A Devotion that Shames, Matthew 26:1–16
After the polemical conversations between Jesus and his opponents in the temple, and the private discourse about the latter days with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, Jesus brings his disciples back to the present with a sobering reminder that he is about to be handed over to the authorities and be crucified (Matt 26:2), a chilling, horrifying thought for them all.
Matthew then brings us in on the conversation that the religious leaders are having with the high priest about how they might seize Jesus and kill him quietly, out of sight of the people (26:3–4).
Then if we jump down to verses 14–16, we read of the treachery of Judas Iscariot, who agreed with the chief priests that he would lead them secretly to Jesus in exchange for thirty pieces of silver.
But right in the middle of these two plots by Jesus’s enemies to have him arrested and crucified, Matthew sets this story about a woman who loved Jesus so much it put those around her to shame.
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matt 26:6–13).
Picture the scene. Jesus is reclining at the table the way that they would eat in that time period, stretched out with Simon, his host, whom Jesus had healed from leprosy.
And one of the followers of Jesus (Matthew does not give her name) knelt down near him, and opened an alabaster flask, which was a translucent, stone bottle that held precious ointment. The flask was sealed so that the ointment would not evaporate, so it had to be broken in order to be used. These kinds of ointments were very, very expensive—notice that the disciples said that the ointment could have been sold for a large sum of money! Thus, these ointments were used for special, momentous occasions, such as the anointing of a loved one in burial.
This woman uses this costly perfume in the most profound way she knows. She lavishes her love on Jesus by anointing his head.
Sad to say, this act of devotion was lost on the disciples on this occasion. They react indignantly, condescendingly at the thought of so much expense “wasted” on Jesus. They were thinking practically, responsibly. And they even used helping the poor as an excuse for their perspective, calculating how much they could help others if they had been given the money that was simply running in Jesus’s hair and beard.
Think of how little the disciples value Jesus at that moment! Think of a husband who never buys flowers for his wife because, after all, that money could be used for more practical things. What a “waste,” to spend money on flowers for your wife when you could give that money in the offering. As we already know, that attitude is ill-advised!
So Jesus is right to rebuke the disciples. He says, “Leave her alone. What she is doing is beautiful. The poor and needy are not going anywhere! But I am. I am going to die. She’s preparing me for burial.” The disciples are most likely very embarrassed by Jesus’s words. He keeps telling them he’s going away. And Matthew lets us know that the plot against Jesus is thickening. And in the midst of this terrible news, there is one woman, whose name is not even mentioned, humbly, lovingly, pouring out affection on the one who will give his life for her.
Within days, Jesus will be arrested, and the disciples will scatter in fear, and Peter will even deny Jesus three times. By contrast, this woman puts the disciples to shame with her devotion to Christ. And because Jesus foretold that this act of hers will always be told in her memory, her devotion puts us to shame as well.
When you read these Scriptures which remind us of the love that Jesus has for us, is your heart moved? Do you desire to express greater love to him? What precious time or event or interest or responsibility can you set aside for a while, even if it means sacrifice, in order to spend more time with the Lord lavishing affection on him? As we continue to walk with the Lord during this holy week, imagine ways that you can express your affection to the Lord for all that he has done for you.