptured. He eventually spent all he had saved defending himself; it came out that she was using this accusation as a weapon in her divorce case against his son. Many were all to quick to believe; why? Because we know that we have the capability for great evil too.

Motives

What would motivate a Judas to betray the Christ? Some possibilities, all of which are common to us as well:

  • Love of money – perhaps not the most logical reason, as it is not certain Judas would have gotten his fingers on it. But you can see the pull of the temptation.
  • Fear of discover – that is to say, pride – and the terror of being humiliated. What will people do to avoid having their sins found out?
  • Manipulation – some have suggested that Judas did this to force Jesus to become an earthly king.
  • Bitterness – Judas was the only Judean of the twelve, Mr. Outside. Perhaps he was fed up with being lowest on the totem pole. Frustrated ambition does that, sometimes.
Satan

Luke, in his Gospel[5], tells us that Satan entered into Judas. If so, then matters were very bad for Judas. Satan is described to us as one of the cherubim – fallen from his original state through his pride:

Isa 14:12-14 NIV How you have fallen from heaven,

O morning star, son of the dawn!

You have been cast down to the earth,

you who once laid low the nations! (13) You said in your heart,

"I will ascend to heaven;

I will raise my throne

above the stars of God;

I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,

on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. [3] (14) I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;

I will make myself like the Most High."

It is well to remember that Satan is the enemy of our souls[6]; Christ the lover. His strategy in our time is fitting the Father of Lies. In the industrial world he tells us that he does not exist – and therefore the Bible is false. In the world of tribes and peoples, he is the “god” who opposes the God brought by the missionary – and opposes him with powerful presence.

One last things we may say about evil: to the last, Christ offered Judas the chance to repent. Overcome evil with good.

The Servant’s Devotion

My daughter – the real writer in the family – tells me that a story will not work without conflict. Think about that; when you hear of conflict, you want to know what happens next. Here is a conflict that’s been going on a long time.

Some years ago the cardinal of Los Angeles, Cardinal Mahoney, had a new cathedral built (cardinals need cathedrals). It was indeed a lavish thing; the greatest expanse of translucent alabaster windows in the world. It was also heavily criticized; “Why wasn’t that money spent on the poor and homeless?” Do you not see that the same question could be asked of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris? The answer is the same in both cases: it was done for the glory of God.

At that, however, we must sometimes look again. The million-light bulb palace that is TBN is also done for the glory of God – though we suspect someone’s ego just might, possibly, have been involved.

All things may be done to the glory of God[7] - it’s just that they’re likely to be misinterpreted along the way.

The nature of an Act of Devotion

An act of devotion such as we have here is at root an act of love. It has certain characteristics:

  • From the world’s point of view, it’s a total waste. Forgive him? What for? Roses are one thing; long stem American Beauty roses? What a waste!
  • From the giver’s point of view, it is expensive to the point of total commitment. The widow, after all, could have put in only one coin.
  • It is elegant; first class. Give of your best to the master.
  • It is insightful – did she know of his burial to come?
  • It is timed for the occasion.

If it meets these characteristics, it is sure to be criticized.

Christ’s reaction

“She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Christ praises and values good works, even if we think them a little lacking in propriety. But note please: He does not reward her with anything but praise. There is no spiritual gift given; just remembrance. We sacrifice for those we love; they love in return.


[1] John 12:7

[2] Exodus 21:32

[3] Genesis 37:28

[4] A fatuous, bumbling prison camp commandant always outwitted by the prisoners under Colonel Hogan.

[5] Luke 22:3-6

[6] Ephesians 6:12

[7] 1st Corinthians 10:31

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